This week, I published a piece on Ravishly about a health experiment I did, in which I woke up at 6am, or earlier, every day for a week.
Typically, I wake up somewhere in the ballpark of 9am, since I a) work from home, b) have an employer that’s based in Pacific time which is 3 hours behind me in Eastern, c) I’m naturally a late riser, and d) I’m a huge advocate of sleep. I haven’t woken up at an early hour like 6am since I was in high school, so I was pretty hesitant to take on this experiment, but I’ve been wanting to wake up earlier for a long time and had no motivation to start.
I look at people with envy who operate with little sleep, get out of bed at the crack of dawn with a smile on their face, and are posting their 5:30am workouts on Instagram. I’ve always been someone who needs a lot of sleep, for both my physical and mental health. If I am chronically sleep deprived, I start to get really gnarly migraines that completely take me out of life.
I also suffer from a number of mental health issues, the most pressing being that I’m bipolar. There’s a lot of literature out there that sites the importance of sleep for maintaining good mental health and I know that sleep is one of the things that can easily mess with my head. It’s also well documented that those who suffer from manic depression often experience sleep disturbances. If I try to manipulate my natural sleep patterns too much, I really start to feel it mentally. I get emotional, moody, cranky, and irritable, not to mention become a lot more susceptible to having a relapse.
With all of that being said, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I adjusted really well to the change in schedule and the overall lack of sleep. I felt pretty good throughout the week. I had energy, I felt like I was a lot more productive in my work, and emotionally stable.
Now, looking back at this week, I’m not so sure how sustainable this would be in the long term
When the piece was released on Ravishly, someone asked me if I would share a reflection of what I experienced days and weeks after the experiment. I thought this would be a great opportunity to understand how this experiment impacted me more broadly, how sleep intersects with mental illness, and how I can approach a schedule shift that’s more permanent, should I decide to implement one.
Overall, that week was not a typical one in my life. I was with my then boyfriend in New York City, where I was visiting him. I was also looking for an apartment, as I was gearing up for a move to the Big Apple myself. So, the structure of the week was different than most weeks in my life are.
Something I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I’m very externally motivated, which makes it really difficult for me to make changes to my life by my own accord or desire. Typically when I do, I end up procrastinating, losing focus somewhere along the way.
That’s why I hadn’t taken the challenge on sooner, actually. I knew that my ex would make sure I got my ass out of bed, since he was both a) an early riser and b) goal oriented and driven. Anything I set my mind to, he was going to make sure I accomplished. That was just his personality.
I was also having a really exciting week, being in New York (having not lived there yet) and looking for a new apartment. So I had things to look forward to and reasons to wake up early, as far as circumstances go.
This not being a typical week in my life probably made it easier to execute, in some ways. I’m sure I had more adrenaline running through my body, which makes sustained energy a lot easier to activate.
Looking at what happened afterward, I was waking up earlier, but still not much earlier than 8 or 8:30. My body just wasn’t having it! I was very frustrated that I wasn’t able to get up any earlier without feeling like total shit, but I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to force myself to do that. This is the way my body was. One week of a different schedule wasn’t going to lead to a lifetime of early wake-ups that came with little effort.
I also definitely noticed a sleep debt had accumulated since my first night off of the schedule had me sleeping 10 hours. I felt like I needed to sleep this long in order to feel rested, which showed me that I definitely was sleep deprived and much more so than I would have thought.
As far as my mental health and mood went, I thankfully didn’t relapse into a manic or depressive episode, but boy was my anxiety at an all time high. The entire following week was filled with me being hardly able to sit still, feeling paranoid, constantly worrying about minutiae, and needing a lot of soothing. I felt like I was experiencing what I call an anxiety dump when I’ve just come off of some kind of intense experience that then causes me to release all of the anxiety I’ve been holding in as a result. Sleep debt and anxiety are very strongly connected, so I have no doubt that this played a very large role in my higher anxiety levels the week following the experiment.
It’s been about two months since I conducted the experiment and I’m back to my regular sleep patterns of rising somewhere around 9, on most days. I slowly saw my wake up time creep up from 8, to 8:30, to 9, and sometimes later. I was discouraged at first and felt like a total failure- I could wake up earlier, so why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I suck it up and deal with 5 hours of sleep?
I realized though that kind of schedule simply doesn’t work for me- and likely never will. I’m wired for more sleep than most anyway (I need about 9 hours to feel rested) and a later wake up and bedtime. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just the way I am. I do everything in my power to allow that schedule to exist, so it’s not impeding on my ability to work or live comfortably. So why wouldn’t I just embrace the way I am?
Sure, I might have a perpetual hope to wake up a little earlier on a consistent basis, just like I have a perpetual hope to lose 20 pounds and workout 6 days a week. It’s not that I hate myself without those things, or I don’t think I could ever achieve them, but I’ve accepted that they’re things I might not ever get around to and I’ve accepted it, and myself, the way I am now.