I’m a notoriously bad sleeper who tried Sleep by Headspace for a month to stop waking up in the middle of the night – here’s how it went

Purple background with shell Headspace
The app. Headspace
  • Freelance writer Zoe Rosenberg has struggled with getting a good night’s sleep for years.
  • She decided to download Sleep by Headspace, which costs $69.99 a year.
  • She liked the wind-down and mid-night exercises, which helped her get to sleep after waking up.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I don’t remember when it started, but somewhere along the way, I became bad at sleeping. This was way before the pandemic made sleep practically impossible.

I would wake up after one or two hours, mind gripped by anxiety or, lately, simply replaying the lyrics to ‘Folklore.’ Unable to quiet my thoughts, I’d stay up and eventually succumb to the warm glow of my phone before falling back to sleep when many people started their day.

More than once, my early-rising partner and I passed like ships in a sea of consciousness – he getting ready to begin his day as I tried to will myself off to dreamland once more.

The thing about sleep is that being bad at it isn’t really an option. It affects your mood, your ability to function normally, your productivity, and your will.

In short, when you’re not sleeping well, you’re not doing much well.

And with the demands that American society places on the individual, prizing productivity over rest – among many other factors that cause stress and anxiety – getting a good night’s sleep is becoming harder and harder.

The rise of the sleep industry reflects this trend. A report by market data site Statistia says that the global sleep economy was valued at $432 billion in 2019 and is forecasted to be worth $585 billion by 2024.

I’ve tried sleep masks and ear plugs, hypnotherapy, natural supplements, and stretching before bed. While all have their merits, none was ever a golden ticket to the land of Nod.

Which is why I finally gave Headspace a shot. At $69.99 for the year, I rationed that my increased productivity as a freelancer would quickly make up for the app’s cost.

At that cost, I got full access to all of Headspace’s guided meditations and mindfulness techniques to help build a daily practice. The brand also offers a free version of its basic meditations, but it’s far less extensive than the paid version.

The Headspace app
All of the options on . Headspace

The mindfulness and meditation app is a spinoff from a live-event company of the same mission developed by Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson in 2010.

A Series A funding round in September 2015 pulled in $34 million, with celebrity angel investors including the likes of Jessica Alba, Cash Warren, Jared Leto, Ryan Seacrest, and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.

In 2018, Sleep by Headspace debuted with guided meditations, sleepcasts, ambient and nature sounds, and breathing exercises to help lull users into a deep state of rest. More than 70 million people in 190 countries now use the app to improve their sleep, health, and happiness.

I tried it out every day for a month.

When you open the Sleep tab on the app, the program’s sunny-white and orange layout takes on soothing black, blue, and purple hues.

Sleep is a choose-your-own-adventure series, with meditations to wind down the mind, one-off stories to soothe you into rest, guided-breathing techniques to enhance relaxation, and ambient noise and nature sounds to drown out thoughts (or a snoring partner).

I had particularly good luck lulling to sleep with wind downs.

These are short three- to 10-minute meditation and breathing exercises that help prepare the mind for rest. Wind downs include deep-breathing exercises and noting, a technique where you gently acknowledge the mind has wandered off while meditating.

Headspace wind down screen
The ‘Falling Back to Sleep’ wind down. Headspace

There are seven wind downs on Sleep’s main menu. I wish there were more.

The stories, called sleepcasts, run 45 minutes long with ambient background sounds that are meant to send the user off to sleep. The option to toggle between making the narrator louder or ambient noise louder may be helpful to some.

On most nights, I listened to a sleepcast, such as “Rainday Antiques,” a walk through a small antique store as rain patters on the roof, or “Botanical Building,” a stroll through a botanical garden.

Some tracks I found distracting, like “Cabin Porch,” which featured bird sounds that my mind equates more with waking up. With most sleepcasts, though, I’d nod off before the end of the track. But that didn’t mean I’d always stay asleep.

For the mid-night wakers like myself, Sleep by Headspace features a nighttime SOS section.

This includes pointed meditations for recovering from a nightmare, dissolving work stress, calming mental chatter, reframing physical pain, and slowing down a racing mind.

One method it uses is breathing techniques: breathe in four seconds, hold four seconds, release six seconds. The breathwork is something I’ve come to integrate into my normal bedtime routine, and I find myself dozing off before five minutes have passed.

The meditation for a racing mind tries to divert the mind from sleep-interrupting thoughts by featuring a calming activity, like counting backward. The idea behind counting backward is to give the busy mind something to do, but not so much that it still feels busy, as the Sleep by Headspace narrator says.

More often than not, this was an effective tactic for me. If I woke up again, I’d do the meditation once more to lull myself back to sleep.

I used this section the most in my one-month trial of the app, and over the course of the month grew frustrated that there weren’t more meditations on offer.

The caveat at the heart of Sleep by Headspace is that it requires most users to look at their phone moments before bed.

The blue light emitted by cell phones is a major contributor to sleep disruption, according to Harvard Health Publishing, and suppresses the secretion of sleep-inducing melatonin.

The general recommendation is to not look at phones for the two to three hours leading up to sleep. While briefly glancing at a cell phone in order to play an item from Sleep for Headspace likely won’t ruin a night of sleep, it invites into the bedroom the temptation to continue scrolling.

One way to skirt this issue is using Headspace through smart speakers like Alexa and Google Assistant.

Headspace didn’t solve my sleep issues, but it did help me get more Z’s and reframe my thoughts going into sleep.

Instead of saying I’m bad at sleep, I now think of myself as getting better at it. That simple rephrasing takes some of the stress out of it and helps me drift off a bit easier.

And as many of Headspace’s millions of users can probably attest, the way we frame things in our mind – whether through counting exercises that calm our thoughts or tweaking the way we think about our sleep habits – is our most powerful tool of all.