My Weirdly Simple Cure for Insomnia
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My Weirdly Simple Cure for Insomnia

I tried all sorts of remedies for my insomnia until I finally figured out a weirdly simple cure.

You've been there. The alarm clock glares its unforgiving red light: 3:00, 3:45, 4:30. And though you're willing your eyes shut, panic takes over as tomorrow's to-do list runs through your head. Finally, you glimpse through the blinds the most dismal sight of all: The sun is starting to rise.

Welcome to my world. I've been a terrible sleeper since I was a little girl. My parents tried everything: reading to me, reading with me, giving me warm milk. One day, following a suggestion from my pediatrician, my mom brought home a shopping bag full of night-lights. We plugged in each one, trying to figure out which gave off the drowsiest glow.

"Well, lying still and resting are almost as good as sleeping," Mom said the next morning, after that experiment failed.

I wanted to believe her, but getting rest, not sleep, made me feel lousy. In fact, around 4 p.m. each day I'd have a meltdown -- screaming, slamming doors, crying over nothing. But still I couldn't sleep. Every night I'd stare at the clock as the hands moved from my designated bedtime of 8:30 toward midnight. And every night, around 1 a.m., I'd finally grab a flashlight and dive under my blanket with Judy Blume.

As I got older and outgrew the comforts of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I tested all sorts of remedies. First up were meditation cassettes. I'd hook up my Sony Walkman at bedtime and listen as a man's supposedly soothing voice -- speaking more slowly than any human ever would, or should -- instructed me to imagine myself sitting by a river. Or a dam. Or a waterfall. I don't remember what he asked me to do once I was beside said body of water, but I do remember feeling intensely bored. Not bored enough to fall asleep, however.

In my late teens I met with a sleep expert who suggested I imagine myself walking up a staircase backward, counting each step as I went. "I've already counted sheep and dogs and cows!" I protested.

"The stairs will be different," he said.

The stairs weren't different. I dragged myself through much of my 20s wide-awake and heavily caffeinated. It was tempting, of course, to think that the right medication would be the answer to my prayers, but my brief affairs with chemical fixes ranging from Ambien to antihistamines left me feeling groggy and disoriented -- and still searching for a solution. It wasn't until my 30th birthday that I realized something had to change. I'd relocated to Southern California and moved in with my fiancÚ, Josh, who's now my husband. Suddenly, I wasn't the only one affected by my sleeplessness.

"Hon, do you mind? I have an early-morning meeting," he said, the first time I woke him up by switching on the lamp to read.

"Hon, how mad would you be on a scale of one to 10 if I threw out that lamp?" he said after the 20th time.

Looking at his exhausted face, I suddenly realized I had an alternative: Instead of being at the mercy of my insomnia, I'd ignore it. I'd get up and do something. At the very least, Josh might get some sleep and I might accomplish something. True, I was terrified at the possibility of even less than my usual four or five hours. But how much worse could it be?

At first, after 30 years of lying still, it felt weird to leave my bed and roam the apartment. I decided to use the time to tackle certain nagging obligations. If I was anxious about a deadline, I'd head to my office and work. Or I'd catch up on e-mails or start a project I'd been putting off (I now have a binder full of favorite recipes). I admit to dropping a few bucks (okay, more than a few) on Internet shopping sites, but there's nothing like a reorganized hall closet (thank you, containerstore.com!) to make a girl feel like her insomnia isn't a total waste. Sometimes I'd simply treat myself to an episode of The Good Wife.

In the first days of my new battle plan I was up for more of the night than usual. Yet, to my shock, I felt better than if I'd spent that time in bed. Eventually I figured it out: The act of getting out of bed ended the most debilitating part of my insomnia -- the stress I felt about lying there helpless. Once I stopped fearing the power sleeplessness had over me, its power diminished and I started to crave my bed in a way I hadn't since I was a toddler.

All this may sound wacky, but science backs me up. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that lying in bed may make insomnia worse and that if you get up and do something, you'll sleep better when you actually go back to bed.

That, at least, is how it's worked for me. I now view those nightly hours of sleeplessness as an opportunity, not torture. Don't get me wrong: The anxieties that kept me awake for years haven't magically vanished. But, once I get out of bed and keep myself occupied, I relax and become genuinely tired. So when I go back to bed, I'm able to fall asleep. There are even nights now when I log a full eight hours. Or more.

And on the other nights? I don't panic. I'm too busy doing something else.

How Much Sleep Do You Need, Anyway?

Many people, including Jay Leno, Martha Stewart, and Bill Clinton, claim to need no more than four or five hours a night, but they're probably kidding themselves. True "short sleepers" are rare, according to sleep specialist Carol Ash, DO, a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. "Only a tiny percentage of people can function well with that little," she says. "Most of us require seven to nine hours every night."

If the difference between six and eight hours strikes you as insignificant, consider this: After 17 hours of being awake, your cognitive ability drops to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of .05 (characterized by impaired judgment and coordination). Stay up for 24 hours and you're as good as legally drunk. Over time a chronic lack of shut-eye makes you more prone to accidents, depression, and anxiety.

"You may assume you've got the blues because you hate your job or because people around you are irritating, but the culprit is probably insufficient sleep," says Dr. Ash. "Sleep elevates your mood and improves critical thinking, so it gives you a real competitive edge." Women who want to rule their world (or simply their to-do lists) can start by getting their nightly eight hours.

-- Lauren Piro

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.

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