As part of Live Happy’s special series 90 Days to a Happier You, we’ve gathered experts from around the country with unbeatable advice about how we (and you!) can change habits and live better in 2016. Below is part one of Shelley Levitt’s ongoing blog series as she attempts to overcome her insomnia with the help of coach Michael Breus, Ph.D.
Two weeks into my sleep intervention and one thing is clear: This isn’t going to be about aromatherapy candles or a sound machine simulating the soothing chirping of songbirds or the whoosh of a gentle wind through willow trees. It’s brutal!
You want me to get less sleep?
My sleep coach, Michael Breus, Ph.D., has put me on a sleep-restriction regimen. (This is something that should only be done under the supervision of a health-care professional.) His orders: get into bed at 1 a.m. and out of bed at 5:30 or 6 a.m. Yes, he admits, it’s counterintuitive to reduce your sleep to five hours or less when what you’re craving is more sleep. But there’s a well-informed method to his madness.
When I first met with Michael, he agreed that I suffered from chronic insomnia. I didn’t have trouble falling asleep, but night after night for week after week, I couldn’t stay asleep. I moved through my days with a deep fatigue that felt debilitating.
The sleep diary tells all
Michael had me fill out a sleep diary for a week. Don’t change anything yet, he said. That meant I could keep taking my iPad, iPhone and a pile of books and magazines into bed with me. The first week’s diary showed I was climbing into bed at anytime from 10:15 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. and reading or watching TV on my iPad for 30 minutes to three hours. (Ironically, I don’t have a TV in my bedroom, because I knew it’s bad sleep hygiene.) I was waking up at least twice a night and sometimes staying awake for two hours. I’d fill that time catching up on episodes of The Good Wife or past seasons of Girls. Most days I’d take a late-afternoon nap.
My erratic sleep habits, Michael told me, were sending my brain all kinds of mixed messages about when to snooze and when to stay alert. What sleep restriction does is build up your sleep drive and help regulate your brain’s on/off switch. Consistency is critical. “Remember no naps no matter how tired you are,” Michael wrote me in an email, “and still get up early on weekends. Make sure you have something to do outside of bed until 1 a.m. You can do this but I warn you it is going to be VERY difficult!”
Committed but very tired
It’s been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Making myself get out of bed when I really, really want to stay under the covers for another two hours is challenging, but what feels like true torture is staying awake until 1 a.m. I’m far too exhausted to read and I’m afraid to watch TV lying down on my sofa because I know I’ll drift into sleep. I feel too impaired to drive at night or even to take Carlos, my 85-pound, very strong golden retriever for a late-night walk. So I force myself to stay upright as I flip through the TV channels, I get up and take laps around my house. I feel my eyelids closing and, with effort, I open them up again. “You can do this,” I tell myself. “It’s worth it.” I’m committed, and very very tired.
Go to livehappynow.com to hear Shelly's coach Michael on our podcast.
Come back in February to find out what happens to Live Happy editor at large Shelley Levitt and her uneven sleep habits. Will Dr. Breus's coaching help her get a good night's sleep? Or will her chronic insomnia drive her over the edge …