This post is going to contain some advice on sleep that will sound a little crazy to you. That’s because we’re all so locked into the same old ideas about sleep and to hear anything new on the subject can be difficult.
But the ideas I’m about to share with you come directly from years of my own struggling with insomnia and sleep-related anxiety. These ideas also come from the thousands of people with anxiety I’ve talked to over the past 5 years.
Through my own struggles, and the struggles of people like me, I’ve learned a lot about sleep and how to change the way we sleep to reduce anxiety.
Using what you learn in the next 10 minutes could allow you to take a huge step in beating your anxiety for good.
Why Anxiety and Sleep Are Like the Chicken and the Egg
During my 17 year battle with anxiety one thing was always clear to me: there was a massive link between my anxiety and the quality of sleep I was getting.
When my anxiety was at its worst my sleep became terrible. I got less sleep, and I got lower quality sleep.
But I was never sure which came first:
- did my anxiety cause my sleep problems?
- or did my sleep problems cause my anxiety?
It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg – hard to know which one came first.
And even though I had no idea whether sleep or anxiety came first, and which one of them was the cause of my problems, I knew that if I could improve the quality of my sleep that my anxiety would improve too.
They were clearly linked, they clearly fed off each other, and if I could fix one of them it would break the cycle and I knew that great progress would be made.
So I focused on sleep, seeing it as a potential cure for my anxiety.
I started to read all I could about sleep: books, websites, studies, everything I could find. And pretty much everything I came across was the same old cliches I’d know for years.
And all that stuff had never helped my sleep at all. You probably know all these cliches too:
- go to bed at the same time each night
- get up at the same time each morning
- have a warm bath before you go to bed
- have an hour of winding down before bed
- make your bedroom peaceful and comfortable
- regulate your biological clock by exposing yourself to sunlight everyday
- do something physical each day to tire yourself out
- don’t watch TV in bed
- keep your bedroom cool
- avoid big meals at night
- cut out everything with caffeine in it
And so on – I could go on for much longer, but you probably get the idea.
So what’s wrong with all those tips?
For most people, nothing’s wrong with them. They’re all sensible tips, and if most people followed those tips their sleep would probably improve a bit.
But when you have extreme anxiety, you’re not “most people.” When you have extreme anxiety, your sleep is bad in so many fundamental ways that these tips are worthless.
Using these basic tips to cure your sleeping problems when you have extreme anxiety is like putting a band aid on a bullet wound.
It’s just not enough.
To cure fundamental sleeping problems like the kind you have when you have extreme anxiety, you need to make fundamental changes to the way you sleep.
Before you can make these changes, you need to know what your options are. You need to know the different types of sleep you can get so that you can find out what’s best for you.
So let me show you the different types of sleep you can get.
This is how most people sleep. It’s probably how you sleep right now.
Here’s traditional sleep in a nutshell:
- you go to bed at roughly the same time each night
- you sleep between 7 and 9 hours
- you wake up at roughly the same time each morning
Is there anything wrong with this approach to sleep? For most people, maybe not.
And if you’re using this approach right now and getting high-quality sleep that leaves you feeling great every morning, stick with it.
But as I keep saying – there’s an undeniable link between anxiety and sleep, and I’m sure that if you currently have anxiety problems that you’re not getting great sleep.
And something I want to point out here before I move on from traditional sleep: even though most people without anxiety get by fine on traditional sleep, I believe that it’s not the best way for them to sleep either.
From everything I’ve learned about sleep over the past several years, I don’t think this traditional approach to sleep is ideal for anyone.
Biphasic sleep means separating your sleep into 2 separate chunks in each 24 hour period.
Here’s biphasic sleep in a nutshell:
- you get your sleep in 2 separate chunks
- you get a total of 5 to 7 hours sleep in any 24 hour period
- you sleep at roughly the same times each day
Biphasic sleep is very flexible, and you can create a biphasic sleep schedule that suits almost any commitments you might have.
Most people who sleep biphasically have the majority of their sleep during the night and get the rest of their sleep with an afternoon nap.
An example of a biphasic sleep schedule would be something like this:
- sleep from 1 a.m. until 5:30 a.m.
- sleep from 2 p.m. until 3:30 p.m.
That’s a total of 6 hours sleep, and that might not sound like much to you if you’re used to the idea of getting 8 hours a night.
But most people find that they need less sleep when they stick to a biphasic sleep schedule, and many biphasic sleepers feel like they have more energy and better health than traditional sleepers who get 8 hours a night.
The majority of biphasic sleepers stick to a sleeping schedule like the example I gave above – with a “core” sleep during the night and a 90 minute nap in the afternoon.
But as I said a moment ago, biphasic sleeping is very flexible, and some people who sleep this way choose to split their sleep into two 3 hour sleeps, while others will use a 4 and 2 hour split.
And still others reverse my original example and sleep for 90 minutes during the night and have their longer core sleep in the afternoon.
Most of the time this is decided by each person’s own work and family schedules, but sometimes the choice is made purely on what produces the higher quality sleep and the better health.
As you might guess from the name, polyphasic sleep is similar to biphasic sleep. The difference is that instead of separating your sleep into 2 chunks, you separate your sleep into 3 or more chunks.
Polyphasic sleep in a nutshell:
- you separate your day’s sleep into 3 or more chunks
- you get roughly 4 to 7 hours sleep in each 24 hour period
- you sleep at roughly the same times each day
You might think that 4 to 7 hours sounds like not enough sleep, but most people who sleep polyphasically discover that they need less sleep than when they sleep traditionally.
As with biphasic sleep, polyphasic sleep is very flexible and you can split up your sleep to suit your schedule.
Most people who sleep polyphasically split their sleep into several equal chunks. An example might be someone who has four 90 minute naps throughout a 24 hour period.
If you’re coming from a schedule of traditional sleep, I realise that this kind of polyphasic schedule sounds weird and extreme, but many people who adopt this kind of sleeping schedule do incredibly well on it.
Naps aren’t a type of sleep in the sense of the others I’ve discussed here, but if you adopt one of these new types of sleep then naps will almost certainly be something that you need to incorporate.
And if that’s the case, there are a couple of things you need to know about naps and how they relate to sleep cycles.
A sleep cycle is one complete series of the 4 stages of sleep. These stages are made up of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep (REM sleep is where you have your dreams).
For most people, one entire sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes. Some people’s will be slightly shorter or longer, but everyone’s is around the 90 minute mark.
To get all the benefits of sleep when you nap, you need to sleep for long enough to have a complete sleep cycle. That’ll mean that you get all the types of sleep you need.
So the first rule with naps is that you want to try to nap for at least 90 minutes.
A shorter nap won’t kill you, but if you want to wake up feeling truly great, 90 minutes is what you should aim for.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep in the daytime for a short time, perhaps 10 or 20 minutes, you’ll know it can make you feel awful.
That’s because you didn’t sleep for an entire cycle.
Another reason that you may sometimes wake up from a nap feeling awful is that you woke up during one of the deep stages of sleep.
When that happens, it can take a long time to fully wake up, and you may never feel truly awake until you get more sleep.
The way to avoid this is to make sure you wake up during REM sleep.
REM sleep, where most of your dreams happen, is a light sleep, so when you wake up during REM sleep you won’t experience that horrible grogginess you might be familiar with.
REM Sleep happens at the end of your sleep cycle, so if you set an alarm for 90 minutes when you take a nap, you should wake up during a light sleep.
That means you’ll wake up feeling great.
Because everyone’s sleep cycles last for slightly different lengths of time, you might need to experiment with your nap lengths to ensure you wake up during REM sleep.
So if your naps leave you feeling groggy for hours, try an 80 minute nap instead. Experiment until you find your own sweet spot.
What Type of Sleep is Right for You?
So far, the point of this post has been to show you that there’s more than one approach to sleep than the traditional approach you already know about.
My belief is that traditional sleep isn’t the best option for anybody.
But most people get away with traditional sleep because they don’t have the problems with anxiety that you and I have.
When you have anxiety, I passionately believe that sleep is one of the keys to ending your problems, and that a different kind of sleep is what’s needed.
I’ve talked about biphasic sleep, polyphasic sleep, and naps, but what’s best? What way should you sleep to eliminate as much of your anxiety as possible, and to be as happy and healthy as possible?
There’s only one way for you to find out what kind of sleep is best for you.
You need to experiment.
You need to try different types of sleep until you discover the one that works for you.
And finding the kind of sleep that’s right for you will be much easier now that you know about the various types of sleep that are available to you.
Since I’ve had a lot of experience with these different types of sleep, and because I’ve tried them all myself, I’d like to give you a good starting point for your experimentation.
This is the way I discovered my own ideal sleeping habits, and I think this process that I’m about to share with you will help you to find your own ideal sleeping habits.
The 2 Factors That Are Essential to High-Quality, Healthy Sleep
Whatever type of sleep you end up using, there will be 2 things that you need to get right.
- how many hours of sleep you get
- when you get those hours of sleep
How Many Hours Should You Sleep?
I’ve talked about traditional sleep, biphasic sleep, and polyphasic sleep in this post, and for each of them I’ve mentioned a different number of hours you should be sleeping.
That’s because these types of sleep are very different from each other, and they each have their own requirements.
But if you decide to try one of these different approaches to sleep, I think a good starting point is 7 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period.
Why 7 hours?
Simply because 7 is the average number of hours you should sleep each day based on all the studies I’ve looked at that proved most beneficial.
You may ultimately decide you need slightly more or less than 7 hours, but it’s a great place to start.
When Should You Get Your 7 Hours Sleep?
My belief is that human beings naturally need to sleep in 2 chunks in each 24 hour period, and that most of the sleep should take place during the night.
I believe this because it’s natural for humans to do most of their sleeping when it’s dark, so it makes sense to have most of your sleep at some point between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
But it’s also natural for humans to experience a big dip in energy during the afternoon, so it makes sense to get some of your sleep in the afternoon.
Taking both of these things into consideration, my advice to you on how to sleep at the start of your experimentation period is as follows:
- get 7 hours of sleep each day
- split those 7 hours into 2 separate chunks
- sleep for around 5 and a half hours at some point between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. for the first chunk
- sleep for 90 minutes between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. for the second chunk
If you follow those guidelines, you’ll be sleeping 7 hours a day in a biphasic sleeping pattern.
Biphasic sleep, by the way, is what I believe is best for most people. It’s a totally natural fit for human beings.
If you decide to follow this sleep schedule, you may need to adjust it to fit your work and family life. That’s fine.
Just stick to the fundamentals as best you can.
So what should you expect when you start using this sleep schedule?
The first thing you’ll notice is that you feel a bit groggy for a few days. It’ll feel a bit like jetlag. This happens whenever you make a change to the way you sleep.
For this reason, it’s important that you stick to this new schedule for at least a week before you decide if it’s right for you.
Once you’ve been sleeping this new way for a week, you’ll be past the “jetlag” phase and you’ll be able to ask yourself how you feel and if you want to stick to this new schedule.
If after a week you feel good, stick with your new schedule. If you feel the same or worse, you need to try something else, and you can make adjustments based on what you’ve learned in this post about the various types of sleep that are available to you.
The important thing is that when you make a change, you always give it a week so that you get past that “jetlag” phase.
A week is enough time for you to determine if the kind of sleep you’re getting is working for you and helping you feel happier, healthier, and free from your anxiety.
This has been a long post, I know, but it’s long for a good reason: sleep is a vital area of your life, and sleep will play a huge part in your recovery from anxiety.
When you have severe anxiety for long periods of time, it’s very easy to end up with terrible sleeping patterns and habits that leave you tossing, turning, and worrying all through the night.
That needs to stop for you to feel better.
To make massive progress with your anxiety, I strongly believe you need to make massive progress with your sleep.
And that’s why I’ve shared everything I know about sleep at such length.
My reason for this post is to show you that there are other ways to sleep, that the traditional sleep that most people get isn’t the only way, and that it may not be the best way for you and your anxiety.
I hope you’ll use what I’ve shared with you to completely overhaul your sleeping habits. If you do, and you experiment until you find what’s right for you, I believe you’ll make massive progress in ending your anxiety for good.