“First, we need to get you some sleep.”
What? I expected her to say anti-depressants – at the time a major fear of mine. But sleep? Really?
I immediately decided that I liked this woman because her top priority was something natural – sleep. Although she did prescribe a very low dose of Seroquel to help me sleep soundly, I liked her recognition of the body’s own ability to heal itself.
Plus, I hadn’t had a really good night’s sleep in a long time. And I really, really like to sleep.
I slept like a rock. Deep, deep sleep. I’d like to say sleep by itself lifted me out of my depression but it did not. However, I have come to believe that sleep is a crucial and necessary element to maintaining my mental health. When I can see my black hole getting nearer, my first go-to remedy is sleep.
I give myself a couple of nights of what I call free-range sleep: Allowing my body and mind to roam freely in the netherworld as long as it pleases. This means I sleep until my body – not an alarm clock – wakes me. On one occasion that was 14 hours.
I’ve heard people say that you can get too much sleep. That may be true for some people but not me. I have found that every time I let my body heal itself with sleep – whether it is depression or a cold – it has helped. Listening to my body has never let me down.
So, how much sleep do I need to maintain my mental health?
To answer that I have been conducting an experiment. I’ve been going to bed very early- last night at 7:45 pm – and letting my body wake me. I have also been using an app called Sleep Cycle to track my sleep. The app requires me to place my cellphone face down on the corner of my bed after I activate airplane mode.
The app monitors the quality and duration of my sleep by tracking movement. Our sleep alternates between rapid eye movement – REM sleep – and other states, called non-REM. There are three phases to non-REM sleep: the first two stages account for light sleep, the third is deep sleep.
For most of us, it takes about 45 minutes to slip into deep sleep. Most physiological processes are slowed. After about 90 minutes, we enter into REM sleep. Brain activity increases dramatically. Our eyes begin to flicker and our muscles become inhibited.
Most dreaming, including nightmares, occur during REM sleep. Our eyes move according to what we are seeing in our dreams but our muscles are effectively paralyzed.
According to the app’s instructions, the typical adult enters REM sleep every 90 minutes and each cycle lasts a little longer. Upon completion, the body starts over again – normally repeating four to five times every night.
“Non-REM is believed to help the brain’s physiological processes reboot, while REM is believed to help us work through psychological needs.”
“When we are sleep deprived, we spend more time in non-REM, verifying our body’s need to “reboot.” This also means less time spent in REM sleep, leading to irritability and emotional problems.”
This makes sense to me. Although, I don’t fully trust the data produced during my sleep because the app is also tracking the movements of my dog, who can’t seem to get close enough to me no matter how many positions he tries.
Still, the app is helpful in tracking the amount of time I sleep and my heart rate when I wake up. It also tracks the quality and length of sleep by day of the week.
After three months I can clearly see that Wednesday nights are my shortest and worst night for sleep. Friday is my best.
This week I’ve also been comparing my mental state after free-range and non-free range sleep and what state of sleep I am in when I wake up. The state of sleep you are in when you wake up determines how tired you feel.
According to the app:
“A fixed alarm clock is a lottery. If you are lucky it wakes you in light sleep. If you are unlucky you are in deep sleep and barely conscious. We all know that feeling.”
When you set the app’s alarm, you allow it a 20-minute window before the set time. The app wakes you in your lightest sleep state during that 20-minute window.
Obviously, on free-range nights I awake when my body is in the lightest state. Sunday night was a free range night: I awoke on my own after nearly 10 hours and felt refreshed and as happy as one can be on a Monday morning. Tuesday the alarm woke me from a deep sleep after nearly nine hours. I was tired and barely made it to the gym, where I had a crappy workout.
Last night, I free-ranged it again and got 9-1/4 hours of sleep before I woke myself. I feel good – ready for whatever the day brings.
The lesson of my experience: For me, eight hours of sleep is not enough. I don’t know if it’s my age – 56 – or my activity or stress but it appears I need at least nine and preferably 10 hours of sleep to feel good – mentally and physically.
This revelation is going to put a dent in my Netflix binges – which is probably a good thing. But if that’s what it takes to wake up feeling comfortable in my own skin, I’ll take it.
Besides, they aren’t even going to begin shooting Season 6 of Breaking Bad until December.
Sleeping woman available from Shutterstock.