Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)
Amanda slept well through high school, college, and her early professional life. Her experience with insomnia began when a number of different stressors all showed up around the same time. She had a baby. She relocated. She had to get a new job. She had to deal with a toxic parent.
Even when things settled down, Amanda found herself struggling to fall asleep. She felt as though her own mind was working against her. She started to panic and didn’t know what to do.
After finding that CBD gummies, melatonin, over-the-counter sleep aids, alcohol, and the many sleep rituals and rules she implemented were not helping, Amanda realized she needed to explore a different approach. That was when she found the Insomnia Coach podcast, recognized her own experience in the stories of others, and started working with me.
Amanda realized that the more she chased after sleep, the more she craved it, the more she tried to make it happen, the more difficult it became. So, she started to move away from chasing after sleep and from trying to fight or avoid nighttime wakefulness and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that came with it.
She started to acknowledge her thoughts — even the really difficult ones — instead of trying to control them. As she did that, she found that her thoughts weren’t always true and that she always had control over her actions, regardless of what her mind might have told her.
As she practiced this new approach, Amanda started to notice more of the good stuff that was present in her life and she started to do more of the things that mattered to her. And, as she moved away from the insomnia struggle and expanded the focus of her attention, she found that she started to sleep a lot better, too.
As Amanda shares in this episode, the process was not easy. There were ups and downs. Her new approach took time and ongoing practice. However, as she started to get more comfortable with experiencing nighttime wakefulness, as she gained skill in allowing her thoughts and feelings to come and go as they pleased, and as she committed to doing things that kept her moving toward the life she wanted to live each day — independently of sleep — she was able to reclaim her life from insomnia.
Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that by changing how we respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it, we can move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life we want to live.
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.
Okay. So Amanda, thank you so much for taking the time out for your day to come onto the podcast.
I’m so happy to be here.
I’m really excited for everything that we are going to cover. Let’s just start right at the beginning. Can you tell us when your sleep problems first began, and if you can remember or if it was obvious what you think caused those initial issues with sleep?
Sure. I actually did have a little bit of insomnia when I was a child, but had gotten over that very quickly and became a really good sleeper. I was a great sleeper through high school, through college, through my whole early professional life in New York as a performer. I didn’t have to even think about it. I just looked forward to sleeping. And then my daughter was born, and I was dealing with all the new natural stressors of becoming a parent and not sleeping well.
And on top of that, we had just moved up to the Bay Area. So we were dealing with the housing market, and new jobs, and new bosses. And so there was a lot happening at once. A lot of stress happening at one time. And that probably would’ve been enough to set me off. But there was one extra layer of stress, which was having to deal with a very toxic parent.
So my stress was just through the roof, and I was dealing with these very deep feelings throughout the day, throughout the night. And once my daughter settled in and started sleeping again, my husband started sleeping again just fine. And I was awake. I was up in the night and unable to sleep. So everyone else was settled in, and I just found myself unable to fall asleep. And I didn’t have the tools that I have today. So I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just sort of panicked and unsure of what was happening.
So it sounds like you went down that well-trodden path of, I can recognize probably where this all began. Either I was always a lousy sleeper, or there were some clear triggers for some sleep disruption.
And I think most of us, we accept that when we have some difficult nights, if there’s that clear cause, there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. Hopefully once that cause, that trigger is no longer around, or it’s no longer relevant, we’ve adapted to it, our sleep will get right back on track. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that in itself can be a big source of difficult thoughts, emotions, feelings about sleep. And we can start engaging in all those behaviors to try and chase after sleep, to put effort into sleep, try and make sleep happen. And it’s really that response, which is what at this point is keeping the insomnia alive. It’s the oxygen for that insomnia.
But we don’t know that at the time. When we are caught up in this struggle, we want to fix it. We don’t know why it’s happening. It feels very mysterious, very unusual. So we start to try. And all these things that we try, they’re often well-intentioned and logical when we think about them. But they can kind of backfire on us. And then that just leads to more effort, more worry, more difficulty.
You mentioned that you were finding it really difficult to just fall asleep. When this sleep issue was feeling really mysterious, and it stuck around long after everything in your life had settled down outside of sleep, what kind of things did you try to get things back on track?
Tried a lot of different things. I started off by just trying to clean up my sleep environment. I thought maybe it was the mattress’ fault. So I got a new mattress, and got some blackout shades, and earplugs. And just tried to clean the environment, which was good. It was helpful for a couple days, but then I was still not sleeping.
So I was trying those CBD gummies because everyone was pushing them on me. And I tried that, and it really did not work. It in fact made me feel very wired at night. And so that was a no.
Melatonin, I tried that during the time and that also was okay for maybe a couple nights. But it was like the novelty wore off, and it was back to not being able to fall asleep. So I didn’t know what to do. I ended up taking some over-the-counter sleep aids. I was having an extra nightcap. Anything that would make me feel sleepy. I was just desperate to feel tired.
I got to the point where that made me feel very uncomfortable. I did not want to be taking anything. I did not want to be relying on something outside of myself to fall asleep. But I didn’t have the tools. I didn’t know what to do. And I think the last thing I tried was calling my doctor saying, “Help, I’m not sleeping.” She didn’t know what to do with me. So she prescribes another set of pills, and I was very reluctant to go pick them up. But I did. And I knew that I didn’t want to take them. I was like, “This is not the answer.” But I got the pills, and got home, and locked them away in a cupboard. I did not touch them.
But wow. I was at square one. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had tried everything. So on a walk one afternoon, I picked up my phone and I did a search for insomnia and podcast. And I started listening to your advice and all of the interviews. And I really connected to what you were saying and their experience. And I thought, “Yes, this is it. This is what I want to try. I don’t want to be taking pills. I don’t want to be taking drugs. I don’t want to be doing any of that.” I was worried about what that was doing to my health, to my liver. And I just knew that I was stronger than that. I could do it with the right support.
One of the things that I kind of remember when we were working together, I think it was within the first couple of weeks. You actually shared some great insights with me. And a really memorable one was you said to me, “I’ve had some good nights, even when my mind was starting to race and was telling me, ‘You haven’t fallen asleep yet. You’re going to be awake all night. This is going to be a really difficult night.'”
Especially on those days before you were due to go into work to teach, because we often put a lot more pressure on ourselves to sleep, because we have this strong connection between how we sleep and our ability to perform during the day, or to live the kind of life we want to live, to feel how we want to feel. Can you tell us a little bit more about that insight, where you found that the mind was telling you all this really difficult uncomfortable stuff about sleep, but then some good sleep happened anyway? I’m just curious to hear a little bit more about your experience with that.
Yeah. That was really mind opening, because I was so accustomed to hearing the thoughts you’re not going to sleep, and then not sleeping. So very early on within the program, I stopped taking naps. And I had really started to build really strong sleep drive. I was feeling more tired than ever in a good way, once night came. Because I was taking away those naps and waking up at the same time every morning. And some of those days were a little challenging because I was tired. But oh my gosh, it was beautiful. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and ready for sleep.
So in that sense, even if those little worries or anxieties about sleeping crept in, I would generally fall asleep, even though they were there. Because I had this really strong sleep drive that just ended up overriding all of the anxieties. I think that was key for me really, was to take away the naps, and to stop trying to make up for a bad night. Because then I was just not tired enough that night.
But if I was really good at sticking to waking up at that same time, and honoring the day, and honoring all my commitments by the night, I was really blissfully tired and ready for sleep. No matter what my brain was saying, and no matter what the little chatter was, I was tired enough for those words to dissipate.
So up to that time, you mentioned that you just removed all those naps. What was your napping routine or structure like? Were you napping every day? When were you napping? How long were you naps? I’m curious to hear a little bit more about that.
Yes. After a bad night, I would sleep in a little bit if that was possible to try to make up for the night. And then the napping would usually come in when my daughter went to sleep. I would sneak in a nap around one or two, and I was just so desperate to take the pressure off. So the napping, it was pretty daily. And then I was not yet tired enough that evening to go to sleep. So that was pretty clear to me that eliminating the naps was a very good, important thing to do.
So did you find it quite easy to sleep when you set yourself up for a nap?
Yes. Actually, it was. I was so tired and depleted at that time. I don’t remember any difficulty taking those naps.
Yeah. I think that in itself can sometimes be a really good insight. Because after all, if you’re able to sleep during the day, then that means that you must be able to sleep at night too. There’s just some kind of obstacle or barrier getting in the way. The fact that we’re able to nap during the day shows that we can still sleep. We haven’t lost that ability to sleep.
But where these naps can often be a double-edged sword is when we have chronic insomnia, we are taking a nap because we just want that sleep to happen. We’re kind of chasing after sleep. We’re so desperate to get that sleep in. We’re chasing after it, so we’re going to be like, “Okay, I’m going to go down for a nap and try and make some sleep happen.”
And what can often happen is then, we find it really hard to sleep when we try to nap as well. And then that can generate all these difficult thoughts and feelings about that ability to sleep. “Oh my goodness. I can’t sleep at night, I can’t sleep during the day.” But really the obstacle, the whole barrier is all the same. It’s all the effort that we’re engaged in. That desire to avoid nighttime wakefulness. So the brain’s firing up, being hyper alert to protect us from that wakefulness.
So I just find it personally really interesting, the kind of relationship we can have with naps when we are experiencing chronic insomnia. Because on the one hand, we can try to nap, find it really easy to nap. And that in itself can be quite reassuring. But usually not that helpful over the longer term. Because when we relieve that sleep pressure, less time awake during the day means we might get less sleep at night.
Then on the flip side, if we try a nap and then no sleep happens, we can become even more concerned, and engage in even more effort, and battling with all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with what we feel is just our inability to sleep. So it was great to hear you describe your personal relationship with naps, and that you found it helpful to just cut them out. Which I’m guessing wasn’t an easy change to make. How did you manage to make that decision and stick to it?
I had watched a lot of your tutorials, and so I knew you had mentioned this so many times over, that eliminating naps is really important, creating natural sleep drive. And so I was happy to do it, because I really wanted to try everything.
In fact, I found it to be empowering to take the nap away, because I always had to make sure I had to create the space, make sure that… It was almost a lot of work to find the space to nap.
But when I realized it was actually working against me, I thought, “This is great. This opens up the day. Now I can follow through with everything that I need to do.” Because I know that was one of your pieces of advice was no matter if it’s a good night’s sleep or not, you honor your commitments. You go to work, and you do your exercise, and you socialize.
And that to me was unbelievably liberating, because I was always trying to figure out how to get out of this or get out of that, and try to conserve my energy. When I had made the commitment to honor all my commitments, then I got to enjoy the day. I got to let go of the idea that I had to cancel and really be present in the day, no matter that I might be a little tired. It wasn’t a big deal. I was committed to the day. And even sweeten the deal by doing something nice for myself on a day that might have been exhausted. I take my daughter for a walk or get a treat.
So the quality of those days ended up becoming quite good and nice. Because I was so committed to making the days good, and not allowing the sleep to really drive whether or not it was a good or bad day.
Yeah. And I think that was something you touched upon when we were working together as well was, I can’t remember at what stage it was. But you had this kind of realization as you were going through things, that how you sleep at night doesn’t always dictate or predetermine the overall quality of your day. That there are other things that influence you. I mean we’re not sugarcoating it. You probably feel better during the day if you had a great night of sleep. But it’s not like a hundred percent of your day is a hundred percent determined by your sleep, a hundred percent of the time. I’m curious to hear when that happened, how that insight affected you.
That was the big one. I started to realize the quality of the day was really not dependent on the number of hours of sleep the night before. I could have a decent night’s sleep and then have an awful next day. I could have had a few hours of sleep, but I woke up with gratitude because I had the day. I was going to make the best of the day. I was really committed. After the experience of trying to cancel this and cancel that, I was stepping into the day with a commitment to honor everything. And it gave me a new sense of gratitude.
It was tiring. Some of the days were hard, but there were these beautiful moments that ended up happening because I was aware. I was more present and understanding that I was dealing with fatigue, but that it was okay. And I created some really beautiful moments, and then I would look back on the diary and realize this is something that’s happening. The number of hours of sleep is not running parallel with the quality of day. And that really took the pressure off of having the sleep perfectly every night. So that was definitely something that helped take pressure off.
Yeah. Did you find it really hard, especially when you first made this commitment, to pursue stuff that’s enriching, important to you during the day, independently of sleep? Because when we are caught up in all the fatigue, and the anxieties, and all that stuff that comes with insomnia, usually our brain is screaming at us, “You can’t do this stuff. We’ve got to stay home. We’ve got to conserve energy. We got to withdraw. We got to maybe try napping.” All these things it tries to do that can end up distracting us and moving us away from the kind of life you want to live, which then leads to more pressure to sleep and to fix the problem, control what we can’t control. But how did you make that commitment to do that stuff, even when you were feeling really not good?
I think it was because I started to trust the process, because I had seen already firsthand how my sleep was getting better, and how it was getting better pretty quickly. So I trusted the structure, and I just felt so committed to the process because I was so tired of insomnia. That I was in it a hundred percent. And I wanted to experience joy. I wanted to make that choice to experience the day in all of its color and vibrancy, and not let a bad night’s sleep take that away.
Yeah. I think it can be really helpful. We don’t have to do huge things, especially if we’re feeling like we’re in a lot of pain, a lot of struggle. I like how you touched upon being kind to yourself. So it might just be going out for a treat with your daughter or by yourself. Just doing something nice for yourself.
It’s so easy when we’re struggling to end up getting completely distracted by the struggle, and that just becomes our entire focus. And it’s understandable, because struggle doesn’t feel good. But it can just be so distracting and lead to us engaging in actions that aren’t aligned with the person we want to be, that aren’t aligned with our values. We end up becoming the person that we don’t really want to be, not doing the kind of things we want to do. And that generally doesn’t make us feel any better. And it gives that weight of insomnia. It gives it even more influence over our lives.
So I think being kind to ourselves, committing to doing things that are important to us. They might not feel as good. They might not even feel good full stop when we are really struggling. We can’t control how we feel, right? But we can control our actions. So the most important thing is just the fact we are doing these things. We’re doing things that are important to us.
And like you touched upon, even when we are really in the depths of the struggle, there are often a couple of moments… Maybe only one moment. But there’s usually a couple of moments during the day that are a little bit better, even if it’s only fleeting. And I think it can help to just be more attuned to those positive moments, to open ourselves up to them. Because so much of our lives, whether we have insomnia or not, we are engaged in autopilot, right? Because we’re thinking about, “All right, I’ve got to wash these dishes. What’s next? Then I’ve got to put the kids to bed, then I’ve got to do this.” We are always off somewhere. Our mind is always off somewhere, and not a hundred percent engaged in where we are and what we’re doing.
And the fact is there’s good stuff all around us pretty much all of the time, if we’re able to notice it. So even when we don’t feel good, maybe we can just look around or just give ourselves the opportunity to notice one good thing. One thing that is beautiful, or enjoyable, or makes us feel good, or is interesting. Just one thing to remind us that there is still some opportunity for good stuff, even when we are really caught up in that struggle.
Absolutely. Looking back on the beginning stages of the process, the program with you, I do have some very beautiful memories of those tired, tired days. These little gems that appeared, like just that walk along the lagoon with my daughter. I remember feeling so tired that day and after picking her up, I was like, “Let’s go home.” No, let’s not go home. Let’s enjoy the day. And we took that moment, and I will always remember that moment.
Maybe there’s something pure about those experiences. Because of the exhaustion, you kind of shed everything else. You shed whatever other daily chatter goes on. It’s like those moments, even though it was during a very tired time, it’s a very positive memory, those little treats or gems that come through on those days.
One more thing that really helped me get through those tired days was the information about how there’s not necessarily medical evidence that supports the fact that not getting a lot of sleep is bad for your health or somehow damages you. Because I always thought that when I wasn’t getting enough sleep, that I was somehow doing harm to my body. So knowing that all that stuff out in the internet, all that information is pretty misleading, and that there really isn’t any evidence that it hurt you or harms you. That really started to take the pressure off too. “It’s okay. You’re tired. You’re tired, but you’re not really damaging yourself by not getting enough sleep.” That’s really helpful.
Yeah, exactly. As long as we are giving ourselves the opportunity to sleep, the body’s always going to generate at the very least, the minimum amount of sleep it needs to survive. A lot of the headlines and the news articles out there, I think some are downright just misleading. And others are just really easy to misinterpret. A lot of them aren’t looking at people with chronic insomnia. A lot of them aren’t even using human beings. They’re using animals, and extrapolating their best guesses from there.
And a lot of them are using sleep deprivation. They’re taking people and then deliberately interrupting their sleep, and then seeing what effect that has. So they’re not letting these people sleep, and then they find out that leads to worry, depression, and anxiety. Well if someone kept waking me up every hour, then yeah, I’m sure I would feel that way.
But chronic insomnia itself is different. Because people with chronic insomnia, they’re giving themselves opportunity to sleep. Often an excessive amount of opportunity for sleep. People with chronic insomnia tend to be going to bed way earlier than an average sleeper, staying in bed later in the morning, napping during the day more often. Engaging in all this additional opportunity for sleep to happen.
But the fact of the matter is we don’t have one study that has found chronic insomnia to cause any specific health condition whatsoever. We have studies that associate sleep duration or insomnia with different things. But none have found that it specifically causes it. So that can be a big source of difficulty, and confusion, and worry, and anxiety when we come across all this stuff.
Which is another reason why sometimes, it can be helpful to free up all that time that you might be spending engaged in ongoing research. That endless ongoing research that’s so easy to get caught up in, because we’re so desperate to fix the problem. And maybe just use that time in a way that might be more helpful to us in terms of living the kind of life we want to live. Living for now, rather than living for what might be in the future.
Many of us have done a lot of research. It’s probably unlikely we’re going to uncover anything brand new. We’ll probably just end up getting caught up in that rabbit rabbit hole of despair, and difficult news articles and stories that you just touched upon. How about we just free ourselves from that? Just do something more important to us instead. That can be so helpful.
Yeah. It was recommended that I talked to someone early on, talk through the issues. I know I had dealt with some issues, but I really felt like most of them had settled, and I didn’t really need to open up those issues again. I really needed somehow to just work on the sleep. I didn’t think that it was something I needed to talk to a therapist about. So that was a confusing moment. Even the doctor had pressured me, “Speak to someone. Talk to someone. Talk through the issues.” And I thought, “Well, that would’ve been helpful maybe a few years ago. But now I’m here, and I’ve healed from a lot of that stuff. I’m just still not sleeping.”
So I think after we’ve been working together, I think it was towards the end of the time we were working together. I think we were about six weeks or so in. You mentioned that you were finding it quite remarkable, the fact you were experiencing a number of good nights of sleep, consecutive all in a row. You said you were feeling better during the day, more productive. Feeling more optimistic than you may have done before.
But you’re a human being, so you still had some difficult nights from time to time. At this point, did you find that when those inevitable difficult nights happened, that your response to them somehow changed? Maybe they had less of an effect or an influence on you. I’m curious to hear how you dealt with those nights as you went along.
Yeah. What I had decided to do was to set up a little corner for myself. No matter if it was going to be a good night or a bad night, didn’t matter. I just set up a comfortable chair with a book and a lamp. And so I knew that I had this spot to go to if I needed to. And that really gave me a source of comfort.
So getting up is never easy. It’s hard to do. But knowing that there’s this comfortable, safe space to go to with a good book that I enjoy. I mean, it’s not half bad. It’s quiet, I’m alone, and I get to read a good book, and then eventually get back to sleep, or go back to bed.
So really setting up that space helped. Because at first, I didn’t really know what to do. I was okay trying to figure out a project that would be quiet. So I decided that really, I got into biographies. I really started to read a lot of them. And so okay, I’m going to pick a couple, and I’m going to put them on the table, and they’re there if I need them. So it actually ended up being quite enjoyable. I mean, it’s hard to get up. But then once I was there, it was quite enjoyable. And that made it easier. And again, trusting the process. Trusting the process because it was working for me.
So it was really no panic involved in the nights and getting up on those off nights. Because it was working, I was sleeping better, and there was a plan. I felt like I had a plan in place, and I was falling back on it. And that really, really helped.
So it sounds like what you’re referring to there is maybe before in the past when you’re having a difficult night, a lot of wakefulness. You’re just kind of at loss. “What do I do?” And our usual default human behavior I think is to try to achieve what you want to achieve. So when we are really struggling with all that wakefulness, we’ll maybe double down and try even harder to fall asleep. Put pressure on ourselves to fall asleep, a lot of tossing and turning. A lot of unpleasant wakefulness.
And like you just touched upon, we do actually have an alternative option available to us. And that is to just do anything else that’s more pleasant when being awake doesn’t feel good. Because I think most of us know from experience at that point that sleep is unlikely to happen right at this moment. And it doesn’t feel good to be tossing and turning here. So how about we just do something else that we know is going to be a little bit more pleasant? It might not be super enjoyable. It might not even be enjoyable. It just has to be something that’s more pleasant compared to what we’re currently doing.
So it sounds like for you, you found it really helpful to just have a plan in place. “If it doesn’t feel good for me to be awake, I’m just going to get out bed. I know where I’m going to go. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to read this book. And then when conditions feel like they might be better for sleep to happen, I’ll return to bed.” And just kind of repeat the process. Okay to stay in bed when we’re awake for as long as it feels okay to be awake. But then if it starts to feel unpleasant, we’ve always got that opportunity to do something instead. Am I getting the gist of it right? Was that the kind of approach that you took?
Yeah. And that approach worked anywhere. I was always very nervous about traveling, going to someone else’s house, or being in a hotel. What if insomnia strikes? What am I going to do? But I worried less, much less about it because I had this plan. Which was just a book and a comfortable place to sit. So I just made sure that I had those things with me. And then before heading to bed, I would set up the little corner and know that it was there. And that really helped so much.
So did you find that you were a bit like a human yo-yo getting in and out, in and out of bed throughout the night? Or were you just out of bed, read a few chapters, and then you just go back to bed? Or was it just all different every single night, and you didn’t care as long as reading was more pleasant than struggling?
Early on in the process, it was a lot of up and down for sure. Few times a night, maybe. Again, less panic though. Less stress associated with being up because I had that plan that I could fall back on, and I really trusted it. “So here we go up. Get out of the bed because bed doesn’t feel good right now.” It felt so much better to be outside of bed. My heart rate went down. “Okay, I’m here. This is pleasant.” And then once I started feeling like, “Okay, I think I could enjoy the bed again,” went back. At the beginning of the process, there was a lot of up and down, but not stressful.
I really got to the point where if a bed wasn’t feeling good, I would get out, read, and then come back to bed and fall asleep. So all of a sudden, I can’t remember exactly when the transition happened. But I realized that it was really just one time getting out, and that’s all I needed. And then I started to build confidence at that point. “Okay. So if it’s not happening, then maybe it’s just one time out. But maybe not.” My confidence started to build, so it got easier and easier.
But the beginning stages are hard. Really hard. Really hard to get yourself up out of bed when you’re so exhausted and you just want to sleep. But it really does in fact feel so much better to be out of bed on those nights.
Yeah. I love how you described it, that it’s not easy. But it’s often more appealing than what the alternative is, which is to just stay in bed when it really just doesn’t feel good to be putting ourselves through that, in the hope that maybe sleep will happen. When we stay in bed, it doesn’t feel good. And we often fall into that trap of trying, putting effort into sleep, or trying to push away all the difficult thoughts and feelings that our brain is going to be generating as it tries to protect us from what it thinks of wakefulness as this physical threat. The brain doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an imagined threat. As far as the brain’s concerned, when you are trying to sleep, it thinks there’s an alligator under the bed about to get its teeth around you. The brain doesn’t know the difference. It’s trying to protect you, but it’s generating all this stuff that doesn’t feel good. Trying to push it away engages us in a battle. Trying to sleep never really works because we can’t control sleep anyway.
Also, all we want to do is just remove the effort, kind of untangle ourselves from that struggle. And what can we control at the end of the day? The only thing we can control are our individual actions, our own bodily movements. So if we are struggling, we’re not feeling good, unfortunately we can’t control how we feel. Not sleeping, unfortunately we can’t control sleep. But what we can do is maybe get out bed or even stay in bed if we prefer, but just do something that makes that wakefulness more pleasant. And that’s really all we can do is engage in actions that are more appealing, more helpful than the alternative option.
Yeah, it sure does beat just lying in bed flipping and flopping, and waiting and stressing. Just the act of getting up out of bed feels good. “Okay, I’m going to try something else.”
Going to something you were talking about earlier on where you said maybe reducing the amount of time that you allot for sleep was something that was helpful. Which basically, all it comes down to for people not completely familiar with it is we are just looking to spend an amount of time in bed quite close to the amount of sleep we’re getting at the current time, rather than the amount of sleep we want to get. Because often, our temptation is to spend more time in bed, to give ourselves more opportunity to sleep. But often, all that does is just set us up for more nighttime wakefulness. There’s more opportunity to spend time awake at night. So if we’re, for example, averaging let’s say five hours of sleep, let’s see if we can get the amount of time we spend in bed closer to five hours rather than seven, eight, nine, or 10 hours. And often, how that helps is it prevents us from chasing after sleep because now we’ve got that earliest possible bedtime. We’ve got a consistent out of bedtime in the morning.
But where I think it can really help is often, it brings back a sense of sleepiness rather than just fatigue as bedtime approaches. I think it’s really easy to misinterpret fatigue and sleepiness. Feeling really run down, worn out, exhausted, groggy. Sometimes that might not be sleepiness. That might be fatigue, just exhaustion, feeling worn out. And that doesn’t always lead to sleep. The only thing that leads to sleep is sleepiness itself. And when we get back that sense of sleepiness like, “I’m actually finding it hard to stay awake now,” I think that can just be so empowering.
I remember one exchange that we had was you had a lot of these things that you felt you had to do in the evening to invite sleepiness to happen. And that was one of your concerns. You said to me, “I really want to move away from all these rituals and activities I’m kind of imposing on myself in an attempt to get sleepiness to happen. But I’m kind of nervous that if I start moving away from them, then I’m never going to feel sleepy.”
Do you feel that having that sleep window helped you with that transition from moving away from all these additional rituals and routines you were putting on yourself, because the sleep window itself was helping you rediscover that sense of sleepiness in the evening?
Most definitely. And that really happened right off the bat. Really feeling a sense of sleepiness come in. At the end of the night, I had not experienced that in so long. I was always so up at night. But when we started to implement the sleep window and taking away the naps, I started to feel this natural sleepiness come in, in the evening. And it just felt like a sweet relief. I didn’t have to try to bring it on. It was naturally happening. “Okay, the body knows what it’s doing if you allow it to do it.”
And yeah. Like I said earlier, that deep sense of sleepiness was overriding that any sort of nervousness there might have been otherwise it really took over. So sleep was much easier.
Exactly. As I like to say all the time, sleep always happens in the end. So the longer we are awake for, the harder it becomes to remain awake. And that in itself can be so reassuring, because it’s so easy to believe that I’m feeling anxious, for example. Or I feel my heart racing. And because I’m feeling those things, sleep just can’t happen now. But the truth is sleep can still happen. If we’ve been awake for long enough and the body needs sleep to happen, the sleep will still happen.
These things can make sleep more difficult. If we’ve got a lot of that worry and that anxiety, maybe that kind of hurdle that sleep has to get over is up here instead of down here. But the longer we’re awake, that sleep drive builds and builds, eventually no matter what, it’s always going to get higher than even the most intense anxiety or physical sensations of arousal.
And I think just recognizing, like we were discussing earlier, the presence of difficult thoughts or difficult feelings, difficult emotions, don’t mean that sleep won’t happen. You can experience that stuff and still even have good nights.
I think what can definitely make sleep really difficult is when we engage in a battle with all that stuff. These thoughts are really difficult, so we might try not to think them, or we might try and push them away when they come into our mind. And all those emotions as well, often they don’t feel good. Especially in the middle of the night when we’re all by ourselves. So again, we try to fight them, try to avoid them.
And I think engaging in that battle and that struggle is probably what’s more disruptive to sleep than just their presence. If we can get to a point where we just allow them to come and go as they want, which is obviously easier said than done. But if we can get to that point where we just allow them to sit there, drift in and out as they want, rather than getting involved in that battle, they become far less influential over our sleep. And what we do during the day too.
And just a couple of nights experiencing the anxiety come up in that anticipation of not sleeping and then sleeping. And even though there was that stress and anticipation or whatever that was, that sleep still came that night. That happened maybe once or twice, and that started to really build my confidence. That’s not going to determine if I sleep or not. That’s not necessarily going to determine whether or not I sleep. And that was very powerful.
Yeah. Have you found that over this whole process, just looking back on everything, that your relationship with those thoughts and those feelings, those emotions as and when they occur has changed? Because my guess is that you still experience some difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions because you’re a human being. So you’re going to experience the full range of the human experience. But has there been a change just in the way you kind of respond to them or the effect that they have over you, the influence they have over you? And why do you think that is, if there has been that change?
That’s a good question. I see the thoughts now. I see them. I tell them, “I see you. You are not me. You don’t define me. You are separate from me.” I really do kind of almost have a conversation with these thoughts. You’re like, “You’re trying to disrupt me, and I see you doing that.” And in a way, doing that makes them sometimes disappear. Makes them less powerful by seeing them as separate.
And what has helped me too, a lot, just find a sense of peace, and quiet that chatter is taking that last hour or so before bed, and finding a quiet seat, and taking time to read those books. I slipped into this routine where I’m just, doesn’t matter what time it is. At some point, I’ll just let go of the clocks altogether because it’s just late enough. And it’s a nice quiet moment to take in the night and then go to sleep when I feel sleepy. And it really just takes the pressure off. And if there is any of that chatter about not sleeping, or what if you don’t sleep and that kind of stuff it’s, “I see you. I see what you’re trying to do. But I’m going to take myself over here and have just a relaxing moment with my book. This is my time, my space.” And just trying to really stay empowered, because we have so much power and control.
I love that sentence that you said. Just saying, “I see you.” I think what it comes down to is acknowledgement. You are just acknowledging that thought, or that feeling, or that emotion is present. “I see you.” You’re saying it. Whether it’s in your mind or out loud, you’re acknowledging its presence.
And I think that in itself can just be so helpful. Because just the fact that we’re acknowledging something that we’re thinking or feeling, even when it’s difficult, first and foremost tells the brain, “Okay, you are listening to me. So maybe I don’t have to yell quite so loud so you are listening.”
But then just the act of acknowledging. Especially when we’re able to say, “Okay, this is a thought or this is a feeling. This is an emotion.” It’s not me, but it’s something that’s happening in my mind. My mind is generating this thought, this feeling, this emotion. And now I get to choose how to respond. Is that helpful? Is this thought going to help me right now? Is it actionable? Is it about something I have control over?
If it is, great. If it’s not, then maybe we just, “All right, well thanks brain. I’m listening. I see you. I acknowledge what you’re telling me. But now I’m going to move on and redirect my focus or my attention on this instead.” But I think that acknowledgement is key, and your description of just saying, “I see you.” I think that’s a great way of just acknowledging what we’re thinking or what we’re feeling, and not getting caught up in that really exhausting struggle with trying to get rid of what we are thinking or we’re feeling.
You made the comparison of insomnia being like a bully that wants to come back and try to wreak havoc. And if you give that bully the time of day, then they’re going to get off on that, and they’re going to keep going. If you don’t let the bully phase you, then they might disappear and try to bother someone else. I love that analogy.
I think that that’s a really helpful way of exploring our relationship with our thoughts and our feelings. So many of them don’t feel good when we’re caught up in insomnia, so we want to fight them.
But over the long term, I just don’t think it’s a battle we can win. We can maybe distract ourselves in the short term, or try and convince ourselves to think differently in the short term. But in the long term, I don’t think so. If we could do that, then we would be able to just fall in love, and genuinely love that person, and live happily ever after forever and ever, for the rest of our lives. We might be able to fool ourselves for a little bit of time, but probably not for the rest of our lives.
Because we just can’t control those thoughts and those feelings. And some make us feel good. Some don’t. But when we don’t get caught up in the battle with them, they tend to hang out. Then they disappear, then they might come back. They might hang out for longer, then disappear. But they’re always transient. It can feel like they’re always there, but they come and go when we are able to free ourselves from that battle with them.
And taking the day like we talked about before, really enjoying the day, and finding the joy in those moments. I feel like it’s strengthening our drive to help to get rid of those bullies. Because you’re not taking all the anxiety about, “Well, it’s nighttime. Am I going to sleep?” And no, you’re present. You’re present. You’re arrived in your day, and you’re not allowing that anxiety to enter in and stay there.
Yeah. Especially if we can do all that stuff even when the mind is giving us all this difficult stuff to deal with. So it could be during the day, the brain’s like, “You’re too exhausted. You can’t do that today.” So it could just be like, “All right, I see.” You might even name that thought. That’s the doom and gloom thought, or it’s the you’re too tired thought. “Thanks brain. I know you’re looking out for me. But you know what? I’m going to do this anyway. Let’s see. Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. But I’m just going to give it a try.”
And the more we can do that, we just separate the thoughts that we have from our actions. The thoughts that we have don’t always have to dictate our behaviors. We are in the middle of that. We always get to choose. And it can be so helpful. I think it can be empowering.
Because we realize that no matter how difficult or intense the thought or a feeling that we have, we always get to choose how to respond. And really, it’s how we choose to respond that determines whether we engage in a struggle, which is really exhausting, and can kind of distract us, and take all of our energy from us, and we end up moving away from the kind of life we want to live. Or whether we kind of redirect our attention on what we have control over, even when all this difficult stuff’s going on. We make that conscious choice that I’m going to do something that helps me take the other path towards the kind of life I want to live. And I just think it can be really empowering, and it can just free up so much of our energy to do what matters.
Yes. And there are also some very well-meaning people that might give that advice too. Like, “You’re too tired. You should rest. You should stay home.” There might be those supportive people in your life that’s giving you that advice. So it’s important to stay true and stay focused, and committed on the path.
It also goes back to what you were saying earlier is we need to be kind to ourselves too. We don’t have to be a superhero every day. “I’m going to do every single thing on my list no matter what.” We might have a day where we just need to take care of ourselves, whatever that might mean for us. Just being kind to ourselves, whether it means talking to ourselves in a kind way because we can be so hard on ourselves when we’re caught in a struggle. Just talking to ourselves kindly. And behaving in a way that’s kind to ourselves.
And there might be days where we need some rest or we need to treat ourselves. Let’s do that. We don’t have to be a superhero every day. We’re human beings. What can be helpful is just being kind to ourselves, and just engaging in things that are important to us, no matter how small those things might be.
So we’ve talked about a few different things. A few different changes that you made while we were working together. As I talk whilst this freight train is just running behind me in the background. But we talked about the sleep window that you found helpful. Just allotting and amount of time for sleep that’s more or less aligned with the amount of sleep you tend to be averaging at the current time. You gave yourself a plan for responding to nighttime wakefulness. If you’re awake during the night, that’s okay. But if it doesn’t feel good, I’ve got the opportunity to do something else, and I’ve got a clear plan in place so there’s no ambiguity.
So if it doesn’t feel good to be awake, I got that little corner set up somewhere. I’m going to read a book. That’s where I’m going to go. If things start to feel more appropriate for sleep, then I’ll go back to bed. Repeat as needed. I’m going to get out of bed around the same time each day. I’m going to avoid those daytime naps. I’m going to acknowledge the difficult stuff I’m feeling, rather than trying to battle with it. I’m going to do stuff that matters to me during the day. Whether that’s just being kind to myself. Or engaging in activities that are important, enriching, meaningful, aligned with my values.
And avoid the daytime naps as well. So we’re just removing ourselves from all that effort to sleep, to chase after sleep, to make sleep happen. That’s a lot of stuff we covered. Was there anything else that you wanted to mention that we haven’t covered?
I really find a lot of solace in the buffer hour that we have before bed. That has become still so important to me. Even though I’ve become a very consistent sleeper for the most part now, I am just really true to this beautiful time before bed.
And it’s not this time that I use to prepare for sleep. It’s not like in preparation for sleep. It’s just this space that is for me. Daughter’s asleep and husband’s usually asleep. So I get to just take in that little bit of night. I really love that it’s there, and it’s given me a nice relationship with the nighttime. I try not to put pressure on that time, because it’s not really about going to sleep. It’s just about enjoying that quiet, peaceful part of the night.
Yeah. I’m glad that you mentioned that again, because it’s something that can trip us up. And we talked about it a little bit earlier, about how we can… I think a lot of it comes to either well-intentioned advice from friends or looking online, “Do this before you go to bed.” Whether it’s take a shower, turn off all the lights, turn off the TV, drink a warm glass of milk, or some sleepy tea or stuff like that. It’s so easy to add all these rituals before bed.
But the truth is there’s no ritual that’s going to make sleep or sleepiness happen. All we’re doing is just engaged in more effort around sleep, and that’s completely counterproductive. But what can be helpful is just giving us ourselves time in the evening before going to bed, that’s just for us.
So let’s say an hour. An hour before we’re planning on going to bed, that’s just me time. I’m just going to do stuff that I want to do, that I personally find relaxing or enjoyable.
And I think that’s as far as we need to go with it. It just needs to be time that we enjoy, to help us make that transition between our wakeful lives, with all that pressure and struggle that we have to deal with. To getting to a place where we just can decompress a little bit. And it can be just so powerful to have that time for ourselves, to do whatever we want to do before we go to bed.
There was a moment in time where I was really trying to figure out what to do during that hour, which kind of goes perfectly alongside trying to figure out what to do to set yourself up well for sleep, the whole day trying to set. It’s like that’s not really what it’s about, is it? It’s not about doing the perfect thing. It’s really just about doing something enjoyable, whatever that is. It was stretching, it was writing, or it was reading. It changed, it morphed, and it wasn’t necessarily one particular thing. But for a little while, I was trying to seek the correct activity, which was really counterproductive.
It’s so easy to look back on it now, isn’t it? And just recognize all those things that we were engaged in, that we’re able to reflect on and be like, “That wasn’t helpful.” But at the time, we’re engaging all these experiments because we want to fix the problem that we’re going through. And sometimes, we might feel like, “I did that and then I slept well. So now as long as I keep doing that thing, I’m all good.”
But then what tends to happen is because that thing wasn’t what generated sleep, when we then have a difficult night, we’re left scrambling for a new thing. We just get caught up in that rabbit hole.
It’s a process to get to that point. I don’t think there’s an easy magic switch that just overnight, we have this big revelation, and we’re able to drop all that temptation to engage in rituals, and safety behaviors, and chasing after sleep. I think it is a process, and it takes a lot of practice. And there’s ups and downs along the way.
Using your experience from when we started to explore these changes to you getting to the point where you felt, “I don’t think that insomnia is this big influencer over my life anymore. It feels like it’s kind of in the rear view mirror now rather than a huge movie screen in front of my face, blocking out everything else in my life.” How long would you say that process took?
Maybe six months, for me. It got better and better. I mean, I felt like I was on a good trajectory, with some disruptions here and there. But really in order for me to feel okay, I have given myself now all of the space during the day to do what I do, to care for myself, to care for my family. All that, do my work, and not have to constantly be figuring out how I’m going to be sleeping, or what’s going to happen. Because that took up so much of my thinking.
I think that was about half a year. But it was such a clear progression of sleeping better and gaining more and more confidence. The more better nights I had, the more confidence I had. So I felt like I was becoming stronger and more trusting of myself.
Yeah, that’s great. I asked you that because I was suspecting that you were going to say something along the line of months. I think it’s helpful because we have to recognize that it’s a process. It usually takes time. Just as it took time for the insomnia to develop, it’s going to take time to pick away at it, and to change all those habits, or rituals, or routines that we’re currently engaged in to kind of unstick ourselves. And it takes time. And we often experience ups and downs along the way. And during those difficult times, the brain starts firing up again, telling us, “You’re struggling.” Generates all those difficult thoughts and feelings.
But that stuff we can’t control. What we can control is our actions. So if we can just stay committed to ensuring that our behaviors are helping to set the stage for sleep, that’s really all we can do. And that our behaviors are just helping us move toward the kind of life we want to live, even when all this difficulty and struggle is still present. That’s really all we can do.
And as long as we can stay committed to that, we tend to find we are not getting rid of difficult thoughts and feelings. They’re always going to be with us. But they’re going to have less of an influence over us. And then in turn, the insomnia or sleep and wakefulness, regardless of what that looks like, tends to have less of an influence over us. Because our focus now is on all the things we can control, and all the things that free us up to just live the kind of life we want to live. And when we do that, all the difficult stuff still there, but just maybe a lower volume. A progressively lower volume, and less influential over our behaviors.
So Amanda, what would you say an average night is like for you these days? If you had to reflect on what a typical night is for you, what would that be like?
Typical night, I would around 10:00 or so, just turn down the house and have, again, that hour. Pretty quiet, very relaxing time. And then when I’m sleepy, feel sleepy, I go to bed. And I’ve been getting maybe seven hours of sleep at night. Seven typically.
And I don’t need anything. I don’t take anything. I don’t need any of those pills. I don’t need any of that outside stuff. I just rely on myself. And generally, nights are good. Generally, I sleep well. Every now and then, there’s a little disruptive evening. And I deal with that, and then I’m generally back on track.
And I am feeling more energetic during the day. I feel like I have more clarity during the day, because I’m not taking all that stuff. I remember pretty early on actually in the program, I felt like I could see colors and hear sounds differently, clearer. There was this clarity. So really beautiful stuff, and a real gratitude. Because I know what it feels like to not get good sleep. So then to get the sleep, to wake up to know, “I did it. I’m proud of myself. I didn’t need to take some pills. I didn’t need to do it. I did it myself. My body knows what it’s doing.” I still do. A year later, I wake up feeling proud every morning. “I did it.” It feels like a real accomplishment, and I carry that with me.
That’s great. Well Amanda, I’m really grateful for the amount of time you’ve spent with us just talking about your own story, your own experience. I know everyone listening to this is going to get some value from it. I’ve got some value from it myself, just hearing you describe certain things. I love the way you acknowledge those thoughts and those feelings by just saying things like, “I see you.” I thought that was great.
But before I let you go, I did have one last question for you, which I ask every guest. So I don’t want you to feel left out. And it’s this. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, that they just cannot do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?
I would say that I understand what they’re going through. The loneliness at night, those feelings of isolation. And that I really totally understand how hard it is, but that they’re not alone. They might feel like they’re alone, but they’re not.
And that the human body and brain is so strong and resilient. And I really believe that it can readapt. It can be reconditioned. And that’s just exactly what this program did for me. In the darkest days, I did not think I’d be able to fall asleep again. I just did not think I could do it on my own. I thought I’d be just taking pills for the rest of my life. But everything’s dumped, and I’m doing it. And it’s because this program helped to just reshape some of my habits and my thinking around sleep.
So it works, and it’s powerful. And it takes a lot of work, and it takes a commitment and a little bit of pain upfront. But it is so worth it in the long term. You will sleep again, and you’ll do it on your own. I’m a big believer, so take the leap of faith.
That’s great. I think that’s a fantastically positive note to end on. So thank you again, Amanda, for taking the time to come onto the podcast.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks Martin.
Thanks for listening to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life you want to live, I would love to help. You can get started right now by enrolling in my online course or you can book my phone coaching package. My online course runs for six weeks. It will help you make changes that can create better conditions for sleep, it will help you identify and get rid of any behaviors that might be making sleep more difficult, and it will help you respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it in a more workable way. You can work through the course in two ways. You can choose the self-coaching option and work through it by yourself with the support of an online forum that is available only to clients.
Or, you can choose to add one-on-one email coaching and work through the course with me by your side. With the one-on-one coaching option, you get unlimited email access to me for eight weeks, starting from the day you enroll. Any time you have a question or concern, any time you are unsure about anything, any time you want to focus on the challenges you face or any difficulties that show up, you can email me and I will be there to coach and support you. You can get the course and start right now at insomniacoach.com.
With the phone coaching package, we start with a one-hour call (voice only or video — your choice) and come up with an initial two-week plan that will help you create better conditions for sleep and practice moving away from struggling with insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it. You get unlimited email access to me for two weeks after the call and a half-hour follow-up call at the end of the two weeks. You can book the phone coaching package at insomniacoach.com/phone.
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 move away from the insomnia struggle so you can start living the life you want to live, click here to get my online insomnia coaching course.
Share this page