How I fixed my sleep schedule: An anxious sleeper's guide to better sleep
I'd done everything I could to promote sleep, yet it was 2 am and I was still awake. I meditated for 30 minutes before I went to bed. I even took a couple of melatonin pills right after to be sure. Yet, here I was wide awake and dreading how exhausted I would be the next day at work.
My problem isn’t unique. In America, one in every 10 adults will experience consistently poor sleep at some point in their lives. It can feel like a slippery slope as one poor night of sleep devolves into long term sleeping problems. This is, in part, because the majority of sleeping problems stem from anxiety and worry. The more you worry about not getting enough sleep, the worse your sleep gets.
When I realized I had chronic insomnia
For me, my sleeping issues began right out of college. I had started a job as a software engineer and I was starting to feel the pressure. I had a couple of big deadlines coming up and I found myself tossing and turning unable to sleep one night. My mind kept racing, thinking about all the work I had until I finally fell asleep.
I thought that was it — an abnormal night, but then it happened again. This time, my outlook changed. I started worrying about how not getting enough sleep would affect my day. I looked up basic sleep hygiene tips online and decided to go to bed extra early to make sure I made up for lost sleep. This ended up backfiring and it took even more time before I could finally sleep.
At this point, my sleeping struggles started becoming more regular. I downloaded a couple of meditation apps in the hopes that meditating and listening to soothing sounds would help me sleep better. I even resorted to over the counter sleeping aids on nights when it took me too long to fall asleep. The results were mixed — I'd fall asleep faster but over time I'd revert back to having poor sleep (including tossing and turning, falling asleep, and staying asleep).
I finally caved and decided to try prescription medication. I had read a lot about them and was very reluctant because of their long term side effects. On a visit to my doctor, I asked her if she could prescribe me something to help me sleep. She said she said she could, but it wasn't going to be medication. Instead, she put in a referral to a CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) therapist.
CBT-I is an evidence-based (proven in clinical trials), non-pharmacological technique used to treat sleep problems. Two innate driving forces induce and maintain restorative sleep — sleep drive & circadian rhythm. Your sleep drive is how sleepy/tired you feel when going to bed. Your circadian rhythm is the cycle of alertness that you experience throughout the day and night and mental arousal is a highly alert state that is often experienced as racing thoughts and vigilance.. When your sleep drive is high and your arousal levels are low; it is easier to fall asleep. CBT-I prescribes a sleep schedule that ensures you have a high sleep drive. It also teaches you techniques to worry less and reduce your arousal.
CBT-I is extremely effective in treating sleep problems. Clinical trials have shown that 80% of people that follow a comprehensive CBT-I program will have improved sleep by the end. The results are also long lasting, unlike sleeping aids which are effective only as long as you are taking them.
How I fixed my sleep schedule
There were three main rules that I had to follow in order to fix my sleep schedule (Note: This is my plan. Each plan will be unique, based on your personal challenges.)
1. I could only sleep within the sleep window my therapist prescribed. This ensured that I only went to bed when my sleep drive was high.
2. Every time I couldn't sleep, I had to make sure I didn't stay in bed for over 20 minutes. This way, I would intentionally re-train my mind to not associate my bed with wakefulness.
3. No day time naps and no caffeine after 2pm.
I was sleeping around 5 hours at the time, so we set a 6 hour window within which I could sleep (1am - 7am in my case). I kept a log of how long it took me to sleep, how long I was awake in the middle of the night and how long I slept. This data was recorded to the closest 15th minute and was self-reported. At the end of each week, my therapist would modify my sleep schedule based on the previous week's data.
Note: Time awake is the time it took me to fall asleep + my night time awakenings.
Week 1: At the end of week 1, I was sleeping about the same overall as I was before. However, my time awake at night had fallen by an hour. I was falling asleep faster and I was having less interrupted sleep. We decided to stick to the same sleep schedule for week 2.
Week 2: At the end of this week, my sleep had increased and I was wake time was now less than an hour. We decided to expand my window of opportunity for sleep by 15 minutes for week 3.
Weeks 3-9: We followed the same rules and either expanded or maintained the same sleeping window.
Week 10: At the end of the 10 week program, I was consistently sleeping over 7 hours a night. More importantly, I was no longer spending my days thinking and worrying about my sleep.
Try CBT-I for yourself!
CBT-I isn't an easy solution. The sleep schedules are hard to follow and the results aren't instantaneous. It takes time and effort but the reward of permanently improved sleep is well worth it. Here's to hoping you get better sleep soon.
Software Engineer & Sleep Enthusiast