Sleep deprivation is, famously, a form of torture. But done properly, it can also be a training tool to help you get the best sleep of your life. Stylist’s Chloe Gray gave it a try to see if it could fix her borderline insomnia.
Every morning, the first thing my colleagues and I talk about is how we slept. Rarely is it positive tales from a well-rested soul. Instead, it’s usually something along the lines of “I was tossing and turning all night!” or “I didn’t get to sleep until 1am”.
And it’s not just the Stylist offices that are talking about our troubled sleep: Google searches asking “how to fix my sleep schedule?” are up 180% since last year. It seems like we’re in a night-time crisis.
As somewhat of a troubled sleeper, I’ve tried my hand at all of these things. But none could get me to, and keep me, asleep as well as I’d like. As my sleep grew worse and worse, I finally decided it was time to take things seriously, and enrolled myself onto a course with online clinic Learning To Sleep.
I began with an initial consultation with sleep coach Felicia Ovin. This was a therapy-esque conversation, in which I explained to her all of my (sleep-related) issues. They were:
1. I often find it quite hard to fall asleep, and lie in bed awake for a long time.
2. I wake up a lot during the night. Both because I’m a light sleeper and the flick of a light switch can wake me up, but I also tend to jolt awake with mild panic attacks and anxious thoughts.
3. I often feel very very tired even when I’ve slept for a normal amount of time (ie seven hours) which makes me think that my sleep is of quite a low quality.
Then, she took me through an intense review to make sure that I was a suitable candidate for the course. Felicia used The Insomnia Severity Index, a worldwide tool used to investigate the severity of sleeping issues. I scored 14 – one point away from the big 15 you need to be diagnosed with clinical insomnia. It was worse than I thought.
Then things got darker. Felicia dropped the bombshell: Learning To Sleep is based on a sleep deprivation method. I immediately regretted my decision to sign up. But, after she went on to check my medications with other practitioners and ran me through the details, I realised that I was in safe hands. So, while terrified, I went on with the course.
My plan was laid out as follows: a five-week training programme, starting with one week of tracking my normal sleeping habits. After that, an algorithm would work out my bedtime and my wake-up time, and each week I have an online CBT task to complete, taking around 30 mins.
Week one’s task was easy: sleep ‘normally’ and log it in the diary every morning. As someone with sporadic sleep habits (meaning some nights I’ll pass out for eight hours, and others I’ll take an hour to nod off only to be woken up soon after by anxious thoughts and spend the night tossing and turning) I thought my online journal would be a scary looking thing. Only, this week, I slept like a baby. Classic.
With a few free evenings this week, I managed to wind myself down quickly and get to sleep straight away. It was only really Friday and Saturday night when, after a few wines and weekend plans, I got to sleep later than planned and had a less than ideal amount of sleep. And I felt it: I don’t nap but I could feel myself nodding off during the days following my later nights.
I called Felicia to check in – has my unexpected good sleep ruined the entire experiment? Luckily, she told me it hadn’t. In fact, as she looked at my schedule, she pointed out that it might not be as good as I thought it had. Sure, I’d been averaging around 7.5 hours sleep a night, but the quality of my sleep was low, leaving me feeling tired and lethargic. I realised that every day at 11am I ended up gagging for a coffee. Yes, this was out of routine but also because my eyelids suddenly felt heavy and I found it hard to concentrate. In hindsight, I also noticed clear evidence of fatigue in my week; on Wednesday morning I had gone to the gym, only to feel completely depleted of energy and walk right back out after failing at the first set. On a couple of days my brain turned to spaghetti as soon as the clock struck four, leaving me unproductive at work. There was still work to do, she assured me.
That work included an introduction to CBT. I’ve done a round of this before, but found the course I undertook previously hard to engage with and not particularly relevant to my life. The Learning To Sleep CBT managed to explain thought behaviours in a much easier way, and made it specific to my sleep issues. It’s highlighted the “vicious cycle” I get into when my thoughts stop me from sleeping and, although that hasn’t happened this week, it’s such useful information to have in the bank.
Before I began week two, I had to set my wake-up time for the next four weeks. That means getting up at the same time every. single. day. I was torn – do I chose an early time so I could get my morning workouts in, or a slightly later one so that I didn’t need to get up at 6AM on Saturdays and Sundays? I went for the latter, choosing 7AM for an extra hour in bed on the weekend while still ensuring I could get to bed on time during the week. The algorithm then workout my bedtime to be 11:50PM. As I said before, I was lucky that my good sleeping pattern meant that I wasn’t being sleep starved too extremely, but these hours were so out of sync for me as someone who usually hops into bed at 10 o’clock. I had to spend those extra two hours pottering around, finding tasks to keep my mind awake when all I wanted was to curl up in bed.
As I slugged through evening workouts feeling weak and tired I regretted my later wake up time, but otherwise everything was pretty OK. Until Thursday, when suddenly my eyelids felt like they were made of metal. Thursday night’s sleep was full of anxiety but whether that was because of over-tiredness or work and personal life-based stress I’m not sure. All I know was that my mind was running in overdrive, and it woke me up multiple times. Friday morning saw me head to a shoot for work, and by the time I hit my desk at 2pm my brain was spinning and I did practically nothing (sorry to any of my editors who are reading this). Then Friday evening came, and what was meant to be a singule mulled wine at a Christmas market turned into large rosé wines (plural) at a South Bank bar. By the time I got home, faffed around taking off my make-up and crawled into bed, it was 12:10am. Not bad for a weekend, but it meant I had missed my bedtime by 20 minutes. I realised the effect alcohol has on your sleep when my alarm went off on Saturday morning. Although I hadn’t been drunk, my body hadn’t been given time to sleep off the wine, and I felt like I was walking through syrup all day. I cancelled my plans and lay on the sofa all night, counting down the house until bedtime out loud to my housemate.
Monday: still zombie-like. Tuesday: I feel great! Finally! It’s working! This up and down pattern continues all week, falling into a slump on Wednesday but picking back up on Thursday, while Friday was knackering. I tried to figure out a reason why, but even on the days where I felt tired I didn’t see any particular trigger from the night before. Meanwhile, Felicia calls me to talk through my plan. I explain that I think my changing exercise habits probably aren’t helping, and she agrees, because while the previous week I used my empty evenings to workout, this week is jam packed. Instead, she encourages me to make sure I’m still moving to reduce sluggishness. That means stairs instead of escalators and absolutely no lunch al desko.
Something bad happens Friday. It’s my Friendmas celebration, and I end up out celebrating maybe too much. Bedtime is a total miss (do you notice a pattern here?) but I somehow manage to try to compensate. I calculate the same amount of hours sleeping and wake up at 10:35am. But feel AWFUL.
I vow to never miss a bedtime again, but the reality is that I’m taking on this task over the busiest and booziest time of the year, and I know that I actually can’t promise that to anyone.
Why do I still feel bad? Sunday’s workout feels like a slog, and come Monday I’m perky at work (it was the Christmas desk decorating competition - what choice did I have?) but feeling slightly dead inside. By Wednesday evening I’m having an internal battle: do I just get some damn sleep or do I stick with it? My housemates chip in like the angels and devils on my shoulders: “what is a week and a half more of exhaustion if you’ll sleep well forever?!” says one, while the other claims I have been dedicated enough to sack it off. I cave after nearly falling down the stairs from tiredness and get some shut eye at 10:30, 50 minutes before my due bedtime. But I think it fixes me. The rest of the week is glorious. I feel awake. I’m falling asleep within minutes. I’m not waking up during the night. Things are on the up!
One last confession: this week was Christmas. So while Monday 23 December went swimmingly, Christmas Eve involved a night out with many gins and old friends, and Christmas Day was more about eating cheese until late at night than hitting my bedtime. But regardless of the schedule, my sleep quality is wildly good. Even when staying at my family’s house rather than my familiar surroundings, I fall asleep quickly and I don’t wake up. One night I share a bed with my mum who the next morning apologises to me for coughing all night. As her light-sleeping daughter, she assumed I’d have been up all night listening. I had no idea what she was talking about – have I finally trained myself into a deep sleep?
Felicia calls on the last day of the experiment for a catch up. She runs through the same Insomnia Severity Index, asking questions regarding how fast I fall asleep, how much I wake up and how rested I’m feeling the next day. She tallies up my score. I’ve dropped a huge 10 points from where I was before, as a borderline insomniac, meaning I fell into the “no clinically significant insomnia” category.
The new year really does bring with it a new me. Even the first few days back at work don’t feel groggy. I’ve learnt simple hacks from being realistic about my bedtime (no more crawling into bed at 10pm when I know I’m not going to fall asleep for an hour and a half) to mental health soothers, including dealing with negative thoughts and learning how to unwind from my day so it doesn’t keep me up at night.
So would I recommend sleep deprivation as a tool for the troubled sleeper? Yes, but only in a controlled environment, where there’s someone qualified to give you advice. Without Felicia and the online course telling me how I felt was normal, I probably would have given up or done myself some damage. And for god’s sake, don’t do it at Christmas.
Images: Getty / author’s own