How Amy went from an intense fear of insomnia and feeling her situation was hopeless to averaging over seven hours of sleep each night (#34)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Night after night of wakefulness led Amy to a dark place where she saw no way out. She felt helpless and doomed to a life of insomnia.

Ironically, Amy became friends with someone else who was struggling with insomnia. This friend ended up enrolling as a client of mine and started to experience improvements in their sleep. Amy learned more about the behavioral changes he was making, and — even though she assumed these wouldn’t work for her — she figured she was already suffering so much, nothing she could do could make her situation worse.

So, Amy started to spend less time in bed, she abandoned her sleep rituals, and she shifted away from trying to control sleep and all the thoughts and worries her mind would generate. After weeks of ups and downs, Amy started to get more sleep, more consistently. Now, she averages around seven or more hours of sleep each night and considers her transformation nothing short of a miracle.

Amy’s story shows that no matter how desperate things feel, no matter how severe your insomnia may be, there is always hope. If you are willing and able to make some changes to your current sleep habits and your current relationship with the difficult thoughts and emotions that like to accompany insomnia, you can get to a place where you will realize that you CAN sleep!

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, Amy. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Amy M:
You’re welcome.

Martin Reed:
It’s great to have you on, and I’m really looking forward to our conversation. So without any further ado, maybe we could just start right at the beginning and talk about when your sleep issues first began. When did they first begin, and what do you think caused those initial issues with sleep?

Amy M:
So they began first in September of 2020, and I think the first thing that really happened is that we had raccoons in the attic, and that was causing some interrupted sleep. But it began, in earnest, when I was talking to a friend of mine and he mentioned that he was having sleep issues. And because I had had insomnia once before in 2013, I was very superstitious about talking about sleep. And when he told me what was happening, I suddenly got scared like, “Oh my God.” And I just suddenly knew I wasn’t going to sleep that night, just because of him telling me that his… It triggered something, and that’s when it really started.

Martin Reed:
I hear you mentioned the word superstition around insomnia. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Amy M:
Yeah, well since I had the insomnia in 2013, and I had resolved it finally, but it was really difficult to resolve. Since then I’d always felt, well, superstitious. Once I was sleeping again from that first one, I mentally didn’t want to get anywhere near the idea of not sleeping again. So that’s what I meant by superstitious. So I knew that if I started to think about that much, that there was a danger of it happening. And then when it did come up with him, since he was a close friend and I often empathized with him, it just triggered this thing that set that off again.

Martin Reed:
It almost sounds as though you had this completely understandable desire to just not even want to think about sleep. Anytime those sleep related thoughts or thoughts related to insomnia pushed into your head, you want to try and push them out. And you would really be conscious about trying to avoid any situation or circumstance whereby you might even start to think about sleep or insomnia. Does that sound about right?

Amy M:
Yeah, definitely. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
I think a lot of people are going to identify with that, because I think it can be quite helpful in the short-term, just to try and avoid any situation or circumstance where we think or talk about sleep or insomnia. But as you discovered over the longer term, it can be really hard to control our life or control our thoughts in that way, because our brain is always going to want to think things, and it becomes really difficult to sustain that thought suppression or that experience suppression.

Amy M:
Yeah. And there was more to why the actual insomnia began than just getting that thing from my friend. But then you’re also bringing up the whole idea about thoughts and controlling your thoughts. And having done a lot of meditation and been on a spiritual path for a long time, I had a lot of experience with trying to stop my thoughts and control my thoughts, and come to a deeper place of no thinking. But that’s getting a little bit ahead of myself and the whole story of how this began. So the other stuff that was happening is that, for certain things had not gone the way I had wanted them to. And I was… I don’t know what, settling into a new situation at this time last fall.

Amy M:
And then I started getting fear. And once the fear started happening, I had gotten this whole relationship with the fear and trying to not go into the fear, and then being encouraged by a teacher to just let myself experience the fear. And then these other things were happening where I have some properties, and I suddenly had to get them all inspected, get them repaired, pass inspection. And then by that time, I had started to not sleep, so it was that… Once you start not sleeping, you get into this whole downward spiral, where it becomes really difficult to feel positive. I’m sure people watching will identify. It just wrecks your life completely. And I found myself feeling incapable of doing things that ordinarily I could do without any problem. So everything just went down into a negative vicious circle.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, definitely. I think that was a big insight that you just touched upon, where you said that there was a teacher that you were working with, and they said maybe instead of trying to avoid or to fight or to run from these difficult or uncomfortable thoughts and emotions such as fear, maybe if we can get to a place where we’re more willing to experience those emotions or those thoughts or those feelings. It can sometimes be a bit more helpful, because often where we get caught up is in that struggle, that completely understandable desire to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And that’s where we can get a little bit trapped sometimes.

Amy M:
Yeah. Well, I have a lot of experience in my prior life of just going into emotion and experiencing emotion, and just coming out the other side. The problem with this was that, when I would attempt to go to sleep, that would all surface and then I would have this long, long stretch of time through the entire night, of going into it and coming out of it and having it surface again, and all of this stuff.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Amy M:
Yeah.

Martin Reed:
I think a lot of us can probably recognize that when there’s some strange or unusual or stressful or difficult periods of our life… You mentioned having raccoons in the attic, or having all those issues with houses, you’ve got to get through inspection, lots of stress. We’re going to probably experience some temporary sleep disruption, just as a normal human response. And normally our sleep gets back on track when we’ve adjusted or these issues are no longer as relevant. But in chronic insomnia and other longer-term struggle with sleep, we often see that even when those initial triggers are no longer present, the sleep issues remain.

Amy M:
Yeah, that’s what happened to me, because I did eventually get everything inspected and passed inspection, got the licenses, and I thought that it would be over then, but unfortunately it wasn’t. And then also in the middle of getting through… This was in December by then, getting everything finished, I developed a physical issue. So that physical issue then started to become another source of fear, because I had no idea what it was, how to treat it, what to do about it. So once the first issue was okay, then it just glommed onto the next thing.

Martin Reed:
If we were able to eliminate any triggers for sleep disruption or recurring or fresh triggers for sleep disruption, why do you feel like those sleep issues stuck around, even when those initial triggers were no longer an issue? Do you think it was more related to maybe your past experience struggling with sleep, or just the thought processes, your relationship with sleep, or those sleep related thoughts, worries, and ideas, maybe they were contributing to this ongoing disruption with sleep?

Amy M:
I think there were two things. I think one is that I adjusted to living without hardly any sleep. And at this point I think I was getting maybe two hours a night. Initially I had the type where I’d fall asleep for two hours, and then I’d wake up and be unable to sleep after that. But then it would also start careening into no sleep at all, just this form of resting. So I think I got acclimated to not sleeping, and I felt as if I had worked my way into this just dark place of living without sleep and struggling. And it seemed as if I had forgotten how to sleep. Actually, I was quite sure that I was not ever going to find my way out of this again, that I completely forgotten how to do it. And I didn’t really have any hope that I would again. So I think it had become that habit thing. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
I think that’s a common thing I hear from people, is this concern or this worry or this belief that, “I think I’ve just forgotten how to sleep, or I’ve lost the ability to sleep.” And that as a statement in itself can be quite scary, quite worrying, quite concerning. And then of course, that can feed into this heightened arousal, that can then create some ongoing sleep disruption.

Amy M:
Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t really just disruption, it was just night after night of not sleeping. It wasn’t like I’d sleep and I’d wake up, I’d sleep, I’d wake up, it was just lying there just for countless hours without sleeping. And I got into this thing where I was thinking, “Well, okay. I’m not sleeping, but I’m resting. And let me just try to settle into as internally quiet a place as I can, and just lie here and rest. If I can’t sleep, at least I’ll rest.” I did some research and realized that actually really was not a substitute for sleep, but I felt as if it was better than nothing. So I would be in bed for these long periods of time, just lying there, just resting. Yeah. And then also sometimes I would find myself having to do that during the day as well, because I was so tired all the time.

Martin Reed:
Right. I think a lot of people listening to this are going to identify with you there, because a common hallmark, a common thing that we see among people with chronic insomnia, is spending a lot of time, usually in bed, but just a lot of time resting, allotting a lot of time for sleep. Resting during the day, being more sedentary during the day, because after difficult night, after difficult night, after nights of no sleep or very little sleep, our brain is screaming at us to conserve energy, “You’re exhausted, you’re worn out.” But unfortunately the way this fatigue works is the more sedentary we are, often the more heightened that sense of fatigue can be. And often, of course when we are sedentary, we’re not really doing anything else, because by its very nature we’re sedentary. So the mind has nothing really to focus on apart from this ongoing thinking and worrying about sleep, which can again feed into those ongoing sleep difficulties.

Amy M:
I just got into this really dark place where I was lying there contemplating my character, thinking all kinds of negative things about myself, it was go into all of that. And then there was… I tried sleep medications initially and they didn’t work at all. Really, it didn’t help much. And I was given another one and I had an allergic reaction to it. And that was probably the lowest point, because I got this rash all over my body, it was causing my nerves to do all this jangly stuff through the night. I couldn’t even lie there comfortably.

Amy M:
So I think that was probably the absolute low. And of course depression comes on during all of this too, and really bad thoughts. Thinking back on it now, I mean, it doesn’t really make any sense logically, but this is… I mean you just lose this ability to live constructively. I think that the psychological aspect of it is really, really important.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I completely agree with you. And I can just tell this shift in the mindset of you describing the back then and the way you’re reflecting on it now, you can just tell that your mindset has changed. You can think, “Well, on reflection now I’m beyond this.” This way of thinking doesn’t seem quite so logical as it maybe did back then.

Amy M:
I just wasn’t able to get to a more rational place. And I tried all sorts of things. But I did eventually get help with that. That help came first. It didn’t help get me rational, but it helped me to contend with this darker aspect that had become really, really strong, predominant in my life. My waking life as well as my lying there at night resting life. I can’t call it my sleeping life, because it wasn’t sleep. Just horrible. It’s just horrible.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. It really is. It really is very, very difficult, very challenging. And this is why I like to have these discussions with guests like yourself, because it shows that there is a way out, even when you feel like you’re really deep in this struggle with sleep and with insomnia. It is possible to come out the other side of it, no matter how hopeless you feel the situation might be at the present time.

Amy M:
Yeah. Even if you don’t believe it. And I didn’t believe it either. I mean, I kept trying things, but yeah, I thought that was it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that. Because you mentioned that there were a few things you tried, that you’d increase the amount of time you’d spend resting. You tried the route of medications, supplements, things like that. What other things had you tried, that looking back on it, were probably not that helpful?

Amy M:
Sleep hygiene. And it’s funny too, because the sleep hygiene thing, I mean, it logically made sense, but it didn’t really do anything. And it was only when I heard you in a little discussion group saying that, that it didn’t actually really help. I listened to that a couple of times and I realized like, “Oh, wait. It really isn’t doing anything. Wow.”

Martin Reed:
One reason I think that these sleep hygiene techniques can be a bit of a trap, a bit of a difficulty for people with insomnia, is they just add a ton more rituals to our routine. Now we have all these things that we might feel obligated we need to do. And it almost becomes a full-time job just preparing for sleep, which is what the opposite of what sleep really should be. It should be effortless. And because sleep hygiene isn’t really effective for people with chronic insomnia, not only are we adding all these rituals, but then when they don’t work or we don’t actually find them all that helpful, we can then start to worry that something is uniquely wrong, that, “Oh my goodness, even sleep hygiene isn’t working. I must have some unique strain of insomnia. There really is no hope for me.”

Martin Reed:
As a standalone treatment, if someone has chronic insomnia and the only thing they try is sleep hygiene, we would probably expect that person not to notice much improvement in their sleep, because sleep hygiene is more of a preventative measure. I like to associate it with brushing your teeth. It’s great to brush your teeth, but once you’ve got that cavity, doesn’t matter how often you brush your teeth, that cavity is not going to get fixed. You need something different.

Amy M:
Yeah, that’s really true. I kept it up anyway, even though it wasn’t helpful. Yeah, I had a lot of rituals too, that really didn’t end up doing any good. I would do yoga, I would meditate, sometimes I would try meditating in the middle of the night. I mean, that might have the effect of bringing me… I don’t know what the word is, but more relaxed. I mean, the really funny thing about the whole thing is that, I could get to a place of not thinking, but I couldn’t turn my awareness off. I couldn’t turn my consciousness off in order to sleep. That was what made me think this was it, there was no way out of this.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I think it’s great that you mentioned that, because I think a lot of people are going to identify with that, because often our ongoing quest is to figure out how to flip that switch, how to turn our consciousness off or how to press on for sleep to happen. And often it’s that desire or our attempts to make that happen, that’s where we can get caught up. Because if we just go out on the street and ask someone who sleeps well what they do to make sleep happen, you probably get that blank stare. And it’s the very fact that they don’t do anything, they make no attempt to make unconsciousness happen or to make sleep happen, they just go to bed. They don’t do anything, and sleep happens. It’s when we try and completely understandably get involved in that process, that it can become the real root of the problem.

Amy M:
Yeah, you’re right. Trying makes it worse, actually.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So as I understand it, you had a friend of yours who was also struggling with sleep, and you ended up using each other as a support system. Can you tell us a little bit more about?

Amy M:
Yeah, yeah, I can. So I just happened to be in a conversation with someone who mentioned that they had insomnia, and I didn’t know them at the time. So I just reached out to them and said, “Listen, I’ve got this really terrible insomnia too. Do you want to talk about it?” And he said, “Yeah.” So we started to talk about it. I mean, just talking about it, that in itself didn’t help specifically. I don’t know. We started to trade little bits of information about what might be useful. And he started doing research, and I’d been doing all this research and trying all these different things. And we became insomnia buddies. We hadn’t really actually met, but we were doing this by text. So we would wish each other a good night’s sleep each night, and all that sort of thing.

Amy M:
And then he encountered you on the internet, and he decided that he was going to spring for your program. I should say that I had already encountered your stuff months before that, and even started getting the initial emails. But because I’d gotten so paranoid, especially about finances, I didn’t want to spend the money. It was like identifying some other way out of this. I’m not going to pay for this. And I didn’t trust it also, to be frank. I thought, “Well, I’ll just spend the money and I still won’t sleep. I’m not going to do that.”

Amy M:
I didn’t really get it, and I just assumed it wouldn’t work. And honestly, it sounded too brutal. Really. It just sounded too damn hard, because I was also already so exhausted that the idea of being in bed for a shorter period of time, there was no way I was going to do that on top of what I was already suffering. It was already hard enough, I wasn’t going to make it worse.

Martin Reed:
I think it can be really difficult to come to terms with some of these techniques, like spending less time in bed, for example, because we equate more time in bed with more time asleep or more opportunities for sleep. But the fact of the matter is, what I think can be helpful is to just ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing at the current time proving to be helpful?” It might make you feel more comfortable spending long, long periods of time in bed, but is it really proving to be helpful helping you reach your longer term goals? If it’s not a problem and you’re comfortable spending really long periods of time in bed, and you don’t feel that it’s affecting your life in any way, it’s helping you live your life according to your values, then obviously there’s no need to make any changes. But maybe if you can recognize that, “This isn’t really helping me, my sleep doesn’t appear to be taking advantage of all these hours I’m spending in bed.”

Martin Reed:
Maybe it’s leading to some more fatigue, or it’s not really giving me that light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes it can be helpful to just think, “Well, maybe I can just make a change just for a couple of weeks as an experiment. And let’s just see if it does make any changes, if it is something that I want to pursue.”

Amy M:
You’re speaking very logically. And in this state of insomnia, logical thinking wasn’t really the norm for me. It was more like what felt like it might help. And it didn’t feel like being in bed for a short period of time would help. So my decision making capability was not so great. What you’re saying is really logical, it makes a lot of sense, but I wasn’t really making my decisions based on logic rationale at that time. Now I can, but then… Insomnia does this thing to you, where you just become, well I did, really negative. So what actually did convince me was that he signed up with your thing, and he started to get these email instructions, and he started to make progress. I felt like, “Damn. I’m not going to let him get ahead of me.”

Amy M:
And I thought, “Shoot, if it’s working for him, oh my God, I better do it too.” Right? So he was willing graciously to share with me the information you were giving him. So I just started following the same instructions, but it was really more like an ego thing, honestly, that caused me to finally think, “Oh my God. Can’t let this happen.” And then the other thing is that I realized that all I was really being asked to do was to stay up later. The part about getting out of bed earlier, well, I wasn’t going to deal with that. But it did start to dawn on me that, well, to go from 9:30, which had become the time that I got in bed, to 11:30, I could just sit upright and wait and those two hours would pass. And then I could try getting in bed then. But another thing that made a difference too, was the distinction between fatigue and tiredness and sleepiness, because I wasn’t experiencing any sleepiness. Masses of fatigue, but not sleepiness.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So what happened when you started to stay up late? So was it just you noticed a change maybe from that sense of fatigue and exhaustion, it maybe started to turn into something else, something more akin to actual sleepiness. Is that how you describe it?

Amy M:
Yeah, it did. It did. It turned into sleepiness. And I think in the beginning, it didn’t really make much difference. And I have to say the part that was really difficult for me, was to get out of bed in the morning. Because initially I was getting out of bed late also. So I knew I had to scale that back. And my sleep buddy was now getting up at 5:30 in the morning. And it just seemed like something I just couldn’t do, so I didn’t do it. But I did start to get out of bed earlier and earlier. And as I got used to it, I guess the period of time I was in bed got shorter and shorter. So I think what started to happen initially was that I started to get those first two hours of sleep again, and then I’d wake up. And then there’d be a long stretch of time, during which I’d just lie there.

Amy M:
And then I maybe would get another hour, say from 4:00 to 5:00. So I’d put those together and I’d have three hours. Okay. Well, three is better than two. And slowly, slowly I’d get maybe two and then a long stretch, and maybe another two, say 4:00 to 6:00, something like that. So then it was four hours. And then maybe three hours in the beginning and two in the morning, and that was a huge victory because now that was three plus two was five, “Oh my God, this is it. I’ve got five hours.” It was broken sleep, broken by a lot, but at least it was a bit more. So really slowly I would get these pieces, and the pieces would extend a little bit at a time. So it increased the amount of overall time I was getting each night. And then I had one night when I slept for six hours, and it was just amazing, like, “Oh, wow. I won. This worked. Oh my God.”

Amy M:
And my experience of the day was so different, but then the next night I couldn’t sleep again, so it was like that. So I guess that went on for about a month and a half. And it just gradually, gradually increased over time. And then the pieces would sometimes merge and sometimes not. So sometimes I would get five hours straight, then the next night I wouldn’t. So it happened really slowly over a period of time. And then I started to sleep through the night, maybe five hours at first, and then after a while maybe it was six. Alternating, five, six, five, six, six and a half, back to five, like that. And I think that started around April. So the month of April was the first month that I started to actually sleep every night. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
That’s great.

Amy M:
And then it got longer. So now I’m sleeping every night. I mean, periodically I might have a night of four hours or something, but basically now, I think it’s around seven, seven and a half, sometimes eight, sometimes longer. But the point is I can now just get in bed and fall asleep. That’s just amazing.

Martin Reed:
That’s incredible.

Amy M:
It’s incredible. Yeah. It’s really incredible.

Martin Reed:
Listening to you describe the process something that stood out for me was, how you mentioned when you first heard about this technique of spending less time in bed. First thought is, that just sounds uncomfortable, sounds brutal. Sounds like it’s not going to be helpful. Sounds like something I just can’t even consider right now. But you allowed yourself to think about it. And then maybe it was percolating in the back of your mind for a while. And then you heard about your friend doing it, was finding it helpful. So instead of maybe just going crazy and only spending four or five hours in bed, you started off a little bit more gradually, maybe with a little bit more, maybe some more self-compassion or something. You just said, “Okay. I’ll just stay up later for a couple of hours. I won’t worry too much about the time I get out of bed for now. I’ll just start by going to bed a couple of hours later.”

Martin Reed:
And I think that’s great because, what happened there really was you got started. Even if we only feel comfortable starting off by maybe going to bed an hour later or two hours later, that’s still, I think, something that can be a really positive step. Because then if we do start to notice some improvements, it gives us that confidence and that motivation to then maybe make a few more changes, maybe go to bed a little bit later, or maybe then really work on getting out of bed at a consistent time in the morning, which can then lead to further improvements. So I think that’s helpful that you described that process, because some people might think that for it to work you’ve got to go all in, no looking back, you’ve got to be really strict, really brutal with yourself, sergeant major style, but you don’t. You can just start with small steps in the right direction, and that can really be a great way to get started on this transformation. Which is what you’ve experienced yourself.

Amy M:
Yeah. I’d say it’s true. Actually the thing is I completely ruled out trying this in the beginning. Yeah. It wasn’t like I was just thinking maybe this would work, maybe it wouldn’t. It was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to do this.”

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So was it just because the experience of your friend doing it and getting results, that just made you give it a try, or was there anything else?

Amy M:
It was. It was. Because I had heard about this from several people by then. Yeah, and just said, “No way.” I don’t know. I mean, I think that’s just a characteristic of my personality I’m not proud of. Yeah. I guess I hate to say it, but yeah, it was true. It was like, I wasn’t going to let him start sleeping and I wasn’t going to. But whatever it was it doesn’t really matter, it caused me to start to do that little bit of it. That piece.

Martin Reed:
I think it’s helpful to be a little bit self compassionate and understanding, because we’ve tried a lot of things, right. When we’ve been struggling with sleep, we’ve tried a lot of different things and yet most of them haven’t proved to be helpful. So when we come across yet another suggestion or yet another technique, and we’re just told to blindly trust it. And when it sounds as though it might be uncomfortable, like spending less time in bed, it makes complete sense that our brain’s default position is going to be, “Uh-uh (negative). No way. It’s going to be another one of these things we’re going to try, it’s not going to work. But this one just sounds like we’re going to put ourselves through torture and not get any results.” So I think it’s understandable why we would have that hesitancy or want to just brawl it out as a default position. That’s completely understandable.

Amy M:
Yeah. I would say that self-compassion was not something I had in spades through all of this. And actually gaining self-compassion has been a big part of what I did actually learn from this experience. And now the current experience I’m having, trying to resolve the other physical issue that developed while I was going through this. So yeah, it’s really important to have self-compassion, but something I was lacking in.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think self-compassion’s a big thing that we tend to not really pay much attention to, or gloss over. I like to think of self-compassion as just acting like a best friend, but to yourself. So if a friend of ours comes to us with a struggle, we tend not to have any trouble being compassionate at that time. But when it comes to our own struggles, sometimes it can be hard to have that same level of compassion, and especially when it comes to sleep issues. When we have difficult nights, we can be really hard on ourselves, we can blame ourselves even for having a difficult night. We tend to get lost then. That’s why I think having this self-compassion can be really helpful.

Amy M:
Yeah. I mean, it definitely is. I remember, I mean, I was trying to develop it, but it didn’t come easily. And in fact, I think really the self-compassion started more after I was already sleeping. And it’s really more developed where I’m having to be really gentle with myself and listen to my body and talk to my body. And yeah, it’s coming on more later. But if anybody has it, yeah, that’s definitely an asset.

Martin Reed:
I completely agree. What a practical way, I think, that we can just practice some self-compassion, might just be after a difficult night, maybe doing something nice during the day like treating ourselves, almost like giving ourself a reward or doing something that might help us feel a little bit better. Because often our default position after really difficult nights might be to do less during the day, for example, or blame ourselves for a difficult night. If we can just do something kind for ourselves after a difficult night, not only can that be helpful just from that self-compassion standpoint, but it can also just slightly improve the quality of our day. And maybe that could also come with a slight benefit of helping us recognize that, what we choose to do during the day also can influence how we feel during the day and the quality of our day, rather than it being completely a hundred percent, always determined by what happens during the night.

Amy M:
I mean, that’s a good point. I think you’re right. It’s not something that I did or really was able to do. In fact, especially in the beginning, I think a lot of it was the opposite of that. I would lie in bed at night and think about things that were unresolved. And then during the day I was too exhausted to really… And I couldn’t think clearly enough to really take on a lot of these things, and resolve them. In fact, in the beginning when I was really desperate and I was calling the doctor helpline at my health insurance frequently, and trying to talk to somebody who would have something for me, I remember one doctor saying to me, “What you’re dealing with, the falling asleep and waking up two hours later, there’s no medication for that. You will not be helped by medication.” He didn’t really offer a solution except to drink camomile tea.

Amy M:
Yeah, the whole health industry thing was so not helpful. And I went down that road many, many times looking for answers. But I think what you’re saying is true and right, is if one can do it, yeah, absolutely.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And like you implied there, it’s not always easy to be self-compassionate, it’s not always easy to do some enjoyable things during the day after really difficult nights. Sometimes though, we need to do things or it’s worth trying things that might not come easily. If nothing else, just to try them out and just to see if they are going to be helpful or not.

Amy M:
Yeah, you’re right. I mean, I’m still working on that now. That’s a process for sure.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a skill, self-compassion is definitely a skill just like relaxation is a skill. It can be really easy for us to think that we should just have these abilities or these skills just as part of who we are, but we don’t. And if we’ve never practiced self-compassion before, if we’ve never practiced relaxation before, we’re not going to notice improvements right away. It’s not going to come easy, it does take practice. It’s like any skill, like learning a new musical instrument, for example. We can probably realize that we’re not going to become great guitar players the first time you pick up a guitar, but yet when it comes to more emotional skills like self-compassion or relaxation, we can get trapped into thinking that it should be easy, but why should it be easy? It’s not going to be easy if we’re not skilled in those things, it does take practice.

Amy M:
It’s true.

Martin Reed:
And something else that I like that you touched upon, was when you started to go to bed later and you started to get these improvements in sleep, was that these improvements weren’t completely linear. It wasn’t like one night was good then the next night was better, the next night was just as good or better, the next night was just as good or better. There were ups and downs along the way, and it did take time. It wasn’t just this magical transformation that happened right away, it was something you had to stick to with the ups and downs. I think that’s helpful for people to hear, because we can believe or expect or put pressure on ourselves to just do better and better every night after every night, but there are always ups and downs. When you were going through that, going through, maybe you had some better nights and then some difficult nights, how did you get through those difficult nights in terms of having that motivation to just keep going?

Amy M:
I think when I shifted from going to bed at 9:30, and I don’t honestly really know why I picked 9:30. Nonetheless, when I shifted from going to bed at 9:30 to going to bed at 11:30… I don’t know. I think I made a commitment just to try this. And then it suddenly didn’t really make any sense to go to bed at 9:30 again, for example. And it started to make a kind of sense. And I started to realize like, “Oh, wait a minute, this is this thing that could work. So I’ll just keep doing that.” And I was going to get in bed anyway every night, so I might as well just keep doing it. It wasn’t really like at that point it made any sense to go back to what I’d been doing before. It wouldn’t have made any sense to start taking trazadone again. So I just got in the habit of going to bed at 11:30. Sometimes I’d be at that head bobbing phase by 11:30, but it just became the new thing I was doing. Does it make any sense?

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think it does make sense. And it’s something that some people can struggle with. Some people like yourself, from what you’re saying, can just come up with this mindset of, “I’m just going to set it and forget about it. So from now on, I’m just going to not go to bed at…” In your example, 9:30, “I’m going to just going to go to bed at 11:30. And whether it’s a good night, an okay night, a really difficult night, doesn’t matter. The next night, I’m still going to go to bed at 11:30.” And I think that can be really helpful, because what it does is it shifts our attention and our efforts onto something we can control, like we can control the time we choose to go to bed. Away from our brain’s default position of trying to put effort into sleep or trying to control sleep, trying to monitor for sleep.

Martin Reed:
So instead of, “I’m having a really difficult night, I’ve got to sleep. Maybe tomorrow I should go to bed earlier.” Getting caught up in all those thought processes, we just have this default process of, “I’m still going to go to bed tomorrow at 11:30.” So you stick to this, you make this commitment. Like you said, you commit to what you can control, which is your behaviors, accept the things that we can’t control, which is what happens from night to night. And if we can be consistent with that approach, I think it gives us the best opportunity to experience those ongoing improvements. Like you explained, where sleep is still a bit fragmented, but every now and then there’ll be that little bit of extra sleep. Then a little bit of extra sleep, a little bit less sleep, a little bit more wakefulness. Until you had that real, what sounded that breakthrough moment when you just had that stretch of unbroken sleep. And that sounds like maybe that was that real light bulb moment for you.

Amy M:
Yeah. Until the next night when it didn’t happen again. Yeah. It’s so funny looking back on it, how I would lie there and I would try to… I mean, I remember at one point I was trying, right? I was trying to settle further, deeper, deeper, deeper into sleep. It didn’t work either. I remember hearing you say something about all you really have to do is get in bed and close your eyes, and I thought, “Oh, wow. Oh, remember that? That sounds way too easy.” I mean, the thing about all of it is that it’s involuntary. I mean, there’s so much we have no control over whatsoever, it has to just be turned over to the body. And all our trying is useless.

Martin Reed:
That’s definitely where we get caught up when we try to control the process of sleep. That’s why I think struggle is a great word, because we get involved in that struggle, we’re struggling with sleep, trying to make sleep happen. And the struggle really is what the problem is. It’s the fact that we’re involved in that struggle. But it makes sense why we do, because we want to fix the problem. So we’re going to put effort into it, but sleep is that one thing that doesn’t respond well to effort.

Martin Reed:
One reason why I think the technique that you found helpful, of going to bed later, spending a little bit less time in bed, is it can satisfy our desire to do something. So I think it’s hard to just hear, “Don’t do anything. The problem is you’re doing too much to try and make sleep happen. Just don’t do anything.” So then you go to bed and it’s like, “All right, how do I not do anything?” Because your brain wants that thing to do, right? So I think having some helpful things to do like going to bed later, to build that sleep drive, that can be helpful because now we’ve got some changes that we can make, or some behaviors we can implement to satisfy our desire to do something that can help create better conditions for sleep, without us falling into that trap of trying to directly control sleep or make sleep happen. How would you describe an average night these days?

Amy M:
Oh, I mean, I just get into bed and fall asleep. Periodically though, I wake up in the middle of the night. And one of the other issues for me is that my spouse comes to bed later than I do, and then meditates for a while, and there’s candles on and all this stuff. And previously I’d always just slept right through that. And then when I had insomnia, of course, that felt like a hindrance to my being able to fall asleep. And then now I just sleep right through it again. But most of the time now, yeah, I just fall asleep and then I wake up in the morning. It’s a miracle really.

Amy M:
I mean, there are nights when I’ve got to wake up really early in the morning, so I end up with only four and a half hours or something. But usually now, it’s like I just learned how to do it again.

Martin Reed:
I think we’ve covered a lot of really good ground, really good points. I’m really grateful for you to come on and share your experience and your transformation at the end of the day, and this is what I consider it to be. But there is one last question that I’d like to ask you before I let you go, and it’s a question that I ask everyone, so it’s this. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening, and feels as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, and that they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Amy M:
I would tell them to try this. I would tell them to try it, even if it seems like it’s too hard and too brutal, just give it a shot. Just try maybe just going to bed a bit later. Yeah, I guess that’s what I’d say. Yeah. It worked for me. I don’t know if it will work for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a try. Yeah. And I really liked what you said too at the end of those videos, like, “You can sleep, because your body will eventually remember, even if it seems like you can’t.”

Martin Reed:
I think that’s a great note to end on. So thanks again for taking the time to come onto the podcast, Amy. It’s been great to have you on.

Amy M:
Thank you.

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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