For anybody who’s ever spent an hour in bed staring at the ceiling, the notion that one can start punching Zs in under two minutes may seem laughable.
Lying there wondering what plasticine is made out of—and also what’s the word for that bit of plastic at the end of a shoelace—and also what’s Newman from Seinfeld up to these days—you get the idea—is a nightly affair for some. And even if you’re generally a pretty good sleeper, the occasional restless night is all it can take to ruin your day.
And we’ve all been there at some point; whether it’s caused by one too many coffees after 3pm, or pre-presentation jitters the night before a big meeting, getting to sleep can be a real bitch.
How elite soldiers sleep
What you might find surprising is exactly what gets affected by a bad night in bed. You might be inclined to think that short-term memory is one of the first casualties of bad sleep, but it’s actually far more detrimental to high-level reasoning and verbal abilities.
That means your ability to make decisions and communicate, which are both pretty important skills to maintain. Especially if you’re, say, a fighter pilot in World War II.
This is how the story of today’s SAS soldiers, who are alleged to be able to fall asleep within two minutes, started.
During WWII, track and field coaching royalty Lloyd “Bud” Winter was brought in by the US Navy to help teach their pilots how to fall asleep more effectively. It had been observed that their decision making abilities—you know, the ones that can mean the difference between losing an entire aircraft full of men, or shooting down a plane from your own side—were significantly impaired during periods where regular sleep was untenable.
Winter authored the book Relax and Win - Championship Performance in Whatever You Do, which touted the merits of relaxation when training Olympic champions.
It was in this book that Winter’s method for falling asleep in under 120 seconds was first documented. And though it may sound like a bold claim—that this skill can easily be learnt— 96 per cent of pilots who gave it a go could fall asleep in under two minutes, and after just six weeks of practice.
Even in combat areas with gunfire, loud noises, daylight, and uncomfortable quarters, the absolute majority of personnel who practiced this method nailed it.
So, how does it work you ask? The method has four basic components that, when followed, should make you feel like a lump of clay. The first is to…
Or at least as comfortable as possible.
This means somewhere you can ideally lie (like a bed) but could also be your car or office chair—remember, this is designed for people who have to find a “comfortable” place in battle zones, so anywhere you can slump is probably good enough.
Relax your face
This is said to be the most important ingredient to this theory’s success. There are 43 muscles in the human face, and when you can relax them all, your brain is sent an important message that it’s okay to sleep.
When you relax your face, it’s important to try and identify each muscle as you feel them relax. Your mouth, forehead, cheeks, jaw and tongue are all a part of this equation, so be aware of each one as you make them all go limp.
This goes for your eyes, too, which have six muscles in each.
Much the same as what you just did for your face, but for your whole body. Start with your shoulders by slowly dropping the left and then the right one. Then let all of the tension fall from your neck. The top of your spine should feel like it’s pulling towards the ground.
Then move to your arms. Starting with your dominant hand, release all of the tension in your forearm and bicep, and let your hand flop. Then move on and do the same for your other arm.
Now move down through your torso and onto your legs. Focus on one leg and relax your buttocks and thigh. Then relax your leg at your knee, and feel your calves going soft, then down to your feet. Do the same with your other leg.
Your whole body would feel like jelly and when it does you’ll be ready to...
Clear you head
“Righto, easier said than done,” you’re probably thinking. If so, you’re probably not entirely wrong, but Winter provided an exact method for this in his book, which is quoted as being a very effective procedural thought process for switching off and going to noddyland.
To quote Winter from his own tome:
“First, we want you to fantasise that it is a warm spring day and you are lying in the bottom of a canoe on a very serene lake. You are looking up at a blue sky with lazy, floating clouds. Do not allow any other thought to creep in.
“Just concentrate on this picture and keep foreign thoughts out, particularly thoughts with any movement or motion involved. Hold this picture and enjoy it for 10 seconds.
“In the second sleep-producing fantasy, imagine that you are in a big, black, velvet hammock and everywhere you look is black. You must also hold this picture for 10 seconds.
“The third trick is to say the words ‘don't think ... don't think ... don't think,’ etc. Hold this, blanking out other thoughts for at least 10 seconds.
“And that's it. When you have a fully relaxed body and a mind that's still for 10-plus seconds, you will fall asleep, period.”
And (apparently) that is it. And apparently, it really works, too.
The truth is, a bad night’s sleep is never a fun time, and occasionally it’s just part of life. But if you’re struggling to get a decent night’s shut-eye on the reg, think you might need some help, and have tried to fall asleep like an SAS trooper to no avail, it might be worth talking to a doctor about it.
Like air, water, and food, sleep is absolutely necessary to normal human function, yet it’s the one we’re most willing to sacrifice—often at great personal cost.
By being aware of what a good night’s sleep really feels like, and making sure you’re getting more of them that you’re not, you’re giving your body a massive boost in just about every department.
Not to mention that life with more energy is just plainly better.
And though sleep may still be one of the most misunderstood sciences going, we are certain of one thing: the right amount of sleep each night (or, at least, most nights) is more beneficial to your health overall than simply how tired you feel.
If you really need that extra bit of help. We may just have what you need.
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Amelia Hanigan