“Wake therapy” is a term for going without sleep as a way to help with depression. As odd as it sounds, doing an all-nighter and completely messing up your circadian rhythms to help with your mood is actually supported by research—check out my post about some of the studies.
What this research is finding is pretty exciting for depression. Anti-depressant medications can take weeks to kick in, so aren’t very helpful for someone in a severe, dangerous depressive episode. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been found to help in these kinds of cases, but even that can take several sessions, can be expensive, and can have some unpleasant side effects, especially memory loss.
I have to say, I got kind of excited when I found out about wake therapy: It’s free and accessible, first of all. It is non-invasive—doesn’t require any kind of medication or medical procedure, or even a prescription. It sounded like the perfect treatment for depression.
So I decided to try it out. Here’s what happened.
First, I just want to be clear that I’m not a medical provider and I’m not giving you medical advice here. Also, when I was reading about wake therapy, I did see a warning that it should be done under the supervision of a doctor. So, officially, that will be my stance on it.
Non-officially, though, I figured I could try it out on my own.
So this was the plan. I would follow a sleep schedule used in a British program for wake therapy (though there isn’t one single schedule for wake therapy, and different studies have used different ones). The schedule consists of an all-nighter, followed by different bedtimes each night for a few days–this is because the positive effect on mood of the all-nighter tends to wear off quickly, so this weird schedule is supposed to help extend it. This plan includes using bright light therapy with a light box (like what’s used for seasonal affective disorder) when I first wake up.
My biggest hesitation with trying this out was that it looked really inconvenient. I was also worried that I simply wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with the varied schedule. (I found out both of those worries were very valid—just keep reading.) At the beginning of June, though, I knew I wouldn’t have a lot going on for the weekend, so I decided it would be the moment to try this.
Day 0: Saturday
It was not a very exciting Saturday. My husband Chad had just gotten home from two business trips in the same week, and we kind of just hung around the house. Though he wasn’t up for it, I decided to go on a hike that afternoon, which was awesome, and I met some friends after. We hung out until around 11. I headed home, and I did not go to sleep.
I’ve done some all-nighters in the past, especially in the last year or so now that I’m back in school full-time. These have followed a pretty predictable pattern: I stay up studying, being able to pay less and less attention as the night goes on. Recently, I’ve figured out I concentrate better and feel better if I get in two or three of hours of sleep, say 4:00 AM to 7:00 AM—I guess then lately they haven’t been doing true all-nighters, but I feel like they’re still comparable. In the morning, I shower and head out the door. I always end up crying at some point during my drive to campus, usually overcome by emotion from a song I’m listening to or some news story. I feel numb and slow-witted as I take my test and drive back home, which is about when I transition from numbness to being cheerily fatalistic. I make a lot of jokes to my husband, but then end up yelling at him at some point before I go to bed at my usual time for an amazing night of deep sleep. It’s not horrible, though it does make me exaggeratedly emotional. They are relatively productive times, though, and I was hoping this all-nighter in the name of wake therapy would mean getting tons of stuff done.
I did not.
Instead, I felt like doing nothing, which often happens with depression. And without the pressure of an impending exam, I did nothing. Well, except watching episode after episode of The Office, along with a little bit of reading of the book Real Queer America, (which I’ll post about some day).
Day 1: Sunday
Around 5:45 I was surprised to realize it was getting light outside, and I put on a coat and wandered around our neighborhood for about an hour, and was delighted to see a chicken crossing the road:
When I got home, I grabbed a bite to eat and a caffeinated beverage, after which I wrote some notes about the experience so far. I’ll quote:
I feel so crappy.
I am really tired. I thought this would be really productive time, but first I didn’t feel like doing anything. Now my brain just isn’t working well enough to do stuff like studying for microbiology. I feel really nauseous now, too. Overall, this has been pretty crappy and unpleasant. I’m not supposed to sleep until 5 PM. Ug, this is not fun.
It wasn’t just that I was in the numb stage at that point. I felt sick to my stomach and exhausted, as well as totally incapable of doing anything useful, what with both body and mind feeling “off.” It also looked at that point like I wasn’t going to be able to do anything useful with the entire weekend. I felt like I’d need to count down the time to 5 PM when I could sleep, and then to get through the other days of odd sleep schedules. What I was not feeling was happy.
Chad woke up and wanted me to come along for some errands, and even though I didn’t want to at the time, I was glad I did. I realized as the day went on that even though I felt pretty terrible, it was less terrible when I was up and doing stuff than when I was laying on the couch not sleeping.
We did a few things together during the day, and that afternoon we ended up taking a drive up the canyon, which eventually turned into a bit of a hike. It was gorgeous.
This afternoon was probably the only time during the experiment that I felt good mood-wise. Physically I didn’t ever feel that great, but I felt genuinely happy as we enjoyed the mountains and grabbed a bite to eat on our way home. Was this because of the sleep deprivation? I don’t know.
We got home a little past my 5:00 bedtime. I finally climbed in at 6:45 and did not have trouble falling asleep.
Day 2: Monday
I also overslept my wakeup time. I was supposed to sleep 5:00 PM to 1:00 AM. Instead, I went to bed at 6:45 and got up at 4:30—more than the eight hours I was supposed to sleep. I had set my alarm for earlier, but even with some extra time sleeping, I still felt so tired getting up. I really wanted to sleep more. In my notes for the day, I wrote again “this sucks.”
I showered, and used a light therapy lamp as I got ready for the day. I spent the day studying—full-time student, remember. Like I had enjoyed my 6 AM walk Sunday, I enjoyed the beautiful, quiet early morning and spent time studying outside sitting on our porch. I enjoyed watching the neighborhood wake up and the sun rise.
Besides that, though, I felt tired and just generally “off” for the whole day. I still didn’t feel great physically. I was pretty unmotivated and didn’t get everything done that I hoped (though that’s not abnormal for me). I wasn’t snacky like I often am, so that was a plus. I didn’t feel super depressed, but I didn’t feel happy, either. And just tired. Always tired.
I was late for my bedtime again: I finally closed my eyes at 9:00. And then…I couldn’t sleep. I had been afraid of this. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. In elementary school, I would make up stories to tell myself while I lie in bed waiting to fall asleep. I finally have medication that helps, but doesn’t cure the problem—keeping a regular sleep schedule also helps, and that was way off. I’m not totally sure when I finally did fall asleep, but I know I looked at my phone at 10:30.
Day 3: Tuesday
On Tuesday, I got up at 5:30, and went through the same morning routine, including the light therapy lamp again. It was a peaceful and beautiful morning again. Besides that, all I wrote down about the day was, “Tired again today. Unmotivated.” By the end of the day, I was ready to be done, and went to bed at my normal time of a little before midnight rather than trying to do a weird schedule for another day.
I was really excited for this to work. I’ve gone to some extremes to try to treat my depression, and the thought of a treatment that didn’t include medications, doctors, hospitals, or money sounded awesome to me.
But…this didn’t work for me.
I do think there was a mood boost the initial day. However, trying to keep the schedule didn’t carry that mood boost on like it was supposed to. Overall, the negative effects kind of outweighed the positive.
One of those negatives was how I found the whole thing disruptive to daily life—which wasn’t really a surprise as much as a confirmation. What was a surprise was how awful physically I felt through the whole thing, how foggy it made my brain, and how difficult it was to focus and be productive.
Since this experience, I did another almost-all-nighter for school, with a couple hours of restless, early-morning sleep, this time paying more attention to my mood. That evening, my husband and I actually had some pretty good conversation. I was feeling more cheerful than I had been feeling the previous few days. I was also more open and frank than usual, and found myself bringing up all sorts of deep questions for us to talk about.
So is there a mood benefit that can come from a lack of sleep?
At least speaking for myself, yes, I think there is. But how I feel pretty terrible physically and feel like I can’t think—I think those are factors that overshadow a little mood boost. Overall, I find it to be a pretty unpleasant experience.
Still, there is research that says this has helped others. I’m not a healthcare provider, and of course treatment decisions should be made in conjunction with your doctor. That being said, wake therapy might just be worth trying if you’re having mood difficulties.