Mind & Body

Fall Asleep Anytime, Anywhere with This Military-Tested Trick

Is there anything worse than lying in bed late at night, trying desperately to fall asleep and being utterly unable to do so? Yes, there is: You could be lying on the hard ground late at night while explosions rock the earth and bullets fly through the air, trying desperately to fall asleep and being utterly unable to do so. That's the situation for many military members on active duty. Here's a military-inspired method to drift off to sleep, no matter your surroundings.

The Story Behind the Snooze

The trick originally appeared in Lloyd "Bud" Winter's book "Relax and Win," or at least, in the long-out-of-print but (technically) still available edition published in 1981. Winter is best known as one of history's greatest sprint coaches (he died the day before his induction in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame) but in this book, he covers not just his career in athletics, but also his work with the U.S. military.

The story, as relayed by The Art of Manliness, goes something like this. In the early days of World War II, the Navy had noticed a disturbing trend. They were losing pilots and planes at a rapid clip to an insidious enemy in their ranks: sleep deprivation. Overworked and over-stressed, the pilots were making risky decisions and sloppy maneuvers. To help, the higher-ups brought in Winter, already a noted track and field coach and expert in athlete psychology. He approached the problem by dividing sleep up into two different components: physical relaxation and mental relaxation. Both, thought Winter, were easy to learn, and after six weeks of practice, recruits in pre-flight school were found to be able to drift off to sleep in less than two minutes, 96 percent of the time — even when caffeinated or surrounded by recordings of cannons and machine guns.

Sleep Easy

So what is this trick? It involves two phases that both sound deceptively easy, although you might need some practice of your own before it becomes reliable. The first phase is physical relaxation, and the original testers tried it out sitting up in a chair (the idea being if you can do it in a chair, you can do it in a cot). First, you sit up straight with your feet on the ground, then close your eyes and let your head droop so your chin rests on your chest. Next, practice slow, regular breathing. Relax the muscles in your face: un-furrow your brow, loosen your tongue and lips, let your jaw slacken. Continue that pattern moving down your body. Relax your shoulders, un-tense your arms, and keep your breathing slow and regular. Feel your body becoming dead weight on the chair as you move that relaxation down into your thighs, your calves, your feet. Now focus only on breathing, nice and slow. Ahh. That feels much better.

Next comes mental relaxation. That might seem a little harder — ever try willing yourself not to be stressed? Still, there's a way to do it. To Winter, the key was imagining yourself in an incredibly relaxing situation. He had three specific suggestions to bring the brain to restful bliss.

In the first, you put yourself in the bottom of a canoe on a warm, spring day. You're looking straight up at a brilliant blue sky, watching the clouds float by and feeling the gentle breeze.

In the second exercise, all the lights go out. Now, you're lying in a cozy hammock made of black velvet. You're in a pitch dark room, and — why not? — its walls are lined with velvet as well. Everywhere you look is perfectly black. Feel your mind go at ease.

The final exercise is more of a mantra. When all else fails, just lie back and repeat the following phrase in your mind: "Don't think, don't think, don't think." Uhh ... what were we doing again? Oh, right. This technique gets a Curiosity stamp of approval.

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If you still can't sleep, you might need more intense guidance. W. Chris Winter M.D. (no relation, as far as we can tell) is a sleep- and sports-medicine specialist with a bestselling book, "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2018

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