How To Sleep

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S1: Ben, you mentioned that you’ve been eating cheese because you had heard that cheese helps people fall. Right.

S2: The funny thing is that things become part of your ritual because you’ll have a successful night of sleep and you think, what did I say? What did I do? Oh, I ate a piece of cheese and then I had an onion.

S3: And then I don’t know. I spun around in circles three times and talked to my neighbor for 15 minutes. I’d better do that again tonight.

S4: Welcome to how to. I’m troll’s do it. Each week on the show, we help folks confront some of life’s toughest challenges in a bunch of episodes.

S5: Experts have given us this one piece of advice again and again, get more sleep.

S6: But what do you do if you can’t fall asleep in the first place? I’ve had sleep problems for about most of my life. It’s like trying to push a balloon full of air underwater and hold it there. And that’s the sense I get when I’m trying to fall asleep. And the only time I feel like I can really fall asleep is when I’ve missed a night of sleep like a night before. And then I’m like, really, really exhausted so I can sleep.

S5: This is Ben. He lives in San Francisco and he’s a super busy guy. In addition to working as a therapist, he’s a published author and he exercises a lot. He’s a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu. But for years, Ben has been operating on little to no sleep.

S6: You kind of wake up feeling like a broken pane of glass. You just feel kind of shattered and sort of out of it, like you haven’t really close your eyes all night.

S1: And if you’re if you’re just laying in bed and you’re like, you’re trying to go to sleep, is your mind racing? Are you feeling like eat?

S2: Yeah, I’m usually yeah. It’s racing and all sorts of narratives. You know, I’m a therapist, so I think about my patients or I work at a clinic and I think about that. It’s like there’s a party happening in my head and I can’t stop. That sounds torturous. I also get this phenomenon where I get really itchy, like I’ll wake up a scratch marks on my face because I’ve been scratching myself. It’s the script’s crazy.

S5: We’ve all had sleepless nights, right? I took Ambien every night for like a year to help me sleep, which incidentally is precisely what doctors tell you not to do. But I’m not alone. According to studies, more than a third of Americans are regularly not getting enough sleep. But for Ben. His lack of sleep has come to shape his entire life.

S7: It’s like my anxiety goes through the roof. It’s like your bandwidth decreases, your temper gets shorter. You feel disorganized and you can’t see straight.

S5: A night of no sleep can be disastrous for them. He literally won’t drive his car the next day because he’s worried about getting in an accident at work. He starts zoning out when he’s listening to his patients and it’s been terrible for his love life.

S7: Well, it’s like if I’m gonna sleep over at someone’s home or they come over to my home, I will not sleep. If there’s another human being in my bed or if I’m not in my own bed and it’s like, what if what happens if I get married? I supposed to do now and I’m going to be like the 1950s where we’re in separate beds, you know? You know, I don’t know.

S5: Ben is clearly desperate for help. He’s visited a sleep doctor, he’s taken medications, he’s tried drinking alcohol and avoiding alcohol. He’s even tried eating this stuff called Valerian Root, which is this Erbe known as nature’s Valium. He’s used noise machines. He’s sworn off screens. He’s gone to bed hungry. He’s gone to bed after eating a big wedge of cheese because some studies have found that dairy helps you fall asleep. Ben says cheddar is the best one to eat. And so we found an expert with a different approach. This guy, who’s a former monk, turned to meditation guru.

S8: Hi, Ben. It’s Andy from Headspace here. How you doing?

S2: Oh, I know who you are.

S1: I recognize that. That is the voice of Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of Headspace, a popular meditation app.

S9: And when we come back, we’ll see if he can get into Ben’s headspace and help him catch more Morsy’s.

S1: We’re back with Ben. Who are calling Sleepless in San Francisco. And Andy PATTAKOS, who runs the meditation app Headspace and his journey to mindfulness began a couple of decades ago in Southeast Asia.

S10: That’s where he lived and trained as a Buddhist monk for 10 years.

S11: I reached the conclusion that my mind was simply too busy. He and I constantly felt overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions, and I didn’t feel like I had a huge amount of sort of purpose, direction or meaning in my life. So I made a decision to to quit college and and become become a monk instead.

S10: I imagine you’re like living in a monastery. You’re in this this country that at least initially is foreign to you. You’re probably around a bunch of people who are very different from you.

S12: Is it sleep like a sleep part of your training?

S10: Like.

S11: Well, yeah, like when you first get there was sleep a really interesting thing in the monastery, you know, so ever again, every monastery is different and some monasteries, if you’re not in retreat, you might only be doing sort of a few hours of meditation a day. And in those monasteries, you might be getting as much as sort of six hours sleep a night. But in the retreat, monasteries where you’re meditating for maybe 16 or 18 hours a day, you’re really only getting about four hours sleep a night.

S13: So it’s enough sleep to sort of be comfortable. I mean, there were definite nights when I would have liked it a little a little more. But within that context, I would never recommend that people have that little sleep outside of that environment. But within that environment, that was that was it was helpful.

S14: When Andy returned to the UK, he started working at a clinic training other people in meditation. And a number of his patients were struggling with sleep problems.

S15: One was a young woman she had probably about in her late 20s, maybe 30. She’d had some rather traumatic things happen as a as a teenager. And for 10 to 15 years, she hadn’t had a whole night’s sleep and she came really not believing that anything would. She felt like she tried everything. She’d been to therapy and she tried medication. And she really kind of felt desperate. And it was probably week two or week three when she came back to the clinic and she cried and she said she’d had a first full night’s sleep. And I don’t know which of us was more surprised. She she discovered kind of that she could sleep again and she gained confidence really in sleeping again. Wow. I think it can be really lonely place, especially at night when you can’t reach out to anyone else than to feel like you’re the only person going through that. So just know that one there are this really does impact so many different people. And there’s no magic bullet. It doesn’t happen overnight. But there really are things that you can put in place. And if you can commit it to a a schedule over a period of time, you really can start to change your relationship with sleep.

S1: The key to getting a good night’s sleep, and he says actually starts much earlier in the day.

S8: How much time do you take out for yourself in. In any way, whether it’s simply resting, whether it’s getting some exercise, whether it’s being with friends, or how much sort of time do you give yourself for that stuff?

S2: I’d say, you know, I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of downtime or just like, oh, I can just completely let go and completely relax.

S8: Okay. Very often the restlessness of the mind will build up in the body. And we experience that restlessness as it can come out in a whole host of different ways. It can it can be achiness. It can be a lot of sort of, you know, moving around and finding difficult to sit still, but sometimes simply committing to 20 minutes a day, 30 minutes a day, if you can, of quite vigorous exercise and building up to that over time. That can actually be a really, really important factor. And as does a fair bit of research as well, that shows how exercise, physical exercise can help us reduce anxiety and depression. And those those things will inevitably impact your your sleep. The thing that I heard when you were when you were talking to us both earlier is that all of these things tend to come in waves. And, you know, if you’re feeling tired, then you won’t go to jujitsu. And I think so what happens is that the sleep starts dictating rather than kind of saying, okay, each day I’m going to commit to these two things regardless of how last night went.

S16: This is the first rule. Make sure you exercise even when you’re tired, especially when you’re tired. The physical activity. It becomes a cue that your body expects. And so when you don’t have it, when you disrupt that cycle because you’re feeling exhausted, it throws off everything. Your stress levels go up and that impacts your sleeping patterns. And this ties into the next rule, because getting a good night’s sleep, it’s not just about your body. It’s also about training your mind.

S17: Do you experience your mind as more active when you lie down at nighttime then, than during the rest of the day?

S18: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know.

S11: So what usually happens is we lie down at night. We put our head on the pillow.

S8: We’re suddenly free from any conversation, any dialogue, any activity of any kind. And it feels it can feel like the floodgates have just opened and it’s high. Wow. Suddenly gray or all these thoughts. And and again, the temptation is to think that that’s what happens when we go to bed.

S11: So that builds up anxiety around going to bed, because if you’re going to bed every night thinking, okay, I’ve just got to stop the thoughts or I just need to try and create a state of mind. You putting so much pressure on yourself and then when it doesn’t happen, that it’s just demoralizing that you feel I can’t do it. And then all of a sudden we start thinking that sleep is something that we do rather than something that happens naturally.

S7: Yeah. Every night it’s like a mirror. It’s like I have to run this marathon and so I have to get there. I forget to. How’s it going to go tonight?

S5: The trick, says, Andy, is to train yourself in how to let those thoughts go. And one way to do that is meditation, which, contrary to what you might have heard in the past, isn’t actually about emptying your mind. Rather, it’s about learning to intensely focus in a way that you can manage your thoughts and meditation itself. It’s like taking your brain to the gym and exercising this one very specific mental muscle.

S8: I would really encourage you and I know mornings are a busy time for all of us as lots of things going on in everyone’s households and we’re trying to get to work and everything else. I would really try to carve out ten minutes in the morning where regardless of how that night’s sleep has gone, that’s done. That’s finishes behind us. We sit down for 10 minutes and we train in mindfulness, focus on being more present in the body, learning how to step out of the thinking, noticing when you get distracted and coming back to the breath or whatever your object to focus is. When you do that, you do few things happened, one, you let go of any sort of sense of grogginess from the night before, you calm the body, you calm the mind and you set the intention. You lay down the foundation for the entire day. We start to create this feeling of continuity, stability of mind, where we know where we are in the day over a period of time. That means when we go to bed, the mind isn’t so hurried, is not so restless, is not so confused by the time you get to bed, the body already understands that you are you are winding down to sort of drift off.

S1: Ben, let me ask, how different is that from what you’re doing right now? It does that. Does that sound like advice? That’s that’s a change.

S2: The ten minutes the mindfulness thing in the morning is definitely different. I’ve never done that in my life. I know what he said earlier about, you know, sleep is something that happens to us is not something I’d ever thought about. And just letting the thoughts come and go is not something I had considered. I think it’s what people probably do naturally.

S14: Andy, let me let me ask you, because, you know, I hear what you’re saying, and that sounds so attractive to be able to, like, watch the thought come in and then watch it walk away and not natural any attachment to it. But how do I actually do that? Like, it’s it’s harder to do than it is to say.

S8: Of course, most of the research studies around insomnia and mindfulness, they’re eight weeks long. So it we know it’s this isn’t kind of you have to become a monk or a non and you have to go off and anti-hindu that whole thing. If you can kind of commit to a daily mindfulness practice for, say, 10 to 20 minutes a day, but ten minutes is definitely enough over a six to eight week period, then you would absolutely start to experience the ability to be less engaged with thinking. So to be able to see thoughts, not necessarily chasing after the exciting ones, not necessarily resisting the difficult ones, but instead she just being more ease, more okay. Comfortable with the idea of her thoughts coming and going. You’re just happy to lie down and let the mind drift off to sleep.

S2: I’m at a point now where if I thought becoming a monk would solve my sleep issue, I probably do it.

S18: Yeah, yeah. I think, you know, you know, forget this whole therapy thing. Who needs an income? I’m going to go I’m going to go to the Zen Center and just Roba.

S19: And the thing is, you could train to become a monk like Andy did, but that’s not really necessary because there’s a few things that we can do in the safety of our own bedrooms that will probably be a little bit easier. And after this quick break, Andy will walk us through a sleep meditation. You might want to put on your pajamas.

S16: We’re back. And before you get under the covers at night and he says you should observe some basic sleep hygiene.

S17: The first thing I would say is make sure that your phone is off and is far enough away from you that you’re not going to roll over and pick it up as soon as this exercise is finished. So commit to sort of letting go.

S16: Andy says you want to make sure your bedroom is cool and it’s dark. You should wind down your screen time and avoid eating snacks and drinking alcohol. Too close to when you go to bed.

S17: Make sure you’ve done everything that you need to for the night. You’ve been to the restroom and you feel kind of comfortable in bed.

S16: Now, before Andy guides us through this meditation, a quick word of caution. Be careful not to actually fall asleep, especially if you’re listening to this while driving.

S20: And then I would start by lying flat on your back and just take a big, deep breath breathing in through the nose.

S15: And as you breathe out through the mouth, just allowing the body just to sink down into the bed and even close your eyes whenever you feel ready if you haven’t done already. And I just like you to notice the different sort of touch points. So it might be the heels against the bed.

S20: The backs of the legs against the bed. The lower back, middle back. His shoulders. Back of the head. The arms and the fingers, she really taking your attention out of the mine, bringing into the body.

S15: So as you lie there, the temptation is to either think about something or to wish you weren’t thinking about something. We’re going to forget all about thinking. So just let your mind do whatever it wants to do, just for for the time being. I’d like you to gently place your hand on your stomach.

S20: And just notice how the body’s breathing so that rising and falling sensation you have to breathe in any special way. So there’s essentially nothing to do here. The body’s going to breathe. We’re just going to notice and feel that rising. I’m falling sensation. And as you’re doing this, there’s a very good chance. The thoughts from the day are going to arise in the mind. Again, we just see them and we just say, OK. For now, which is letting go. Come back to the breath again. And so just by bringing the attention into the body. We start to ground the mind a little bit. Things start to slow down. And then what I like to do, if my mind is really very busy, is at this point just to start counting backwards. You know, either start a thousand. Or if you feel really ambitious, you can start ten thousand.

S21: So this gives them mine just enough to focus on, but not so much that it disrupts us or moves us away from a point of relaxation is more sort of just something to keep the mind pleasantly busy as we allow the body to unwind and move towards a place to sleep.

S22: For most people, sometime during this process of counting down, those slowly drift off to sleep.

S18: I feel very relaxed and his voice is kind of incredible. Good insight. World peace. If he if they broadcasted him, you know, enough.

S12: If we do this meditation, we fall asleep. What about when we wake up so in the middle of the nights.

S23: So there’s there’s a whole bunch of different advice kind of around this. Mostly experts will say if you wake up and you remain awake for a period of time and you’re starting to get a bit restless and anxious in bed, that it’s actually better to get out of bed, to turn on the light, to read a book or, you know, until you feel feel tired again and then go back to sleep so that you don’t set up this sort of place in the bed where you just kind of anxious the whole time. That’s not how I approach you personally. If I if I wake up in the middle of the night and it does happens again, if if the kids are unwell or something, then we might be waking up three, four times a night. Then I I genuinely use that counting exercise myself. I will I will go through that same process each time I lie on my back. I’ll take a deep breath or step out of the mind or ground the body. And then I start at ten thousand and I just start counting backwards.

S1: Let me ask about one other thing that Ben brought up. Ben, you mentioned that that you feel physically restless a lot when you’re in bed. And you and I I can identify with this because my wife, when we’re going to bed, she insists that she has restless leg syndrome, which she doesn’t know my right leg. So my resume. And I think what she really means is that she just wants me to be on a small part of the bed so that she can move around the bed. She. So what what about that? Should we fight that urge?

S24: Yes. And lyricist like syndromes and interesting one. So my mind went to one of the monasteries where we weren’t allowed to scratch. And that was really interesting because the as human beings, we we feel an element of discomfort. And immediately we go to remove it, which is natural is normal. Why wouldn’t we? And so we felt an itch. We scratch it. And the interesting thing was, within that environment, when you observed the H more sort of from a point of awareness rather than, wow, can I get rid of it? Actually, you start to see an experience in a different way.

S8: And often that the H word would dissolve. It would just sort of disappear over time.

S1: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Ben, what do you think about that? Like it as you’re feeling restless in bed if if you were to try and sort of be beyond it. What do you think would happen?

S2: I feel like I’d explode. Yeah. Yeah. I get. I do get I do get restless leg syndrome sometimes when I’m really stressed out.

S24: Some of these concepts are much bigger and broader. And wouldn’t if if I. Ben, if we were chatting one to one, there’s no way that I would be sitting here saying, oh, yeah, just just see as a feeling and kind of stay with it. You know, there’s no way we’d be having that discussion, just to be clear. So it’s working in stages.

S8: And and my hope would be that as you reduce the amount of stress in your life, you would start to experience less restlessness at nighttime. And as you experience less restlessness, there would be more space in the mind to kind of say, ha, okay. Well, not all the time and every night, but just once in a while, if I feel kind of itchy, I might just stay with that just for 30 seconds and just see what happens.

S1: So so we’ve talked about what to do during the day before to bring government versus stress levels. What we do before we go to bed, what we do in bed, what what we do when we wake up in the middle of the night. What about when? Which is just there’s just one thing. Left. Right. Like.

S9: What do we do when we wake up in the morning?

S15: Well, the best piece of advice I got from from one of my teachers, you know, when I asked him what I should do first thing in the morning, he said, you know what? Before you do anything else, whether you lie there, whether you sit there, just be grateful that you’ve woken up because the alternative.

S24: Well, you know, it’s not so good. And and he kind of threw it away, you know, as a one liner, as these Tibetan monks do. But, you know, I I really took it to heart. And to this day, I still take 60 seconds to minutes, just a she just to not do anything but just grateful that I woke up because, you know, it’s not it’s not a given.

S25: This last rule might be my favorite one because no matter how hard it was to sleep the night before.

S26: No matter how stressful your life is and Ben is dealing with a lot of heavy stuff in his day job, you should take a moment when you wake up and just be thankful that your life. Thank you to Ben for sharing his harrowing experiences and night with us. And by the way, Ben has a podcast of his own called Look, Just Tell Me What To Do. Ben I hope we did. And thank you to Andy Pettitte Combe for his great advice and super soothing voice, which you can hear more of in the Headspace app. So if you’ve heard this show before, you know that it exists because listeners send us emails with burning questions and problems or trying to solve. And we want to hear from you.

S27: Send us a note of how to at slate.com and we might be able to help. That’s how to at Slate.com.

S14: Finally, if you have a spare moment, please subscribe to our show for free and give us a five star rating and a review and app a podcasts that helps people find the show, which means we can help more people and hopefully we all get a better sleep.

S28: How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen is our production assistant in mirit, Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hamis Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to ushe soldier and Sung Park. I’m Charles Duhok. Thanks for listening.