Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Javier was a man in his late forties. He came to see me because he was unable to get a good night’s sleep. Having been prescribed anti-anxiety medication he would go to bed after taking his daily dosage. He would fall asleep normally but at around, 2 AM he would find himself wide awake. After an hour or so of tossing and turning, he would fall asleep again but then he would shortly wake up again. This pattern of waking up four to five times every night had taken a toll on both his peace of mind and his physical health.
He had gone to a private clinic where they did a thorough sleep analysis to get to the bottom of the medical causes of his insomnia. He had also been in therapy with a psychologist who had looked at all the psychological causes of why he wasn’t sleeping well at night. Together, the psychologist and Javier had discussed all the various things that were a source of worry in his life.
However, after many months of investigation into the root causes of his insomnia, he was still as anxious at night as before and he still wasn’t able to sleep normally. Another psychotherapist had taught him relaxation techniques, but that didn’t help either. He then sought the help of an acupuncturist but he still wasn’t able to enjoy a good night’s rest. He had even tried a few of his own tricks. For example, he would engage in intense and strenuous exercise at night in order to tire himself out in the hopes that being physically exhausted would lead to uninterrupted sleep. However nothing so far had helped to get rid of insomnia and anxiety. Which is why he was in my office asking for my help.
I told him that he had tried many logical, rational ways of solving his problem of insomnia and anxiety. I then asked him if he was willing to undertake an experiment that maybe at first glance didn’t seem very rational. But even so, it may help him. He was intrigued and was curious to know what exactly I was thinking.
I asked him to name which household chores he especially didn’t like to perform. He said that his wife was doing most of the work and some times he would help out. When I insisted he said that he disliked cleaning the bathroom and ironing the most.
“You detest cleaning the bathroom and ironing”, I said. “Now, here is the experiment I want you to do. Before you go to bed tonight, I want you to get the ironing board and the iron out. As well, I want you to set aside three of your dress shirts.”
He explained that they had a room in their basement which his wife used to do the ironing. I told him that he was to go to bed normally and that if or when he woke up in the middle of the night, unless he fell asleep in about 15 minutes, he had to go down the stairs and iron his three shirts that he had set aside.
Javier looked at me a mixture of puzzlement and amusement. After a long pause in which he fully grasped what I had just told him, he nodded and said that he would do as I had instructed.
One week later Javier came back to see me and reported that he was pleased with the results of the experiment. On the first night, he had woken up at 4 AM and gone to the bathroom. He had then rushed to bed and promptly fallen asleep. Only on one night had he found difficulty falling asleep after waking in the middle of the night. As per the experiment he had gone down to the basement to iron his shirts in the middle of the night at 2 AM. He was pleasantly surprised that the seemingly strange experiment had helped him to sleep better.
I explained that he was learning a new skill and like all things new, he should give himself some time to adjust to the new habit. I continued by telling him that after he had formed a habit of waking up many times in the middle of night for many years. Now he was learning the new habit of sleeping all night long. I said that I would be very surprised if he learned this new habit quickly, say, in a matter of a week. However I wouldn’t be surprised if during the coming week he had five good night’s sleep – meaning he had to iron his shirts twice.
Likewise it could happen that in the following week he would sleep six nights and iron only once. And of course it wouldn’t take too long before he would sleep all seven nights of the week. I also gave him a task specifically for his anxiety.
I saw Javier a few weeks later. He was happy and well rested because he had slept very well. Javier had learned how to sleep a good night’s sleep and he had a new appreciation of his wife’s hard work.