Good Night, Insomnia!June 14 , 2012

Over the course of the last year, Insomnia and I have been hanging out together a lot.  This relationship has caused me no small amount of struggle and pain       (I posted about it here.)

My coach, (thanks, Sharon!), recommended a sleep program from Gregg Jacobs, a Harvard sleep researcher, from his book called “Say Goodnight to Insomnia.”  Extensive studies show that this program and others like it work better than sleeping pills with fewer side effects and longer-lasting results.  In my desperation to get Insomnia to move out, I’ve been giving it a try, even though one of the core suggestions of the book — limit your time in bed — sounded downright crazy at first.

The surprising suggestion

Ok, I know this spend-less-time-in-bed suggestion probably shocks you as much as it did me.  How can I catch up on my sleep if I’m not even in bed when I might be sleeping?   But it works – and here’s how to do it most effectively.

Wake up at same time every day – Pick a time and stick with it.  Weekdays, weekends, holidays, snow days, even mornings after a really bad night’s sleep.  Get yourself out of bed at the same time every day.  Period.  For me, I set my wake up time at 5am (I can see your shocked expression, but I’m a serious morning person!)

If you are not sleeping, get out of bed.  If you are awake in bed longer than 20 minutes at any point in the night, get up and do something relaxing.  It’s best to avoid TV or anything that might be stimulating.   I like to read a book with low light, meditate or have a small snack (some complex carbs and milk have been shown to be sleep-inducing — avoid sugars, fats and high protein foods).

Go to bed LATER.  This is the most important part.  It’s essential that you are asleep for most of the time you spend in bed.  To calculate an appropriate bedtime, take the average amount of sleep from the past week and add one hour to it.  This is you maximum time in bed.  Then subtract those hours from your wake up time and – voila! – you have your new bedtime.   For example, I was averaging 4.5 hours of sleep when I started the program, so my maximum time in bed was initially set at 5.5 hours.  With my 5am wakeup, that meant I went to bed at 11:30pm.

SLOWLY move your bed time earlier.  Once you are sleeping 85% or more of the time you are in bed for a full week, then you can move your bedtime back 15 minutes earlier (that would be 11:15pm for me).  When you get another week of 85%, you can move it back another 15 minutes.  If you are having trouble getting to the 85% threshold, then you need to move your bedtime even later for a while.

In order to calculate the percent of time you are asleep, you need to track both the amount of time you are in bed and the approximate amount of time you are asleep.  Get a sleep journal (a blank notebook is fine) that lives by your bed so you can record this information.  Then simply divide your total time asleep by the total hours you’ve been in bed (with the lights off).  This percentage is called your sleep efficiency.

The science behind the idea

Our sleep system follows a basic principle:  the greater the amount of time we are awake and active, the more sleep-pressure the brain puts on the body.  For every hour we are awake, that pressure builds to help us fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly and have fewer and shorter wakeups.

Limiting your time in bed also helps associate your bed with sleep.  People with sleep troubles spend a lot of time in bed frustrated and anxious which makes the bed itself a cue for insomnia and stress.  When you are asleep for a higher percentage of your time in bed, your mind starts to associate the bed with sleep rather than frustrated wakefulness.

It works!

For me, the program has worked wonders.  I went from sleeping 4.5 hours a night to consistently getting 6-7 hours.  I fall asleep quickly (sometimes in the middle of a sentence, according to my bedmate) and only rarely wake up in the middle of the night now.  When I do, most of the time I’m able to fall right back to sleep.  It’s awesome!!!  I’m starting to feel like a sane person again.

Your challenge

Whether you have insomnia or just want to see if your sleep could be improved using some of these tools, your challenge this week is to track your sleep efficiency.  Get a sleep journal and record the total amount of time you are in bed and the amount of time you are asleep.  If you are spending less than 85% of your time in bed sleeping, calculate your maximum time in bed and move your bedtime later.  See how it affects your sleep efficiency.

Stay tuned for more good stuff about managing insomnia next week.

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach

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