How Adam released himself from the prison cell he had built to protect him from insomnia (#40)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Adam’s insomnia began the night before an important work presentation. After a really difficult night, Adam ended up calling in sick — and this planted a seed in his mind that told him that difficult nights would mean he couldn’t go through with important plans.

Safety behaviors such as canceling plans or avoiding activities in order to protect his sleep helped Adam feel a bit better in the short-term but over the long-term they were preventing him from living the kind of life he wanted to live.

In other words, his comfort zone became more like a prison.

In this episode, Adam shares how he learned to let go of his anxiety, his anger, his fear, and his intense desire to avoid nighttime wakefulness. He also talks about the benefits of self-kindness and how he managed to separate how he slept at night from his ability to engage in things that would help him live the kind of life he wanted to live and be the kind of person he wanted to be.

Today, Adam has released himself from that prison cell. He is living his life and sleeping a lot better!

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

Martin Reed:
Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that nobody needs to live with chronic insomnia and that evidence-based cognitive and behavioral techniques can help you enjoy better sleep for the rest of your life.

Martin Reed:
The content of this podcast is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, disorder, or medical condition. It should never replace any advice given to you by your physician or any other licensed healthcare provider. Insomnia Coach LLC offers coaching services only and does not provide therapy, counseling, medical advice, or medical treatment. The statements and opinions expressed by guests are their own and are not necessarily endorsed by Insomnia Coach LLC. All content is provided “as is” and without warranties, either express or implied.

Martin Reed:
Hi, Adam, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Adam Currie:
Thank you for having me.

Martin Reed:
It’s great to have you on. Let’s start right at the beginning like I do with every single guest. Can you tell us a little bit about when your sleep problems first began and what you think triggered that initial sleep disruption?

Adam Currie:
Sure. Yeah, so I probably first experienced real problems with my sleep I would say about probably two, two and a half years ago. I think the trigger was I had an event where I had to present to some quite important people at work and the night before I found myself thinking about what I needed to do the next day. And I thought I’ve got an early start tomorrow and I need to be up at 5:00 AM and I’ve got the train to catch and I’ve got a taxi and I’ve got all these big things to do. And what if it goes wrong tomorrow? And I just had this kind of snowball of really quite intense negative thoughts about what would happen the day after. And I had a very difficult night. I actually had no sleep at all to the point where I actually unfortunately called in sick the next day.

Adam Currie:
And I felt that I couldn’t go through what I needed to go through. And that unfortunately, was then imprinted in my mind. So every time I had something like that that cropped up again in the future, I then felt the same anxiety and I was worried about whether I would sleep or not. And it was almost like the trauma of having a completely sleepless night. It had never happened to me before. And so it really made me stand up and get quite concerned, which looking back was obviously making things a lot worse for me. So yeah, probably about two years ago.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So did you find the sleep got right back on track after once the event that seemed to have triggered that sleep disruption was over? Whether you went to it or not, did you find that your sleep then got back on track afterwards or did those sleep issues kind of linger for a bit?

Adam Currie:
They lingered for a little bit for a day or two, they did get back on track. But what I found is that the longer I had problems with sleep or rather not the longer, the longer I was not addressing the problems that I was having with sleep, the longer the impact would be and the longer it would take me to recover. So I would quite often find that one night may actually then develop into a succession of poor nights. So maybe a chain of two or three nights. Initially it did get a little bit better, but then it got worse again over time, but it always corrects itself eventually. But how quickly it corrects itself is obviously dependent on the tools that you have and how you respond to it. And my toolkit early on was just not really up to the job.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So apart from the nights where you got no sleep whatsoever, when those difficult nights were lingering around, what were they like? Was it difficulty just first falling asleep or was it more to do with waking during the night and then finding it hard to fall back to sleep, or maybe it was a combination of both of those things?

Adam Currie:
Yeah, it was, I mean initially, and I think still predominantly the issues I have with falling to sleep, in my mind I’m just ruminating and ruminating and how that feels and how that kind of represents itself for me is lots of toting and turning, flustered, throwing the covers around. And I would be acutely aware that I wasn’t entering the first stages of sleep and then I would get frustrated and that would lead to more tossing and turning, clock watching, chronic clock watching to the point where I had to start removing the clocks in the room because I was obsessing over the time and I’d be like, well, now it’s midnight and that means I’ve only got five hours sleep and now it’s 1:00 and I’ve only got four and so on. So that’s how it manifested itself.

Adam Currie:
Very, very uncomfortable nights that would just snowball with anxiety. And I would end up by five or six in the morning just so anxious and actually sometimes quite frustrated as well. Frustrated that I wasn’t able to do something that I’d naturally done for the last 30 years of my life without even thinking about. And now all of a sudden it’s this big performance and it’s an act and I was just stuck. That’s probably the best way to describe it. I just frozen with an inability to sleep that was just fueled by anxiety and it would get worse every time.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I think a lot of people are going to really identify with the effects of insomnia on the nights. You know, obviously there’s not much sleep going on, but it’s also just that whole struggle with the anxiety and that can manifest itself in the clock watching and this frustration, because we feel like we should be able to control this. Why can’t I make sleep happen? It’s something that I used to be able to do okay. I used to be able to sleep pretty well. Why is this not happening now? And so it all just kind of feeds into itself. So it’s not really the only struggle now is being awake at night, which is definitely a big part of it, but it’s also everything that comes with that. Right? It’s all those thoughts and those feelings and those emotions that come with it during the night.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And I completely underestimated how difficult it might be for me. It’s really funny because when I was a child, I used to play this game and I’m sure people who are listening may have played the game themselves where you try to stay awake for as long as you can and the whole goal and the aim of the game is can I stay awake all night? And I always remember failing hopelessly by about maybe 1:00 or 2:00 AM because the whole objective would stay awake. And then looking back on that now when the objective is go to sleep, it kind of has the opposite effect and I suppose I was aware of that subconsciously, but I was so fixated and focused on the idea of a perfect night’s sleep before I needed to be up early and now it’s okay to say I was failing miserably in sleeping because I was just placing such an emphasis on the ability to fall asleep. And I was lost, completely lost.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. You know, I think that what goes on during the nights is probably only about 50% of the struggle with chronic insomnia because we deal with all these struggles during the day as well, whether that’s just how we feel during the day or all the stuff that our mind wants to tell us during the day like, oh, you can’t do this because you had a difficult night or you should cancel those plans with friends, what’s tonight going to bring? So we are having insomnia. That’s not just a nighttime problem, it’s a daytime problem as well. So I’m curious to your thoughts on whether that was true for you too and what kind of effect insomnia was having on your daytime life as well?

Adam Currie:
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it definitely was having an effect on me. I feel like it wasn’t having as much of an effect on me as I was trying to lead myself to believe it was because my whole reference and frame of thought when I was really, really tired was often making things worse than they actually were. Physically, I would feel exhausted, I would feel drained.I would actually struggle to concentrate and I would feel hot and bothered quite often. And I would just want to find a soft cool nice quiet place where I could just sit down and I often used to commute via a rail. So I would have a two hour journey back home and I would find myself on the train so tired that I was falling to sleep.

Adam Currie:
And then obviously the worry then was, what if I don’t wake up? What if I actually fall asleep on the train and I missed my stop and I don’t get where I need to be? So no, the effects were quite negative in the day. But since having done several sleepless nights and actually done something quite successfully with little to no sleep, but with a completely different frame of mind, that was what really made me compare and contrast to how things used to be. And I think it’s mostly psychological about how if you think you’re going to fail the next day, if you tell yourself, if you positively reinforce the fact that you’re going to struggle, you tend to struggle. If you allow yourself to separate the night from the day ahead and you put the night behind you and you just move forward, there is very little difference in performance.

Adam Currie:
You know you’re tired, you know you feel worn down and certainly exhausted, but if you can frame it in such a way that you can catch up the next night or eventually at some point you will regain the sleep you lost, it makes things much easier. So I found that, yes, it affected me in the day, however, over time, I’m doing a better job of separating the previous night from the next day, whereas before they were inherently linked so I was setting myself up for failure from the moment I went to bed until the very next night.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So looking back on your experience before you found Insomnia Coach before you found the resources that I offer and these podcasts, et cetera, what kind of things had you done to try and turn this around? Because whenever we’re faced with a problem, we want to fix it. What kind of things had you personally tried that looking back on it now, maybe they weren’t that helpful. Maybe they could have even been perpetuating the problem?

Adam Currie:
All of the wrong things. I did all the wrong things, all around control of sleep. So I tried peppermint oil. I tried a glass of warm milk before bed. I tried waking up at 3:30 or 4:00 AM the day before thinking that I would build up an obsolete sleep drive so I’d fall asleep easy the next night, it didn’t work. I was listening to certain sound wave frequencies in the belief that they promote relaxation and sleep. I would listen to hypnotherapy guided talk downs. I would listen to old classical music and old time radio because for some reason there’s something I felt in time was comforting about that. So I would listen to that. I would eat bananas because I’d read about high potassium content and promote sleep and reduce certain chemicals or promote certain chemicals for sleep. I’d take a hot bath, a hot shower.

Adam Currie:
I would watch a film, read a whole book cover to cover from say five in the afternoon until midnight. And I hope that would also promote sleepiness and I would be lying if I said any of them worked, they may have worked in isolation, although I probably think they’ll probably just coincidental. None of them had a lasting impact, otherwise, we wouldn’t be having the conversation now. So yeah, all in vain, the efforts were all in vain, but yeah, I tried so many things and that was what made it more difficult. And I think probably people listening to this, it will probably resonate with them is that the more you try and the more things you go through, the more you then start to think, okay, this is a real problem now and this is getting out of control and I’m not normal and this isn’t right, and maybe something’s really wrong with me.

Adam Currie:
And you limit yourself for options of how you might promote sleep. So the net closes in on you a little bit. And that obviously makes things 10 times as bad as they ever would’ve been in that frame of mind.

Martin Reed:
The reason I asked that question about all these things we’ve tried is definitely not to gloat or make us feel bad or to ridicule the things we do. Although on reflection, some of them can be quite amusing when we’re at that place where we can look back and think about some of the things we tried, but really it’s just to legitimize the fact that when we have a problem, we are understandably going to try and fix it. And this leads us down this path of trying all different experiments, different rituals. In other areas of life efforts can be really helpful, but with sleep, it’s just that exception to the rule the more we try just as you touched upon you took the words out of my mouth, the more we try, the more difficult it becomes.

Martin Reed:
So I always like to ask this question just because anyone listening can recognize that other people are in the same boat as you. They’ve been there, they’ve tried all these different things. So the fact that you are not necessarily find them helpful too is perhaps understandable and normal. It’s not a sign that your insomnia is unique or you can’t put that insomnia behind you, because at the end of the day, all these things that we usually try, they don’t really get to the root cause of what keeps insomnia alive, which is really our behaviors around sleep and how we allow sleep to influence our behaviors and our relationship with all those difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions that always come along for the ride when we’re struggling with anything. But especially when we’re struggling with chronic insomnia.

Adam Currie:
Definitely. And I think as humans, we tend to self stigmatize and we tend to believe that we are failing in our ability to do things and somebody else drinks peppermint tea before bed and they swear by it and they fall asleep, whereas, I can’t do that. And it can bring some other unwanted baggage with it in terms of your overall wellbeing. And I found that I was questioning my ability just to do normal things and I was questioning my ability to hold back automatic thoughts. It got to the point where I just doubted my ability to be able to wake up on a morning and say I will be able to sleep tonight because that in itself would trigger a series of competing thoughts and competing feelings about sleep.

Adam Currie:
And I started to develop those really negative thought habits and processes around sleep. And it’s not just isolated to sleep, I found that I would start to doubt my ability to do other things because I started to treat sleep as a performance. It was as an act, it was the start of a race I needed to be out the blocks just at the right time, not too early, not too late. And as soon as I put that kind of pressure on it definitely does affect and impact other areas of your wellbeing definitely.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And those thoughts and those feelings, they’re not good to experience, right? Nobody likes to experience them so that natural human inclinations to try and suppress them to try and fight them, to avoid them, maybe distract ourselves, to think positive, all those attempts to control how we’re thinking and how we’re feeling, ultimately, they’re doomed to backfire at some point because we just can’t control how we feel. You know, sometimes the brain will generate thoughts and feelings that makes us feel good. Sometimes it’ll generate thoughts and feelings that don’t make us feel good. It’s when we get trapped in that struggle trying to control them, which is completely understandable because they don’t feel good that we tend to get the most trapped. I like to think of it as that the brain dangles this hook with these difficult thoughts and these feelings, it can hook us and jerk us around and throw us down this path where we end up doing things that move us away from the kind of life we live rather than toward the kind of life we want to live.

Adam Currie:
Such a good analogy, yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Then we’re stuck with the insomnia. We’re still stuck with the difficult thoughts and the feelings, but then we’re also stuck with moving away from the kind of life we want live, which just compounds our struggle. So I’m curious, how were you able to change your relationship with all those thoughts and those emotions like the stress, the worry and the anxiety?

Adam Currie:
Well, it’s a good question and I’m still working it out. I’m still perfecting that, but I’ve definitely improved and I’ve definitely solved most of the problems, but I suppose the best way to phrase it is just letting go, letting go of the anxiety, letting go of the anger and frustration of being unable to sleep, letting go of the fear that would wrap around you for the rest of the day about your inability to perform. Letting go of the fear of what other people might think about you and how you live your life and or how you perform or how you do certain tasks the day after. I really think that was the most liberating thing. But propping that thought process up for me was, and this was something that I was drawn to so strongly in your emails and your support was identifying that not falling to sleep for an evening or maybe for a few hours is not the end of the world.

Adam Currie:
You can still perform, you can still live a normal life. You should live a normal life irrespective of what happens in your place of sleep the night before. And so I think it was breaking the chain between what happened in bed the night before and what I then did the next day. That was really really key to me solving most of the problem. And the truth is I still do have bad nights even fairly recently, just a couple of weeks ago, I went to Venice and the first night struggled because I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was getting a flight early, but rather than worry and panic and say, will I miss my flight? What if I can’t drive to the airport?

Adam Currie:
You know, I was quite relaxed about it and I actually did get a couple of hours sleep in, but it was again just stopping yourself, stopping the cup from overflowing and just recognizing it is filling up and then separation and letting go of the water that’s pouring in and just step back from it and exercise and control, keep a containment on the thoughts and then allow the process to go on and know that at the right time and under the right conditions, your body will provide you with the state that it needs.

Adam Currie:
So it was absolutely breaking that thought process that was key because without that, I couldn’t then implement some of the other additional techniques that obviously you may talk about shortly, but that was critical for me was just breaking that chain and refusing to allow myself to continue to make the problem worse and recognize that I was making the problem worse by trying to assume control over a situation I have no control over.

Martin Reed:
So is that what you meant by letting go? It was just no longer just trying to fight or change all the stuff that’s going on in your mind, just recognizing that it’s happening, it’s going on, and then just shifting your attention on to what you can control, like your actions like going to Venice, for example?

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And actually not necessarily inviting difficult evenings, but expecting them sometimes. So I say, I know I’m going to probably struggle to sleep because I need to be up at 4:00 AM. I need to get to the airport for a 7:00 AM flight. I don’t normally go to sleep until 11:00 PM. I’m probably going to struggle. And even if I did fall asleep at 11:00, I’m still not going to get her for eight hours anyway. So why worry? You will find other opportunities the next evening or even after to regain that. So yeah, letting go of that was absolutely critical just allowing it to happen and releasing control over things that I’d artificially tried to control for the last two years.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Yeah. And I think looking back on your life in a hundred years from now, you’re probably going to be more likely to remember, for example, that trip to Venice than how you slept like the night before or how you slept while you were on that trip. Because although we can’t downplay this, insomnia, it doesn’t make us feel good. Everyone wants to get rid of it. But at the end of the day, it’s our actions that are the primary contributor to the kind of life we live. We could be the world’s greatest sleeper, but if we’re not engaged in actions that are aligned with our values, we’re not doing stuff that’s meaningful to us that gives our lives a sense of enrichment and joy, then we are not going to live the kind of life we want to live regardless of the insomnia.

Martin Reed:
So if we can turn that on its head and we don’t necessarily have to do huge things, we can take baby steps if that feels more appropriate if we’re really struggling. But if we can just ensure that we engage in something each day that’s aligned with our values and it just keeps us moving toward the kind of life we want to live, instead of allowing all those thoughts and feelings to jerk us around and push us away from the kind of life we want to live, it can be really, really helpful and really help separate us our thought processes and our feelings from our actions, because our actions are really key. That’s really what helps us live the kind of life you want to live.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. I 100% agree. And I found myself originally engaging in some really quite difficult avoidance behavior. If I thought that I was going to struggle or I did struggle the night before and I had an engagement somewhere, I’d say, oh, I’ll meet you guys late because I thought that I would then stay at home and catch up on some sleep. And I felt so traumatized from the night before I couldn’t sleep anyway. So not only was I missing out on, like you say, meaningful events in my life, whether it was socializing or doing things, but I was also fixated on my issues with sleep. And the truth is that when you refuse to engage those thoughts and you just draw a line under the evening and try not to think about it again, you haven’t got a point of reference for how you feel physically.

Adam Currie:
So you just go through your day and you do the things you want to do and then you treat the next night as a new one and it was like a paradigm shift for me mentally because I could not come out of that place, I could not uncouple those two things. And when you were speaking, it just reminded me of one evening I was struggling so bad and I think it was a couple of evenings after I found you and what you do. I remember watching a video. It was actually one of your earlier podcasts I think. And that on its own was enough to promote sleep for me just because I realized that I wasn’t alone, this doesn’t happen to just me and that on its own was enough to help me rationalize what was happening.

Adam Currie:
And the next morning I thought, what was it about the video that maybe fall asleep? Was it the video? Was it the people’s voices? And it was just the relief of knowing that this isn’t going to kill you and you are not unique and you are not alone, that was enough to give me the comfort to calm my thoughts down and promote sleep quite quickly. So yeah that on its own was giving me the ability to live a meaningful life. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone, whether I slept or not, didn’t matter. But as long as I knew that I wasn’t alone and hearing other people’s stories, I was like that’s me and that’s what I do, and that was a relief almost. It was a relief that there’s a possible way out of this and it isn’t unique to you.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And that’s why I love doing these podcast episodes. And I’m so grateful for guests like yourself coming on because it can be so powerful. I mean, it’s one thing for me to be here, just talking about in insomnia, but it’s such a different thing to have guests on talking about their own experience, talking about the transformation that they made, because it gives us hope, it gives us reassurance. And like you said, it helps us realize that our insomnia isn’t unique and as individuals, we’re definitely unique and our circumstances around it might be unique, but insomnia itself, it’s the same animal from person to person and the way it affects us is the same, and the way it doesn’t respond to certain things is the same. And that can be so encouraging to hear in people’s own words, because it helps us realize that if these people had the same problem as me and they were able to put it behind them, then there’s no reason why I can’t do the same. There’s always that light at the end of the tunnel.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And I’ve actually stopped referring to myself now as having insomnia. I believe that just that on its own, it’s not denial, it’s kind of an empowerment. I’m empowering myself not to identify as having a problem with sleep. I have problems with evenings sometimes. Sometimes I struggle to fall to sleep. I try not to identify as an insomniac or us having insomnia because I feel that labels me in such a way where I then expect things like that to happen more frequently. And the truth is they will happen for the rest of my life, probably they will continue to happen, but it’s how you respond to it and doesn’t it stop you from, or what does it stop you from doing now is a lot less now than it ever used to.

Adam Currie:
So I’m hopeful that I’ll just continue to break that separation and yeah, just keep discovering new techniques, but sticking to the core and core teachings, if you like, of your program. It was genuinely at the time I felt like it was a total relief, finding it, nothing had worked. And I know I’m probably saying the same things over and over again, but I keep going back to that point, just the realization of I found something that finally makes sense and that I could finally understand what’s going on and what the problem is and the triangle. And I just couldn’t understand it before. So yeah, it was genuinely life-changing. At the time I was in such a difficult place and it was genuinely life-changing at the time.

Adam Currie:
And I still regularly talk about that period of time where I found you and found what you do and found the techniques. And I often find myself trying to coach others who also have trouble sleeping. And it’s funny when you talk about problems with sleep, you start hearing everybody saying, well, I have trouble with sleep as well. And well, I can’t stay asleep and I start talking about these techniques that I couldn’t have dreamt of understanding, let alone talking about a few years ago.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Yeah. And I think it is helpful to move away from that label that, we give ourselves so many different labels. Right? And so when we’re struggling within insomnia, I have insomnia I’m an insomniac and yeah, but I mean, we are not trying to trick ourselves and say, no, the insomnia doesn’t exist and it’s all in my mind, but we are more than that. You know, there’s more to us than how we sleep. There’s more to us than what’s going on in our minds. They’re just a part of the whole package of the human experience but when we’re struggling with insomnia, it’s really easy to label ourselves with that and have this really difficult connotation with it. We can use it as justification for those away moves, like I can’t go into work now.

Martin Reed:
I can’t meet up with friends now, I can’t do this, this, this now because of the insomnia. So I think removing that label, that identity, it’s almost like a symptom of we are moving on from this now, we’re just going to expand open ourselves up to look around and to observe that maybe we are more than just the insomnia. Yeah, the insomnia’s there, but I’m also a parent, I’m also a working professional. I’m also a comedian with so much more, there’s much more to what makes us, us than just the insomnia. So it’s funny, you said that because a lot of people have mentioned that shifting and just dropping that label has been really helpful.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. And look, if anyone listening wants an example of how damaging it can be to hold onto those kind of labels. About 18 months ago, I was offered, what is my dream job. It was international travel. So I would’ve had to have flown to America three or four times, five times a year. I would’ve had to have flown to the far east China and Japan and south America. I would’ve been doing exceptionally interesting work with really, really talented people. I declined the offer of the job because I was worried that having to get up early and get on a plane and travel or going to a hotel would disrupt my sleep. So I actually decided to withdraw from an opportunity that would’ve been a dream job because I was limiting myself to that label.

Adam Currie:
So anyone listening who might be thinking about panning themselves in or giving themselves a life which isn’t as enriching as it could be because of a label like that, THAT sometimes it’s worthwhile to see how far that can sometimes impact you negatively. And I regret that massively and looking back, I understand why I rejected the job. But it was on floored grounds completely. And that’s just an example really of what you can miss out on if you allow yourself to be penned in and labeled like that, it’s not based on reality at all.

Martin Reed:
That’s really powerful to hear you say that. And like you touched upon, it’s completely understandable why we make those decisions when we’re really caught up in that struggle and we’re really tangled up in it and we have this really strong connection between what’s going on, like what we’re struggling with and how that is going to dictate our behaviors but it doesn’t have to. But I like how you refer to it as like this paradigm shift because often we have to hear it many times over. Because it’s one thing to hear that there’s more to us than our thoughts, for example, there’s more to us than how we feel, that our thoughts and our feelings don’t always have to dictate our behaviors, we can’t control sleep. We can’t control what’s going on in our mind, but we can always control our actions, things like that.

Martin Reed:
They sound good to hear and they can be reassuring or some people might just think this is ridiculous what you’re saying, but gradually, when you hear it a few different times maybe in other people’s words and other reason why it’s great to have guests like you on talking in your own words is it can slowly start to make a little bit of sense. And then if we can start taking those baby steps, we just start making some moves toward the kind of life we want to live even after difficult nights or even when we’re really struggling with our thoughts and our feelings, that can really help make that big shift occur. And that’s what I hear time and time again from clients that have gone through this big transformation, it’s that recognition that look, there are things in my life I can’t control.

Martin Reed:
Unfortunately, that means that there’s going to be struggle in my life, there’s going to be pain in my life, but at the same time, I still do have control over my actions. So even in the presence of that pain and that struggle, there are still some things I can do to bring some joy to my life, to bring some enrichment to my life and just keep me on that path of moving toward the kind of life I want to live, even in the presence of all that difficult stuff.

Adam Currie:
Definitely. And I think meaning is really important. And when I look back on the times I’ve struggled with sleep, it’s usually preceding an event that has some meaning in my life. And if I look back at all of the nights before, the next day where I’ve obviously been deprived of sleep, they have been some of the most meaningful days of my life. I’ve got married on days where I’ve struggled to sleep the night before, I’ve been in far fun places on holiday where I’ve not slept the night before. I’ve had long days out with friends and I’ve been to weddings, all the things that happen in my life that have real meaning and have brought me real happiness I’ve actually done whilst I’ve been sleep deprived. So in some ways, when I struggle with sleep, I try to treat it as a precursor to something that’s going to be good and try to treat it more as an excitement and try to change my feeling around the emotion.

Adam Currie:
Because I lie in bed and I’ve got adrenaline and my stomach’s churning, but then the same thing happens before I get on a plane somewhere or a rollercoaster, I’m in an excitable state. So I’m trying to reframe the thought being one thing, well, actually, maybe I’m just excited about what’s going to happen tomorrow. And maybe I’m just thinking about all the good things that can happen and I’m getting swept up. I mean, I’m lucky and unlucky, I’m lucky in the sense that my wife is very supportive and she’s always there to listen to me when I’m projecting and I’m worried and I’m saying things that might not help sleep, she’s there to keep the checks and balances there and check me back. But I’m unlucky in the sense that if they handed out gold medals for sleepers, she would be in the running for one, she’s the kind of person that can just get into bed and then immediately is in some form of deep sleep.

Adam Currie:
And sometimes I watch her get into bed and I actually watch what happens and watch her lie down and then she’s gone. And I just look at that on with such envy and that consumption and I’ve heard this on your podcast before that sometimes makes it even worse because you’re like, why can’t I do that? How did you do that? I feel like waking up and saying, what did you just do that? How did you do that? And sometimes it makes it worse, but you can’t pick and choose your partners on their ability to sleep. You pick and choose your partners because of who you love. And fortunate, for me, my wife, when she’s awake is really understanding and she helps me get through it quite a lot.

Adam Currie:
And she helps me reframe some of the thoughts and some of the feelings I have around it. And I used to wake her up in the night when I couldn’t sleep and looking back, it was quite a selfish behavior, but I used to wake her up because I was in distress and I would wake her up and say I can’t sleep and I’m having real trouble, but it took me a while to recognize and even fairly recently recognize that behavior doesn’t lead me to sleep, it’s just me trying to give someone else my problem in the hope that it fixes the problem. And of course, it doesn’t. So that’s when I learned about getting out of bed and going downstairs and putting the lights on dim light and reading. And I weed myself off my reliance on my partners to hold the burden, if that makes sense. So I’m standing alone with it now, if you like.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So like you said, it can be a blessing and a curse, right? When it seems to be that everyone I speak to with chronic insomnia has the best sleeping bed partners in the world and it can lead to that resentment, but also it can be that opportunity to just speak to that person. All right. When you go to bed, when you lie down, what do you think about, what do you do to make sleep happen? And you’re probably going to just get this blank stare, this blank look, I don’t know, because that’s how sleep happens. We do nothing, and it’s when we try doing something for sleep to happen that we get caught up in that struggle.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And obviously, in your emails and the teachings and the theory, I fail to believe or understand the two mechanisms for sleep. You talk about you need enough sleep drive and you need a lack of arousal. And if those two elements balance, you will have the right environment or the right conditions for sleep. And in my mind, I was just never cracking the lack of arousal state. I was definitely building up sleep drive because I was having three or four nights in a row where I might have only had two or three hours or one hour or nothing the night before, plenty of sleep drive, but such was the power of the state of the arousal. And I was in such a heightened state of arousal and negative frame of mind that was enough to tip the scales in favor of arousal, but it was understanding that, and I didn’t know that was happening at the time.

Adam Currie:
I probably knew subconsciously something like that was going on, but it wasn’t until someone had spelled it out for me and put it in black and white and I understood it for what it was. I think that was the paradigm shift. It was understanding that, understanding that those are the two conditions you need and then feeling incredibly stupid about all the gimmicks that I look back on now that I tried to try to control that. And like you say, quite often, great sleepers, they don’t know how to answer the question, because when I ask my wife, she says, I lie down and I close my eyes and then it’s the morning. It’s the day after then. It’s like, yeah, but what did you do? It’s like I did this and of course, because they have no arousal, no preconceptions or feelings or thoughts or expectations about sleep.

Adam Currie:
They just have this well ingrained habit where they lie down, they close their eyes and they go to sleep and it’s not as easy for everyone to achieve that. But yeah, it’s understanding that was massively key to improving my thoughts and about how I approach sleep. I talked about my wedding too a couple of times, that was key for me. I actually did sleep for about four or five hours a night before I got married. And of all the things I’ve done in my life, getting married was way up there on the nervousness scale.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Adam Currie:
But actually I got more sleep on that night before than I had on other nights where comparatively the next day was very low stakes and the difference between the two was I was more prepared to let go the night before I got married than I was on other days. And that’s the common denominator is my ability to let go of those thoughts.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Adam Currie:
And just say, what will be? I think you actually told them the night before, very few people will sleep. I think you may have said that. I think you said you didn’t sleep very well the night.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, no, I didn’t sleep very well the night before my wedding, I think a lot of people would experience the same thing. And the thing is like, for people that have never gone through the struggle with sleep, they just kind of recognize all right, it’s a difficult night, but they would never kind of contemplate all right now I can’t get married. Or the wedding is just going to be a disaster they’ll just be like, oh, it’s just one of those nights and they’ll just still go on with their plans. But when we’ve really been caught up in this struggle within insomnia, really, it changes things. Right?

Martin Reed:
Because now we’re like, am I still going to be able to do this? Am I still going to be able to do whatever I’ve got planned for the day? Am I still going to be able to live the kind of life I want to live? And I think that’s where the real fear, the real arousal, the real struggle comes from because we see insomnia or we see nighttime wakefulness as this obstacle to us living the kind of life we want to live, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

Adam Currie:
Definitely. And like you say, it’s what you do in that time where you are awake that makes the difference. When I started, it was tossing and turning and throwing the blankets around. I would sit up in bed and I actually have this very vivid memory of being set up in my bed with my head in my undies, just in despair going, it’s like 5:00 AM, I’ve been lining bed since 10:00 PM. What on earth is going on with me? What is happening? And I would just pace up and down the room and then get back. So all of the things that makes sleep less likely I was doing versus now where if I know I start to feel uncomfortable, I just get out of bed and I go downstairs and read a book for 20 minutes, half an hour and I’ll try again.

Adam Currie:
And quite often that cycle will happen two or three times. Sometimes I won’t make it, I’ll get downstairs and I’ll read a book or pop the television on and I won’t make it back upstairs because I would’ve actually fallen asleep on the sofa. You know? So I’ve done the job, although that’s not the design sometimes that happens and sometimes you think, well, at least I got the sleep I needed, but yeah, it’s how you spend that time awake now. And I’m not saying that I find it incredibly comfortable when I’m awake and that I can think clearly, because still now it frustrates me and I can get anxious about it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Adam Currie:
But I now no longer allow it to say, okay, this is now a deal breaker on the day after, because that’s just now off the table. Even if I don’t sleep, it’s no longer on the table skipping in the next day. And when you commit to that, life is a lot easier in general sleep then becomes easier because sleep now doesn’t have an impact on what you do the next day. It’s almost like reverse psychology. It’s like, well, you can sleep if you want, it makes no difference because you’re still doing this. So you can either do it with eight hours sleep or do it with none, it doesn’t matter, your choice.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And yeah, I think the arousal side of the equation that heightened arousal that can temporarily suppress sleep is important. I think it’s important to emphasize that we are not saying as soon as there’s somewhere else or like sleep’s just never going to happen. Often what can happen is it’s our battle with everything that’s going on in our mind. You know? So I always like to say, it’s not necessarily, for example, anxiety, it’s not necessarily just because we’re experiencing anxious thoughts that means that we’re doomed to a night of wakefulness, it’s often our battle with that anxiety, we’re trying to fight it, we’re trying to push it away, we’re trying to think about something else, that requires so much mental effort that sleep becomes almost impossible once we’ve become engaged in that battle.

Martin Reed:
And I think that also contributes to so many of the symptoms we associate with all the time we spending awake like the fatigue, the brain fog, lack of alertness, lack of concentration. I think a lot of it is influenced by that battle we’re engaged in rather than it being exclusively a symptom of long periods of time of wakefulness.

Adam Currie:
Yeah. 100%. Yeah. And it’s kind of similar to how you framed it earlier and the analogy you used. It’s like, I picture my sleep as like Niagara falls, that’s how I was looking at it and I would see something interesting in the falls and I would want to grab ahold of something, that would be a thought like you’re not going to sleep tonight or I think you might have problems tonight. And I would almost compulsively grab hold of that and once you’re in the rapid, you’re gone, it’s very hard to swim back against the current to get out. And eventually you fall over the edge. And that is how it was with me until eventually I could then stand on the shore and just look at the rapid instead and I know it was there and I make the choice do I go in and grab the fish or not?

Adam Currie:
And yeah, every night I have that discussion almost with myself. I have to remind myself not to put my hand in the rapids. Sometimes I do, I’m only human. I’m not perfect. Sometimes I will succumb to that because I don’t know what your experience is with other people, but sometimes I would find those thoughts to be quite invasive, I would, for no reason whatsoever, the night before I’m just getting into bed with nothing happening the next day at all. I would decide to tell myself for some strange reason that, I don’t know why, I might struggle tonight. And that was enough to then set the chain reaction off. It’s incredible how impactful that kind of thinking can be. So it’s just about learning how to counteract that thought and separate that thought.

Adam Currie:
And like you say, come away from it and engage in something else and you can’t control how you think about something, but you control how you respond to that thought. And I think that’s the key.

Martin Reed:
I love that analogy that you shared. Did you say you just kind of visualized those thoughts as fish was it in the river that were swimming by?

Adam Currie:
Yes.

Martin Reed:
I love that.

Adam Currie:
I use Niagara falls because it’s rapid and then you fall off the edge and if you stay in there too long, eventually you get to the point where you can’t swim back and then when you fall off, it’s like that’s the night done then. So my thought was, can I get out of the rapids before I fall over the edge? But yeah, the fish were like, I’m not going to sleep or the fish were, you are going to struggle tomorrow or the fish were, oh, you don’t have to do that. That was how I saw it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. And you’ve got all those different thoughts, all those different fish in the water that are all swimming by, some might swim right in front of you for a really long time. Some might just go whizzing right past some might disappear and then come back around again. If we can just get to that point though, where we’re just observing that happen rather than falling over the edge, as you said, just getting caught up in the rapids, just trying to grab all these fish and throw them out of the river, it just becomes a lot easier. Doesn’t it? It’s just like we’re abandoning that struggle. We’re using that phrase of letting go like that you’ve been saying.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And in my experience of having insomnia now or having trouble with sleep rather for the last probably three or four years, I’m honest with myself, the real exhausting thing about insomnia isn’t the lack of sleep, it’s the battle and the thoughts that you have to deal with. And it’s the journey you take yourself on and the hard time that you give yourself as well in many senses, that’s what’s really tiring. It’s not the lack of sleep because you can prove to yourself you can be incredibly effective without sleep. It’s just the thoughts that come along with it, which are really exhausting. And the worry, I remember, I don’t know if you do recall but my real worry was about health. I was thinking, will I have a heart attack if I don’t sleep for three days? And you read all sorts of things online about your chance of developing diabetes and hypertension and all these awful medical conditions, which of course, makes it even worse.

Adam Currie:
And the truth is that I’m sure that there’s no real link to lots of these things, but of course, if you just keep reading, that makes it worse. Anyway, so my worry was about what it was doing to my health. So that’s the paradox, isn’t it? Is that you need to sleep to look after your health, but you can’t. And when you are sleepless, you start Googling, how bad is it if I don’t sleep? And of course, they say, oh, it’s quite bad. And you’re like, that’s even worse. And of course, it just send spirals.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. And the interesting thing is that there’s no clinical studies that have found insomnia causes any health condition whatsoever. And one of the biggest studies that have been done that looked at the role of chronic insomnia on mortality I think it involved like 37 million people from all different studies and they found that there was no link. There was no link to between people that had chronic insomnia and an increased risk of mortality. It was the same across the board, but yet we see all these studies and these newspaper articles that find associations and it comes down to that example of if someone has an ashtray in their house, maybe they’re more likely to develop cancer, but is that because they got an astray in their house or is it because they smoke or is there something else that’s causing that? There’s this cause and effect and associations never show causality. So we find all these associations and then because headlines need to attract attention. The ones that don’t really sound exciting like chronic insomnia does not increase your risk of mortality may tend to not get much attention.

Adam Currie:
I hate newspapers where they have those kind of headlines.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And one that finds that can used in a way that comes up with a great headline or that might attract more research funding, they’re the ones that get all the attention. And it is a shame because, like you said, when we are struggling with chronic insomnia, we are doing more research about sleep. We’re going to be coming across all these articles that are saying scary stuff and that just puts more pressure on ourselves to sleep. It increases that arousal we’re dealing with more struggle then. And we get tangled up in that struggle even more. It’s like more pieces of rope around us that we get tangled up in.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And it fuels the obsession with sleep, that’s what I found. I became so obsessed about the science of sleep, and again, it was all just to try to have some kind of control, the more you look into these studies and the more you read, like you say, the more rope you surround yourself with the more difficult it is to let go. And yeah, it became a real obsession. Sleep for me became I could have studied a PhD in sleep. That’s what it felt like for the month that I had my first major episode. I was doing everything I could to rest control and the more information that came in the further I was away from realizing what it was I needed to do. It was actually an absence of information that I needed.

Adam Currie:
It was, again, things that would take my arousal away. But unfortunately, when you are in the midst of it and you haven’t got this benefit position of hindsight here, that’s just what you do. And I’m sure you hear it all the time. And again, anyone that’s listening who’s watching this or listening to this and is in that place right now, know that too much information and too much fixation and focus around the mechanics of sleep does not help you sleep. It never helps me sleep ever. In fact, it actively stopped me from sleeping. No good becoming an expert in sleep if you can’t get to sleep.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. That’s a great point. And I think it becomes even more problematic when we’re using that time that we could be engaged in actions that are more important to us in terms of living a life aligned with our values and doing things that we personally enjoy and find enriching. Often we can substitute all that stuff with that ongoing research and research itself. I mean, some research is probably helpful, but when it becomes that obsession and it kind of consumes our life, that’s when it can become really counterproductive.

Martin Reed:
We talked a lot about all these different behaviors that we implement some helpful, some less helpful, I think just to summarize the stuff that you’ve said has been helpful for you was that letting go, just abandoning that struggle with thoughts, feelings, nighttime wakefulness, and sleep itself, engaging in actions that are meaningful for you. Independently of sleep and even in the presence of all those fish running down the river. And then you touched upon just doing things to help create good conditions for sleep, better conditions for sleep as well. For example, like not trying to chase sleep by going to bed before you’re actually feeling sleepy. And if you’re really tossing and turning during the night, really struggling, if that wakefulness is feeling really unpleasant, just doing something that can help make that wakefulness more pleasant, whether that’s reading a book or watching TV, it really doesn’t matter.

Martin Reed:
Those things we do at night can be so helpful too, because they also train the brain that wakefulness, although we don’t really want to experience it, it’s not actually like a physical danger or a threat to us. It’s not the same thing as a 400 pound grizzly bear waiting for us in our bed at night. It’s not going to physically harm us. So if we can just embrace that weight from us to make it more pleasant, not only does that make the nights a little bit better, because we’re awake anyway, let’s make them a bit more pleasant, but they also train the brain to realize that this wakefulness isn’t a danger or a threat, it’s not something it has to stay alert for to try and protect us from. And that alertness in turn makes sleep more difficult. I just wanted to summarize because I know we covered a lot of stuff. Was there anything else that you had to add to that I maybe missed out on or anything you wanted to clarify?

Adam Currie:
No, I think you’ve done a good job of summarizing that, a much better job than I have. But then again, you’ve just been listening to me waffle on for the last hour.

Martin Reed:
Exactly. I have the easy part.

Adam Currie:
Yeah, exactly. But no, I think you’ve covered that quite well. And I suppose the only thing I would add is every time I have issues with sleep, every time I have a problematic night, I strengthen the healthier relationship of the understanding of what the problem is. So I try to reframe that. Every night I struggle, I get closer to less struggles in the future because I understand what’s happening and it was learning to show some sort of compassion for yourself as well.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Adam Currie:
I talked before about self stigma. I found myself incredibly frustrated at myself and the kind of language I would use with myself mentally I would, oh, I hate how you can’t sleep. That’s the kind of feeling and thoughts you would have and it’s not only unhelpful for sleep, it’s also very damaging to your self-esteem and self-confidence as well. So it’s showing yourself some love and compassion and understanding about when you are in those wakeful states. I just try to tell myself, oh, you’re having trouble again, but don’t worry, you’ve been there before. Everything’s going to be okay, it’s fine. Just go and do something and come back.

Adam Currie:
And you know what? If you don’t fall back to sleep, it’s not the end of the world, just carry on. And it’s showing yourself that compassion. And I talked before about information stream and looking too much. Information is good when the source of it is controlled and the stream of it is controlled. That’s why I found your emails so massively helpful because the right information was coming to me on the right cadence. And it was the right intensity. And I wasn’t trying to control the information. It was nuggets of information coming through that were really easy to understand on a cyclical nature that then it was almost like rhythmic and maybe that’s by design.

Adam Currie:
It’s like circadian almost, you wake up in the morning and you’re like, oh, here’s some information that you should know about sleep. And that was my ritual. I would wake up in the morning and it’d be like week one, week two. And it was almost becoming part of my routine, but information is good when you get it from the right sources and it’s controlled in the right cadence.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. That’s great. And I love that you talked about being kind to yourself, because that is really important because it is difficult to go through this, it is important to be kind to ourselves. Often we are really kind to other people when they’re going through a struggle, but we don’t turn that inward on ourselves when we’re going through struggle and pain. And that is important to recognize too. We don’t want to sugar coat it, what we’re going through is hard, we need to acknowledge that and be kind to ourselves. And I love how you talked about when I have these difficult nights now they’re opportunities and their opportunities to recognize, oh, there’s no mystery here, I know exactly why this is happening and there are opportunities to implement things that just help train your brain that yeah, this wakefulness, it’s not dangerous, it’s not a threat.

Martin Reed:
There are things I can do to make this wakefulness more pleasant. And then the next day when I’m awake, I can still do these things that help me live that kind of life. I got that opportunity to once again, prove to myself that because I spent time awake at night, it doesn’t have to move me away from the kind of life I want to live.

Adam Currie:
That’s right.

Martin Reed:
So it’s okay to feel these things, but we don’t have to be hard on ourselves when we have these difficult nights, they can be seen too as opportunities to reinforce what we’re learning and to practice this things that can help us over the longer term too training the brain that wakefulness isn’t a threat or a danger.

Adam Currie:
Absolutely. Yeah. And I think some really great advice I was once given is treat yourself like you are someone who you are responsible for looking after. And that was really helpful for me to think that you externalize and think you would help someone else the same way. So treat yourself like you are someone else who are you who you are responsible for looking after, that was really helpful for me, because it made me think of myself as somebody else. So I was less interested in stigmatizing myself and more interested in nurturing myself and caring for myself and that made a huge difference. Yeah. It actually probably did make me sleep better as well. But if it didn’t, I was kinder to myself and it would promote the chances of sleep that the next opportunity, whether it was the next night or night after, so yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Well that’s great. Well, Adam, I really appreciate all the time you’ve taken out your day to come on and we’ve covered so much great stuff. I’m sure that everyone listening to this is going to get some kind of value fr from it. But there’s always this one question that I ask everyone. So I don’t want you to feel left out. So I’m going to ask this question for you if you feel comfortable just hanging on for a couple of more minutes to answer it. It’s this, if someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel as though they’ve tried everything that they’re just beyond help, they can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Adam Currie:
I would tell them that they are closer to a good night’s sleep than they could ever imagine. And that the things that are separating them from a good night’s sleep are actually easily removed. And they’re not things that require monumental or Titanic efforts or lots of money or lots of fads and gimmicks and supplements, it’s straightforward healthy thinking and reframing your relationship with how you spend your time in your bed. It’s as simple as that.

Martin Reed:
All right. Great. Well, I think that’s a wonderful note to end on. So thanks again for coming on Adam. I really appreciate it.

Adam Currie:
You’re welcome. Thanks very much for having me, I appreciate it.

Martin Reed:
Thanks for listening to The Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to implement evidence-based cognitive and behavioral techniques to improve your sleep but think you might need some additional support and guidance, I would love to help. There are two ways we can work together. First, you can get my online coaching course. This is the most popular option. My course combines sleep education with individualized coaching and is guaranteed to improve your sleep. You will learn new ways of thinking about sleep and implement better sleep habits over a period of eight weeks. This gives you time to build sleep confidence and notice results without feeling overwhelmed. You can get the course and start right now at insomniacoach.com/online.

Martin Reed:
I also offer a phone coaching package where we start with a one hour call. This can be voice only or video, your choice, and we come up with an initial two-week plan that will have you implementing cognitive and behavioral techniques that will lead to long term improvements in your sleep. You get unlimited email-based support and guidance for two weeks after the call along with a half-hour follow-up call at the end of the two weeks. You can book the phone coaching package at insomniacoach.com/phone.

Martin Reed:
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Insomnia Coach Podcast. I’m Martin Reed, and as always, I’d like to leave you with this important reminder — you can sleep.

I want you to be the next insomnia success story I share! If you’re ready to improve your sleep using evidence-based techniques, click here to get my online insomnia coaching course. We can get started right now.

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