Q&A: Sleep Restriction: Tempted to Give Up

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Jessica recently wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac with concerns about sleep restriction.

I’m on Day 6 of sleep restriction and I don’t think it’s working. The first 3 nights were miserable. I kept looking at the clock and thinking, just 4 more hours to sleep, just 3 more, just 2 . . . I had so much anxiety I hardly slept at all!

But on the 4th night I passed out and overslept my alarm in the morning. I FELT GREAT. And I’m like, sleep restriction rocks! But . . . the next night was terrible. I barely got 2 hours, and the same thing happened again last night. Today I feel so bad I called in to work—something I never do unless I’m sick.

Now I’m wondering if it’s worth the punishment.  Am I just going to have to resign myself to insomnia for the rest of my life? Honestly I’m on the verge of giving up.

An Erratic Sleep Pattern

I can so relate to Jessica’s plight. The sleep pattern she describes was mine for several decades. Terrible sleep for 3 to 5 nights in a row, followed by a night where I conked out so completely I could sleep through ear-splitting thunder.

Mornings after super long nights felt great. But nothing is comforting about this kind of sleep pattern. Lurching from one bad night to the next, never knowing when I was finally going to pop off a good one, raised my anxiety sky high. I wanted good sleep to be regular. I wanted it to be dependable.

With Restriction, a Payoff

My first week of sleep restriction was pretty close to hell. Like Jessica, I had 3 really bad nights before I was sleepy enough to fall asleep at the bedtime I’d chosen. But sleep restriction also required getting up at a fixed time every morning. This rule contradicted one of the most ingrained notions I had about my sleep, namely, that on the rare nights when I could sleep, I’d better let myself sleep as long as possible—because I never knew when I’d get another chance.

So when the alarm rang at 5 a.m., the temptation was simply to roll over and go back to sleep. It felt like the middle of the night. It felt like I needed more sleep. Why deny myself something my body evidently needed?

By that time I was far enough along in my research to understand the theory behind sleep restriction; I understood the forces driving my insomnia well enough to know that letting myself sleep late was probably a road to nowhere. So I mustered up my willpower and hauled myself out of bed and into the day–and the next day, and the next.

Wasted is how I felt after those short nights, and definitely lame in the head. But I held fast to my sleep window, recalculating my time in bed at the end of each week. And in time my sleep became deeper, longer and more dependable. Amazing gifts for a guerrilla sleeper like me.

Rest for Success

Not every insomniac will benefit from sleep restriction. But research suggests many can. Set yourself up to be one of them by

  • choosing to go through treatment at a time when you’re not too busy with other things.
  • avoiding clocks after bedtime. Looking at the clock creates anxiety, and that’s something you want to avoid.
  • setting appropriate bed and wake times and observing them to the letter.

What problems have you encountered during sleep restriction?