Fall asleep with ADHDLast week I had my first sleep study.  Considering that almost every living thing on the planet sleeps, it seems that sleep shouldn’t be that hard.  And yet, I’ve been struggling with it for most of my adult life.

The American Sleep Association (ASA) says that 50 million to 70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder.  If you have ADHD, the research estimates that you are among 60% of others with a similar brain style who have insomnia or trouble falling asleep.

Personally, my sleep challenges go beyond simply falling asleep to what’s considered a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep disorder.  Most people are naturally in a paralyzed state when they dream, so they don’t move around.  Not me, I act out my dreams.  I talk at times, thrash about, and sometimes even crawl out of bed.  This interferes with my ability to get quality deep restorative sleep.  And let’s just say I’m not a very popular sleeping partner.  How they can know all this from one night of my trying to sleep in a hospital bed with more than a dozen electrodes attached to my body and two nasal cannulas up my nose is beyond me!  But there it is.

Considering that getting enough sleep is critical to our mental health, functioning, and well-being (I highly recommend the book Why We Sleep by Mathew Walker), well, we’ve got a problem, Houston.

Why we sleep

I joke that if sleep weren’t necessary, humans would have evolved out of it hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Sleep research is showing the importance of quality sleep and how your brain is still working on important stuff while you snooze.

Not surprisingly, our ADHD brains are intensely busy while we sleep.  During sleep, our brains take care of things like memory consolidation, thought maintenance, and neurochemical cleansing… like an overnight cleaning crew.  While we sleep, our brains are swept clean of the garbage that’s accumulated during the day.  Brain garbage is made up of free radicals and toxic proteins.  And when they build up, this brain waste is associated with things like Alzheimer’s disease.

When you sleep, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or an early bird.  What matters is that you get 7–9 hours of sleep a night to let your brain-cleaning crew do its job.  This means being able to fall asleep in the first place.

Falling asleep in two minutes or less

In my quest to fall asleep easier I stumbled upon the following technique used by the U.S. Army.  This technique was first described in a book from 1981 called Relax and Win: Championship Performance by Lloyd Bud Winter.  Not surprisingly, the military wants to avoid mistakes from a soldier’s lack of sleep.

Having a couple of veterans in my family, I thought I would give it a try.  If it worked to help our country’s heroes fall asleep in everything from a foxhole to a cargo plane, it might work for a middle-aged ADHD woman in the comfort of her own bed.

The method is supposed to have a 96% success rate of putting you to sleep within two minutes if you practice it for six weeks.  If it worked for me, that would shave off about 58+ minutes of my typical falling asleep time.

Briefly, the technique involves muscle relaxation, breathing, and visualization.  At the end of the simple steps, you drift off to sleep within a few minutes.

Here’s the quick sleep technique:

  1. Sit on the edge of your bed.  Make sure only your bedside light is on, your phone is silenced, and your alarm is set for the morning.
  2. Now relax your facial muscles.  First, tighten them up in a wincing motion, and then slowly let your muscles naturally loosen.  Focus on relaxing the facial muscles on one side of your face and then the other.  Let your tongue fall loosely in your mouth.
  3. Once your face feels like deflated putty, let gravity pull both your shoulders naturally toward the ground, relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles.  Let your arms dangle, one side at a time.  Relax your hands.
  4. While doing this, breathe in and out, listening to the sound of your breath. With each breath, let your chest and shoulders relax further, and then let gravity relax your waist, thighs, and lower legs.
  5. Once your body feels like nothing more than a loosely formed lump of clay, try to clear your mind for 10 seconds.  If thoughts come naturally, let them pass – just keep your body loose and limp.  After a few more seconds your mind should feel clearer.
  6. Now picture one of the following two scenarios: lying in a canoe in a calm lake with clear blue skies above you or in a velvet hammock, gently swaying in a pitch-black room.  If you happen to be a person who isn’t great at visualization, you can instead chant the mantra, “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” for 10 seconds instead.
  7. And that’s it.  At the end of going through these steps, which take about two minutes, turn off the bedside light and lie down.  Ideally, you’ll drift off to sleep within two minutes.

How it worked for me…and a few tweaks to the technique

Knowing I was already resistant to falling asleep, it reassured me that this technique worked for 96% of people who practiced it for six weeks.  I let myself be ok with it not having instant success the first few nights and made a few changes that seemed to work better for me.

For instance, I really liked the visualizations but found my creative mind playing with other relaxing scenarios to not get bored.  It helped me to imagine other relaxing places.  I also practiced the technique with the lights already off, lying down comfortably and ready for sleep.

I also found it helpful to slow the relaxation process down.  Doing this helped my mind to relax.  I also allowed more time to visualize in detail the relaxing of my body from head to toe.  For instance, I focused on relaxing my forehead, eyes, and eyelids, then my cheeks, jaw, and neck.  I imagined the relaxing of my thighs, calves, feet, and toes.

And something did start changing.  On the fourth night, I woke up at 3 a.m. and realized the last thing I remembered was relaxing my shoulders.  I also tried using the technique to help me fall asleep for a quick pick-me-up Sunday afternoon nap… and it worked!

After several initial weeks, I can honestly say this technique does seem to help me fall asleep faster.  Maybe not every night, but amazingly more often than not, I didn’t lay awake for hours.  I also realize that I am more of a canoe-on-the-water kind of gal than a velvety hammock.

So go ahead and give it a try.  From my experience, there is no reason not to. Then sleep on it.  You might be surprised by the results.  And let me know below how it works and if you are a canoe or hammock sleeper!

Want to learn more about ADHD and sleep? Consider these blog articles:

Minimizing Your Symptoms of ADD: Which Comes First…Exercise, Diet or Sleep?

Sleep Problems and the ADHD Child

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