I’ve had insomnia longer than most people have had security blankets, and it’s a creepy affliction to wrestle with as a kid. Something about regularly tip-toeing into my parents room at 3 a.m., putting my face up to theirs, and whispering “I can’t sleep,” made me seem haunted for what should have been the most adorable years of my life. Since then, I’ve found ways to cope, using cognitive behavioral therapy strategies tailored for insomnia (or CBT-I), exercise, breathwork, and the occasional CBD gummy, but there are still nights where sleep eludes me. So I’m always looking for new strategies for sleep training myself well into adulthood, even if it’s just to call bullsh*t on some.
That was my first instinct when I came across the “military method” of falling asleep. Apparently, this tactic only takes two minutes and claims to be effective for up to 96% of people who try it for six weeks. Essentially a mindfulness exercise to keep your mind from wandering at all hours, the military method can be broken into five simple steps.
- Focus on your breathing with your eyes closed, taking long and deep breaths. Most relaxation exercises start with some sort of breathing practice because this helps a person get control of their central nervous system. This prevents you from slipping into fight-or-flight mode when overtired, which can lead to further insomnia. A 2018 study also found that deep breathing can trigger the natural production of melatonin in the brain, which makes people sleepy.
- Relax all of the muscles in your face starting at the top of your head and working your way down, remembering to loosen up every part including your tongue and the muscles around your eyes. This is the start of what is often referred to as a body scan.
- Once your head and face are taken care of, do the same thing with your neck, shoulders, and arms, one side of the body at a time, all the way down to your fingertips on each side.
- Then again, work your way down, relax your chest, abdomen, pelvis, thigh, calf, feet, all the way down to your toes. Like with each arm, focus on one leg at a time.
- With a body free of tension, clear your mind by visualizing a calming place, like being on a beach, drinking a piña colada before you were blessed with children, or repeating a phrase over and over again in your head. The military method recommends the no-frills mantra “don’t think.”
As much as I would love for this to knock me out within 120 seconds, it all appeared a little too convenient.
According to Army neuroscientist and sleep expert Maj. Allison Brager, Ph.D., the military method is far from an ideal way to sleep. It’s “more of a consequence of not getting enough sleep, rather than a method in itself,” she says. Because consistent sleep is vital for mental and physical health, but hard to come by in the military, this method can help maxed-out individuals reduce their “sleep debt and overall susceptibility to the negative consequences of sleep deprivation,” Brager explained. In other words, it can curb the massive toll sleep loss can take on your brain and body, she says. But crucially, there aren’t any published studies on the military sleep method specifically.
Though far from practical, the strategy seemed suited for parents, who can suffer from sleep loss for up to six years after having a baby. Six weeks, though, is a lot of time for a busy parent to invest in being a guinea pig for a sleep method that might not work, or even cause them to lose more sleep. In order to redeem myself for the hours of shut-eye I stole from my folks, I tested the military method, so busy moms and dads don’t have to. This is what I learned.
Week One: Denial
Denial is not just a river in Egypt (dad joke alert!), or the first stage of grief — it’s what my body does in response to a new sleep strategy. I can try too hard to relax, which ultimately backfires. I experience a type of performance anxiety that athletes experience, known as “the yips.” The only difference is that my yips aren’t about passing a ball, but passing the hell out.
Through CBT-I, I’ve learned that when this happens, it’s important to stop trying too hard and remember that my body is fully equipped to sleep when tired, and one rough night isn’t the end of the world. This helped me calm down to some extent when beginning my experiment with the military method for sleep, but then the short window of two minutes started to stress me out.
In order for the military method to be effective, you have to be sleep-deprived, but not so sleep-deprived that you develop a diagnosable disorder.
While I was relaxing my body, going to a sunny meadow in my mind, and telling myself not to think, I was also distracted by an imaginary clock running out in my head — not to mention I was eager to look over at my phone to see that the method didn’t work 200 seconds later. And I was distracted by the thought that even if the military method did work within this short window of time, how would I know, if I’m asleep?
By the end of the first seven days of attempts, I got more comfortable with estimating around two minutes without verifying it. But I continued to overthink the process and struggled to fall asleep.
When I reached out to psychologist Dan Ford, clinical director at The Better Sleep Clinic, he informed me that because of my long-standing issues with sleeping, the military method may not work for me.
“For many with insomnia, this method will not work,” Ford said. “It won't work for anyone with a circadian rhythm sleep wake disorder such as delayed sleep phase disorder, or potentially those with shift work disorder.”
Simply put, in order for the military method to be effective, you have to be sleep-deprived, as Brager noted, but not so chronically sleep-deprived that you develop a diagnosable sleep disorder. The overlap made for a small space in a Venn diagram, but it was a category I still believed a lot of parents fell into. So I pressed on.
Week Two: Exhaustion
Given that I couldn’t do much about my history with insomnia, I opted to focus on what I could control: Tiring myself out. I made sure to exercise daily, limit my caffeine intake to two cups of coffee a day (and no caffeine eight hours before bedtime), and abstain from naps unless it was to make up for a sleep deficit — all in an effort to exhaust myself into submission.
Since I could only do so much to tire myself out on any given day, Brager recommended that I adjust my expectations about the two-minute window. “Someone who gets a sufficient amount of sleep should take at least 10 minutes to fall asleep,” she advised.
At the halfway point of my experience, I reached an all time low.
This tip proved to be quite helpful, combined with better sleep hygiene habits and the military method steps becoming more automatic after doing them for upwards of 10 days. But then another issue surfaced: fully relaxing my body was like a bad game of Whac-a-Mole.
As I would relax each individual body part, the previous ground I covered kept defaulting back to a tense state. It didn’t matter if my toes were chilling; my shoulders were a nightmare. The more I flailed, the more I began to question, “have I ever been relaxed?” And that is not a great existential question to bring into bed with you at night.
I decided to treat relaxation like I was on the road to Carnegie Hall and practiced — using guided body scans for relaxation and sleep on YouTube. By the end of week two, I was not well-rested, nor was I ready to enlist. But I could relax both calves simultaneously, so we were getting somewhere.
Week Three: In Sickness
I woke up at the start of week three planning to crush the military method three weeks ahead of schedule, only to find that I had a sore throat, fever, and a few minutes later, a very much positive at-home COVID test. This was not a part of the plan. The only silver lining was that I would have plenty of time to try out the military method as I recovered. Though my symptoms were mild, I was plenty tired and thought the military method sleep experiment would be the easiest part of my week.
I was completely wrong. At the halfway point of my experience, I reached an all time low. Sure, I was sleeping 10-plus fragmented hours in a day, all in the name of being sick. But no matter how hard I tried to stick with the experiment, a vast majority of my sleep was achieved entirely through Netflix. Oddly enough, anytime I attempted to use the military method, the act of focusing on anything other than another reality show or nasal swab perked me up enough that I started puttering around my apartment.
A big part of the problem, behavioral sleep therapist Annie Miller told me, was that I was using a sleep strategy tailored for individuals who were physically active for long hours, outdoors, when I was mostly drinking tea and watching “Love is Blind.” Of course it wasn’t going to work.
The bigger issue is that I was expecting to sleep, despite not really doing anything to induce tiredness. “Having an expectation that you can fall asleep this quickly is unrealistic and puts stress and pressure on the process, which can lead to more stress and frustration, and thus more trouble sleeping,” Miller explained. So not only was I sick and tired, I sure was frustrated too.
Week Four: And In Health
Thanks to vaccines and boosters, I was feeling better and testing negative by the following week, and clear-headed enough to admit where I went wrong. The big takeaway from week three was that if you don’t have the day structure, physical activity, and fresh air and sunlight that a soldier is exposed to, the military method can feel a lot like beating your head against a wall.
The less I obsessed over the military method and attended to my own life, the more effective this strategy was.
At the same time, if you maintain the same kind of structured schedule someone in the military has, you’re probably not going to have a hard time sleeping, regardless of what strategy you use. For this reason, a lot of people who serve in the military may be unaware of the military method for sleep. Their strategy may be more in line with the book “Go the F**k to Sleep.”
“Most soldiers would laugh at the idea that anyone needs a method for falling asleep,” Ford said. “A soldier would argue the true Army method for sleep is getting up before dawn, humping a pack all day, digging a shellscrape to sleep in, and then lying down to sleep just before midnight.”
Clearly, I was in over my head, but tried to reinstate many of the healthy sleep hygiene practices I started week two, while making an effort to increase my time spent outdoors — mostly in the form of longer walks with my overweight lab-dachshund mix. Having to catch up on work from being sick, any limits I placed on caffeine intake were scrapped early on in the week, and I allowed myself to indulge in 30-minute naps when tired.
I did not exercise everyday, but managed to make it to hot yoga three times throughout the week. Between this, and getting back to my social life, the fourth leg of the experiment felt the most chaotic, but the process of the military method itself became more automatic. Expecting to reach diminishing returns due to a lack of focus and discipline (not very soldier-like), the opposite was true. The less I obsessed over the military method and attended to my own life, the more effective this strategy was.
Week Five: Progress
Finally healthy and relatively rested, I went out of town to Austin, where I was faced with a dilemma every insomniac dreads: visiting a family member who insists you stay in their guest room when you know you have sleep issues that necessitate a hotel. I accepted my cousin’s generous offer to crash, but the military method was no match for sleeping on an air mattress in my mid-thirties.
By day three, I broke down and confessed that I needed to get an AirBnb, just to get a good night’s rest, and my cousin understood. After all the travel and multiple nights of sleep deprivation, I slid into some gently used sheets and embraced the military method like never before. I’m pretty sure it worked within two minutes, maybe even less.
Between that night of recovery sleep, and the naps in the Texas sunlight and on the plane home, I felt like I had gotten the closest to using the military method the way it was intended — to sleep whenever possible, for however long you can, because it’s an emergency. And honestly, I might have gotten sick again as a consequence of sleep deprivation (and a subsequently weakened immune system) if it weren’t for this strategy. I was finally optimistic about the military method of sleep, but far from militant about it.
Week Six: Letting Go
When I returned home, I was faced with the dilemma: If I caught up on rest, it was clear the military method would be less effective. That is why “the military method of falling asleep is never an optimal method,” Brager emphasizes. “It is the direct result of the body and the brain being in a state of chronic sleep deprivation.”
Of course, most parents of young children don’t have the option of catching up on sleep. But even then, incorporating healthier habits into your bedtime routine — like deep breathing, turning off electronic devices, and relaxing with mindful meditation — is a more sustainable way to approach sleep, Brager adds. And unlike the military method, these strategies “should be introduced with the intention of improving an individual’s overall sleep hygiene, not used as a quick fix for sleep deprivation.”
For the integrity of the experiment, I tried relaxing my body and repeating the words “don’t think” each night. And after the final seven days, I was happy I tried it, and that much happier to let it go.
The Final Verdict
The military method isn’t a miracle cure or a quick fix, and it is absolutely not 96% effective after three weeks. “That's clearly a made up number,” Ford says.
And whether you’re a stressed out parent or an anxiety-riddled writer, remember that “getting through a sleep problem isn't just about relaxing,” he added. Despite some success I had with the military sleep method, a large portion of my experiment was spent wide awake, yet relaxed. And relaxing is great, but not when you’re desperately in need of REM.
In the end, the military method for sleep is a lot like taking synthetic melatonin — something that can be helpful every once in a while, but if you’re using it too much, you’re asking for trouble. Nevertheless, it is a tactic that I will use again, and something sleep-deprived parents might want to keep in their pajama pockets, just in case.