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How Chad improved his sleep by undoing all the changes he had made in response to his insomnia (#28)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Chad experienced some sleepless nights during a stressful period at work but his sleep started to get back on track — until one completely sleepless night created an avalanche of anxiety and insomnia.

This led Chad to develop an obsession with sleep. He would go to bed earlier to try to catch up on sleep, try to take naps, and he withdrew from activities that added meaning and enrichment to his life in an attempt to protect his sleep.

Fortunately, Chad discovered that it was his obsession with sleep and the changes he had made in response to difficult nights that were giving insomnia the oxygen it needed to survive.

So, he started to undo all those changes. He started to spend less time in bed and a sense of sleepiness returned. He started to live his life without allowing insomnia to control his decisions, plans, or activities — and this improved the quality of his days and helped him realize just how capable he can be, even after nights of little or no sleep.

By abandoning all efforts to create or control sleep and by living his life according to his values, regardless of how he slept, Chad was able to shift attention away from sleep, create better conditions for sleep to happen, and put his insomnia behind him.

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, Chad. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Chad Mullin:
Hey, Martin. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

Martin Reed:
It’s great to have you on and I’m really looking forward to our conversation and I always to get started right at the beginning, so let’s start there for you. Can you tell us when your sleep problems first began and what you think caused those initial issues with sleep?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, sure. I would say that my sleep issues began about 16 months ago, I guess. It was September of 2019, and things at work had gotten pretty stressful, there was some toxic environment issues going on, which I’m sure is pretty common for folks that deal with insomnia, and I had to have a very difficult conversation with somebody at work. And before that conversation, I was pretty anxious. I knew I was going to have, but a couple of days in advance. And so the night of that, before that conversation, I didn’t sleep very well at all, maybe a couple of hours. Now this was a couple of months before I actually felt I had insomnia. And so I had the conversation, the sleep issues kind of resolved, I noticed sort of the next couple of months, sort of some lingering issues.

Chad Mullin:
I’d have a harder time falling asleep, I’d wake up a little bit earlier. But then there was this one night, September of 2019, where I just did not sleep at all, and that just created an avalanche of anxiety and sleepless nights that I had never dealt with before. I mean, prior to that, I had been a great sleeper. I think I told you in my email that my wife and I, we have four boys and she would always complain that I never would wake up when the kids would cry, and she was always getting up, she was always exhausted and I was well rested. And so I had never really dealt with sleep issues before that event happened in 2019, so that was the start of it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. You mentioned that trigger earlier on in your experience, that issue at work that led to some sleep disruption, for that more recent example, was there any obvious trigger that time or was it just a case of, you just went to bed and for some reason just found it impossible to sleep?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, I can’t pinpoint an obvious reason. Of course, things at work hadn’t really gotten any better and there was still sort of a toxic environment. And so I really think that it probably went back to that one particular meeting I had, and it didn’t really click in my head, it didn’t, I guess it wasn’t such a negative thing at the time. I didn’t think not being able to sleep well that night was an issue, or the lingering issues that I had a couple of months leading up to that one night. But when I realized that I couldn’t get to sleep and I was trying to get to sleep and all of this effort that you speak of at times, that was very alarming to me.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So what happened after that night? I’m guessing the sleep disruption to some extent stuck around because otherwise we wouldn’t be talking right now, but was it just the case that from that moment on just sleep just seemed to be really difficult most nights, every single night? What happened next?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, I mean, it became basically the sole issue in my life. I became obsessed with sleep, it was a situation where the following night I was so tired that I finally fell asleep and I slept for eight hours straight, but then the next night after that I couldn’t get back to sleep. And then, I was trying to compensate by going to bed early. So I would go to bed earlier and it would still take me three or four hours to try to get to sleep and, yeah, so it just perpetuated, I just sort of perpetuate. I mean, you talk about these predisposed ideas and then the perpetuating things that we do that prolong insomnia in our lives and I was doing all of them, I was going to bed earlier. I had gone to see the doctor, because I thought something was wrong with me and this was two or three weeks into it. I thought maybe, I don’t know, I thought maybe I had Lyme disease or any number of things, but I just kept doing things to perpetuate the issue.

Martin Reed:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I think that, that is the key, isn’t it? On reflection, it can seem even clear and obvious that all of these things we were doing in a bid to improve our sleep were probably perpetuating that sleep disruption, but at the time it’s completely understandable why we would do them, right, because we have a problem with sleep, so we want to solve that problem, so we’re naturally going to want to do things going to bed earlier to give ourselves more opportunity for sleep, maybe sleep in later, maybe nap during the day, maybe be less active during the day.

Martin Reed:
We do all these things to try and create better conditions for sleep, to try and make sleep happen, but unfortunately, sleep is one of these things that doesn’t respond well to effort. So all these efforts that we put into sleep actually backfire and feed that sleep disruption and keep the insomnia alive. And so I think it’s really good that you touched upon that because anyone else listening to this, if they can identify some of those similar behaviors, then there’s that real opportunity there to tackle some of these behaviors to give sleep a much better chance of happening and so kind of eliminate perpetuating behaviors.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. So true. Yeah. And like I said, I was a classic case of, I didn’t realize what I was doing until I found your podcast and immediately it clicked, I look back on this is six months after, so that I found you and I think, “Oh man, I just prolong this issue by doing all those things, where had I known I wouldn’t have, but what I did because I didn’t know.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Well, we don’t know what we don’t know. Right. That’s the one of the things in life, one of the reasons why I’m really keen on just keeping these podcast episodes going is because not only does it make these stories when people like yourself come on and share stories and makes them relatable, but it just gets the knowledge out there that you’re doing, it’s understandable why you might be implementing all these behaviors, but it might be worth exploring whether they are truly proving to be helpful or not and if not, then maybe there’s a different way of doing things as we will get onto talking about, as we keep talking hopefully.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. Great. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
You mentioned that you went to the doctor, ruled out any health issues behind your sleep, what other things had you tried in a bit to improve your sleep? Because I know that many people listening to this podcast will have tried many different things, so I’m going to guess that you’re probably the same, but let’s throw it out there. What kind of things had you tried in a bid to improve yourself?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, you don’t think about these things until they happen to you, but then when you start thinking about them and you talk to people about them, it’s amazing how many people are experts until you try some sleepy time tea or melatonin, magnesium supplements. I did try napping during the day. I have a list here, let’s see. Oh, no screens before bed. I went to the chiropractor. Somebody told me that, “Maybe a chiropractor could assist you in adjusting you and it might trigger something to help you out.” I did not, that when I went to see the doctor, they did suggest prescription medication and I avoided it at all costs. I didn’t want to go down that road and I figured I was only two weeks into this, I’m going to figure this out.

Chad Mullin:
So I did not go down that road and fortunately never trailed off there. I kind of sort of averse to taking medication anyway, so I stay away from it. But interestingly, they did suggest CBT-I and I thought, “Therapy? That how? That doesn’t make any sense to me, why talking to somebody.” And little did I know what CBT-I actually was, so I didn’t even investigate until, I said, I found your podcast. So…

Martin Reed:
Yeah. First of all, I think it’s great that your doctor even mentioned CBT-I, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. That’s really encouraging because very often when I talk to clients, they tell me that all they were offered was either sleep hygiene information, which unfortunately we actually know that, that’s not helpful for people with chronic insomnia as the only kind of treatment option, is the only intervention or it’s sleeping pills. And again, sleeping pills, a long-term solution for chronic insomnia. So first of all, I think it’s really encouraging that you were told about CBT-I, so it sounds was it that, that actually triggered your research into maybe there is something to this, maybe it is thoughts and behaviors related could be feeding into the insomnia?

Chad Mullin:
I would not say that I delved into that until probably a couple months after. I heard somebody else on your podcast talk about a book that they had. I got this book prior to hearing this podcast, but a book… what was it called? It was by Guy Meadows and it was the ACT Approach, I guess, so they try. And so I read the book, I tried that approach and it just didn’t work for me, but it did talk a lot about your thoughts around insomnia and how your thoughts really perpetuate the issue.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I think another thing you touched upon was that the mention of that T word therapy, because it can be quite, “Why? You think I need therapy for this really?” But I think it’s somewhat of a misnomer because it’s not really therapy in the traditional sense it’s more just to do with changing some behaviors around sleep and just exploring the thought processes behind sleep, because a lot of the time we can have unhelpful thoughts about sleep, for example, “If I don’t sleep tonight, then tomorrow will be ruined.” And that can just heap even more pressure on you to sleep and lead to more worry, and that can fuel the insomnia.

Martin Reed:
So taking a step back and just evaluating, for example, the accuracy of that thought, have there been any times when you’ve had a difficult night, maybe still got through the day, maybe had some positive moments or just some okay moments and just gradually see if it’s possible to change the way we think about sleep to put less pressure on ourselves to sleep. And there’s also that sleep education component as well, just recognizing that we probably don’t need say eight hours of sleep every single night to live happy, healthy lives, we all have our own sleep requirements, sometimes some of us get less, some of us get more, that can just be so helpful too.

Martin Reed:
So you mentioned that you found my podcast, you found the website, what was it about the stories you heard on the podcast or the information that you learned from my website that made you think this could be a different approach or an approach that could be worth pursuing, could be helpful?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I mean, I think that when you hear people’s testimony and hear them talk about exactly how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about a particular issue, it becomes relatable and you find hope, because insomnia makes you feel very alone. I’ll tell you, it caused me to withdraw from things that I had been involved in at church, or I stopped working out because I was afraid that maybe that was perpetuating it. I had lost some weight, I stopped eating as much as I typically do, and my relationships all around suffered, my relationship with my wife suffered because she didn’t understand what I was dealing with. And so the podcast really brought some hope into my life, that I wasn’t an oddity, or that I wasn’t experiencing something that other people had never experienced before.

Chad Mullin:
And just to hear the hope and the success that your folks on your podcast, your clients had had was just… I mean, I can’t use another word other than encouraging or hopeful. It just kind of put a shot of hope back into my life that there was a way of remedying this situation and kind of getting out of this. I think in my email to you, I said prison, because that’s what it felt I was just in chained by insomnia.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think it can just be so reassuring to recognize that what you are going through isn’t unique, because that suggests that there is a way to move past it, to move beyond it. So that’s another benefit of these podcast episodes, I think, and it’s one reason why I’m so grateful that guests yourself come on to discuss their experiences. When you can relate what you’re going through with what someone else has gone through, first of all, you got to have reassurance you’re not alone. And then when you get to that point where you hear people saying all the things that they did to improve their sleep…

Martin Reed:
Well, if you can recognize that your insomnia is probably similar to the story that you’re hearing, then there’s no reason to believe that you can’t implement the same kind of changes and get the results, because after all your insomnia isn’t unique, it’s not this mystery, it is actually quite common, and insomnia in itself, doesn’t really vary from person-to-person all the characterstics there are almost identical. And I say that as someone who talks to people with insomnia every day, it’s very rare that I hear something that actually takes me by surprise.

Chad Mullin:
Sure. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
So you listened to some podcast episodes, but obviously listening to something often isn’t isn’t enough, we have to then take action. So what was your plan? How did you move forward? So you found this information, you found these stories. What did you do next?

Chad Mullin:
Well, honestly, before I found the podcast, I found your website, and so I saw that you were offering a 14 day free course and so I signed up for that. And during that 14 weeks is when I started listening to your podcast as well, 14 days rather. And so I think the term therapy… So I’m from the Northeast. I’m from Maine and there’s this cultural acceptance that we’re all independent and we don’t need anybody to kind of get through things. Right. And so the idea of therapy for me was… and just, this is sort of grown into you as a child like, “You don’t need therapy, you just tough it out and do it. Right?

Martin Reed:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chad Mullin:
So the idea of therapy, I was kind of resistant to… But so I started your 14 day course and honestly I didn’t take it. I didn’t take it as serious as I should have. I think I kind of was lax on, because you talk about that one, I think it’s day three, you talked about restricting your bedtime. And I did restrict it, but certainly not to the extent that I should have. And so I suffered a bit longer than I probably would have, or should have if I had actually reached out to you and spoken with you and connected with you and done it right.

Chad Mullin:
But all that to say is, I found your website, I started listening to the podcast, sort of started implementing the sleep, bed restriction and so went along with that. And in a couple of months I actually started sleeping a little bit better, but then the pandemic hit and it kind of threw my entire world into this sort of mix again. And I wasn’t sure how to handle that and so my sleep suffered once again. And so then, I was like, “You know what…”. So for about a month, I wasn’t sleeping well at all. I was sleeping maybe four, five hours a night. It would take me a couple hours to get to sleep.

Chad Mullin:
I’d wake up early and not be able to get back to sleep. And I said, fine, I’m just going to do it. I’m going to buckle down and do what you suggest in the podcast and in your course, and I did. And so I restricted my bedtime. I got up when I couldn’t sleep and I would say that I didn’t see a strong effect for maybe eight weeks, it took a while. And so, as you might imagine, I was getting a little discouraged, but I had listened to several of the people on your podcast that had similar experiences with it and that kept encouraging me to continue.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think there’s so much good stuff in there. And I think just the fact that you did, just even at first, if you feel on reflection that you could have done a little bit better, cutting down more time allotted for sleep, just the fact that you cut some time off, it can be so helpful. If, for example, you’re spending eight hours in bed at night and averaging say four to five hours of sleep. You’re kind of setting yourself up for three hours or more of nighttime wakefulness, which is pretty unpleasant. So even if you don’t feel ready to go down to say from eight hours to six hours, maybe you feel ready to go from eight hours to seven hours, or maybe just to seven and a half hours, it’s still a step in the right direction. And as you said, “Maybe it could mean that progress takes a little bit longer, but it’s still progress.”

Martin Reed:
It’s still better than just thinking, “This is something I can’t do, and I don’t want to modify it. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right, but then you don’t end up doing it because you want to do everything perfectly. Just taking those first steps can just be so helpful. And it really is so easy to become to try and become a perfectionist with the techniques. But I think as long as you’re doing your best and you’re making some positive changes, then you will make progress and your sleep will respond positively to what you’re doing.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. And I noticed that those characteristics in myself whenever I’m doing anything, I want to make sure I’m doing it properly, or I’m not going to do it at all. And so I think what you said is exactly true. Even if you do just a little bit, it will be helpful. And it was to me, but I also recognize that it could have been better if I had done better. But…

Martin Reed:
I think sometimes it can be helpful. It sounds like your experience was as you made some smaller changes, figured that maybe they’re helping a little bit, then you experienced this kind of second round of sleep disruption caused by the pandemic, then you decided, “Okay. Now I’m going to go all in.” Maybe you wouldn’t have felt inclined to go all in if you hadn’t have already experimented by just making smaller changes at first, because I think you’ve made some smaller changes, maybe got some results, you can have a little bit more confidence to them fully commit and go all in.

Chad Mullin:
No, I think that’s totally true. Yeah, absolutely.

Martin Reed:
So you mentioned getting out of bed when sleep wasn’t happening, well, we call this technique part of stimulus control, which is just designed to help make a stronger association between the bed and sleep and try and train your brain to see the bed as a nice place to be rather than unpleasant place to be. So it can be quite difficult to do this technique because it’s a longer term technique, it’s not really intended to help you fall asleep the night that you get out of bed, it’s more about relearning that the bed is a good place to be, the bed is a place for sleep and pleasant wakefulness.

Martin Reed:
So it can be hard to be getting in and out of bed at a time when you feel that you’re already struggling to get enough sleep. How did you manage to stay consistent with that for long enough for you to notice that it was proven to be helpful?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say that this technique was the biggest catalyst, but I definitely used it. I don’t know, I guess I just got frustrated enough where I said, “I can’t lay here anymore,” so I’d get out of bed and I’d read a book or even sometimes I would just sit there on the couch or in a chair until I felt sleepy enough. And typically it was reading a book and I noticed my eyes would start drooping once again. I will admit that sometimes when I use this technique, it seemed to actually wake me up more and so I questioned whether or not I should be using it, but I did stick to it.

Chad Mullin:
Ad I would say as I started getting better, I didn’t have to use this quite as much. And also just the idea of getting out of bed and just going to the bathroom and then coming back to bed was sometimes helpful for me.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think sometimes it can work almost a mental reset, you just get change of scenery. But I think it also could be helpful to just reframe the goal, because it’s so easy to think that the goal is to just get you out of bed if sleep isn’t happening. Whereas really the goal is to just make nighttime wakefulness a little bit more pleasant if being awake in bed doesn’t feel good. So really, it’s only ever going to make the night a little bit better rather than worse. So if you’re laying in bed, feels good to be in bed, cozy and relaxed, the sheets feel good, I don’t think there’s any need to jump out of bed because conditions are right for sleep to happen.

Martin Reed:
But if being in bed doesn’t feel good, then you probably know from experience, sleep isn’t going to be happening anytime soon, so why not get out of bed, do something that’s going to make that wakefulness a little bit more pleasant. And it comes with the added benefit of being a little bit of a mental reset, gives your mind something else to focus on other than sleep, removes any effort you might be putting into sleep, and it helps prevent you from just reinforcing this negative association that the bed is not a nice place to be.

Martin Reed:
So I think it can be a helpful technique, some people find it to be one of the most helpful techniques, other people less so and I think that’s based on how much of this conditioned arousal is already present. So if you already have that really strong association between the bed and unpleasant wakefulness, like you feel really sleepy at night, but then you get into bed and boom that sleepiness has gone, often a symptom of conditioned arousal, and that’s when getting out of bed can be helpful. So you mentioned that you did feel that it was helpful, but it probably wasn’t the number one gold medal technique for you. What do you think was? What’s the most helpful thing?

Chad Mullin:
Oh, definitely the restricted bedtime, I would say, just talking more about the stimulus control. When I had insomnia, I would walk into my bedroom and immediately feel this anxiety that I had never felt before or experienced before. And so you’re right, those two techniques, I think the restricted bedtime and then stimulus control of getting out of bed when I couldn’t sleep were probably the two primary, but the most helpful was the restricted bedtime.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think it is such a powerful technique, just allotting, a more appropriate amount of time for sleep, because it’s one of the perpetuating behaviors that we see in insomnia is spending too much time in bed, allotting too much time for sleep. So for example, we want to get, let’s say eight hours of sleep, so we spent eight hours in bed, but the problem is if we’re only getting four to five hours, that’s just going to set us up for a lot of wakefulness, which then feeds into that worry and that anxiety.

Martin Reed:
So the problem with sleep restriction it’s a bit of a misnomer, because it implies that we’re restricting sleep, but we’re actually restricting wakefulness because we’re just making sure there’s less time available for nighttime wakefulness whilst building that sleep drive during the day, the longer that we’re awake for, the more that sleep pressure, that drive, that urge to sleep builds. And eventually sleep drive becomes so intense that we’re always going to sleep no matter how anxious we are, no matter how worried we are.

Martin Reed:
So it can be really helpful because it builds that sleepiness and some clients that I talk to with insomnia, feel that they’ve lost that ability to even feel sleepiness anymore. So that in itself can be reassuring, when you feel that sleepiness come back and just then spending, having less opportunity for nighttime wakefulness, can they help address the thoughts, the thinking side of it, there’s less time for rumination, there’s less worry, there’s less unpleasant nighttime wakefulness.

Martin Reed:
And it can just feed into more of a positive cycle where you start to find that you sleep a little bit better, less time awake, so you worry a little bit less. And then because you’re worrying a little bit less, maybe then sleep becomes a little bit easier. And instead of that negative cycle, you kind of turn it on its head and it becomes a little bit more of a positive cycle.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. So true. I know that I experienced that very thing myself.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. You mentioned that it took seven or eight weeks or so before you noticed some real improvements that you could attribute to the changes you have made, how did those improvements become apparent? How did they manifest themselves? Did you just start finding that you are worrying less about sleep or falling asleep faster? How did you on reflection recognize that change was happening in a good way?

Chad Mullin:
Well, I think you even touched upon it in your previous discussion there and just the idea of feeling sleepy again, it’s, I started to feel sleepy. I would monitor how I felt throughout the day and even if I yawned, the idea of yawning even was a success to me, because I think that my hyper arousal was so high that I couldn’t feel sleepy anymore. And so when I would yawn during the day, I would consider it a success. And so, yeah, I would tend to start getting more sleepy and yes, I would start flying to sleep quicker and I would stay asleep longer during that restricted window.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think the lots of people will identify with that. I think another thing that I see in people in a lot of people that have insomnia is this confusion between fatigue and sleepiness, because I think one of the biggest complaints associated with insomnia is fatigue, just this feeling of being worn out, feeling groggy, brain fog. And it’s really easy to mistake that for sleepiness and therefore try and nap during the day when you feel that really strong grogginess, that really strong fatigue or go to bed earlier.

Martin Reed:
And then when sleep doesn’t happen, you become even more worried because you think to yourself, “But I’m really sleepy. I need to get this sleep, but sleep isn’t happening. But fatigue doesn’t lead to sleep, only sleepiness leads to sleep. So that’s another bonus of the sleep window, allotting an appropriate amount of time for sleep is because it can really build up that sleepiness especially in the evening before going to bed. And you recognize that it is a different sensation and it can be just be so beneficial to be able to relearn what sleepiness feels as opposed to this ongoing sense of fatigue.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, it’s so true. Fatigue and sleepiness are completely different. And you can totally tell the difference, particularly when maybe you’re watching something and your eyes start drooping, or you’re trying to stay awake for that sleep window, your bedtime isn’t until 11:00 or 11:30, and it’s almost like your mission to stay awake. You can tell that you’re getting sleepy as that window is coming and you’re just trying to keep yourself awake and not fall asleep in front of the television or reading a book or whatever it may be.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I think it’s quite ironic, isn’t it? Because when we have insomnia, our struggle is going to sleep and then usually not too long after we implement a sleep window, our struggle is staying awake, at least for the start of the sleep window and it really just kind of turns everything on its head, where maybe we used to kind of dread going to bed because we would just know it will take forever to fall asleep, so we’re sitting here, we’re really struggling to stay awake and we want to go to bed, we’re really, really excited and enthusiastic and really want this sleep window to start so we can go to bed. And it really is that transformational mindset that can be so helpful.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. So true. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
Just talking about this daytime fatigue, just because you mentioned earlier that some of these things that you’d change was, for example, you would just stop working out when you had difficult nights or going through the insomnia, and that’s quite common too, because we feel a lot more fatigued, so our natural urge is to just conserve energy. And another thing is we can sometimes feel that because we didn’t get a good night sleep, we might be less capable, we might not actually even be able to work out and so we don’t work out and we kind of make that belief true. How did you move beyond that and start working out again, regardless of how you slept?

Chad Mullin:
Again, I think your podcast and the 14 day course helped with that, it was just the motivation to kind of live life normally and not let insomnia control life, because I had, like I had said, I had withdrawn from things, our social life kind of took a dive even prior to the pandemic, even prior to being forced to sort of stay inside, I elected to do that very thing. And so, yeah, it was just a challenge and your podcast definitely helps. And your clients saying that, that’s what they had done, that they had acted as if insomnia was not part of their life and they just lived life as normal.

Chad Mullin:
And obviously it, wasn’t the easiest thing to do for sure, it’s still in the back of your mind, but you sort of just make a decision that this isn’t going to control me and I’m not going to allow it to, and almost sort of stubbornly live life as if you weren’t dealing with sleep issues. And yeah, it’s harder, but even my mother-in-law deals with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and so everybody has their thing and you just got to keep living life and not let these things control you.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So it sounds it was just a case of you just decided, no matter what, I’m just going to try and go about my day as though insomnia wasn’t around as though I’d had the best night’s sleep, no matter what.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I mean, and that’s easier said than done of course.

Martin Reed:
Oh yeah.

Chad Mullin:
And for sure, I have a physical job. I’m a construction manager for an organization and so I was almost required to be physical during the day. I had to do those things for my livelihood, so at some points I didn’t even have a choice. And the other things that I did have a choice on, I just had to make that decision to do it, because I knew that, that was what was best for me.

Martin Reed:
Did you ever find that sometimes you are even a little bit surprised at how capable you could be, even after the worst night of sleep. Obviously, the day is never probably going to be as good as it would have been with a great night of sleep, but were you ever kind of taken by surprise a little bit, whether it was through the physical activity at your job or from working out, or just your focus during the day of what you could actually do even after difficult nights?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I mean, I have vivid memories of a couple of nights in particular, where I basically spent the night thinking about the tasks that was ahead of me the next day. And I probably did that task six times in my head before I actually had to do it the next day. And I might’ve slept two hours those nights and I would go to work and yeah, it was a little more difficult because I was fatigued, but I still got the job done, just as I would have had I slept well. It wasn’t as pleasurable, but it’s still get done. So…

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think people can often surprise themselves with how capable they can be even after long-term, even with long-term sleep disruption, long-term insomnia. I had a client recently who had gone down this normal route of just withdrawing from daytime activities because of insomnia in a bit to conserve energy and for fear of what might happen if you go about your day as normal, because of poor sleep. And we were talking for a while about, I wonder if there’s any opportunity to just try and reintroduce some kind of daytime activity. And I think she started off by just doing a 10 minute workout, she was someone that really loved doing workouts.

Martin Reed:
I’m not someone who’s going to say, “Everyone needs to work out,” some of us, it’s not for us. But she was someone who it was really important to her to work out, it’s something she always enjoyed doing, but she’d completely stopped doing that because of insomnia. So they just kind of guaranteed that sleep had a negative role in her life, and it reduced the overall quality of her day and probably increased fatigue. So anyway, she decided one day to just do 10 minutes. She said, “Okay. I’ll just do 10 minutes tomorrow morning.” And she did and she emailed me and she was like, “Wow, I did it. I just feel so much better.” Just those 10 minutes, she just felt so much better from it.

Martin Reed:
And I’m not saying that 10 minute workout is going to cure insomnia, but it just changed her whole mindset around sleep, just being able to test that belief about what she might be able to do even after difficult nights and how maybe she still has some control over the quality of her day, regardless of how she sleeps. It can really be so powerful, just testing those beliefs and just trying to maintain that activity, because we do have a lot of control over the quality of our day, and yes, sleep does influence the quality of our day no doubt about it, but probably not 100% of what goes on during the day is caused by how we sleep.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I can totally relate to your client there. I try to live a healthy, well balanced life, eat well, workout daily or at least five times a week and that had all gone away. Yeah, I wouldn’t say that eating well, but certainly the working out. And like you said, “The idea of just doing it certainly made you feel better, even though it was harder to do, the fact that you got it done was sort of a mental boost.”

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So we’ve talked about changing our daytime behaviors and trying to maintain our days as much as possible, regardless of how we sleep. We’ve talked about the sleep window a lot in a more appropriate amount of time for sleep, we’ve talked about getting out of bed or being in bed doesn’t good. Is there anything else that you can think of that you found helpful in improving your sleep over the longer term?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. I remember most of these techniques that I used were things that I heard your clients use on the podcast. And one of them in particular was somebody that you were speaking with, I think he was from Australia. I remember his accent and he spoke about not looking at the clock and I’ve always had the clock right next to my bed, right next to my head, so I opened my eyes and the clock is there. And what I found was that when I would wake up in the middle of the night and open my eyes and the clock was there and it read three o’clock or it read 4:00 AM or whatnot, immediately anxiety would build up.

Chad Mullin:
And obviously, I wasn’t going back to sleep, so that created a tough start for the day. But when I heard the podcast, I was reluctant to utilize that resource because it helps me to sort of gauge when I need to get up and sort of the start of the day. But honestly, because I have been getting up at quarter past five for the past, whatever 15 years for work my, I guess my body clock is waking me up at that time anyway. And so I recognized that I really didn’t need the clock and I moved it to a different location.

Chad Mullin:
At first, I started by turning it around and I would wake up in the middle of the night and then I’d just be curious, what time is it? What time is it? So then I just move it into a spot where I couldn’t access it and I couldn’t look at it. And I would say that that started helping particularly for when I would wake in the middle of the night and when I couldn’t see it or have access to it, then I didn’t consider it as much and slowly it started working.

Chad Mullin:
Another thing that I would point to is the idea that we don’t need eight hours of sleep necessarily and as you say, “You can still function on much less sleep.” And I definitely, I heard people on your podcast talking about getting six or seven hours of sleep and feeling fine and I never considered it before. Of course, I had done a lot of research about sleep prior to finding your podcasts and one of the things that I found was a study done that said that they had done a study on sleep for longevity of life and they found that people that live that sleep about seven hours a night actually live longer than those that sleep eight hours a night. And so things that were encouraging to me, even though I wasn’t sleeping seven hours at the time, I was sleeping maybe five.

Chad Mullin:
But then hearing from folks on your podcast that they were sleeping six or seven hours a night, and they were leading happy, healthy, active lives, and that was encouraging to me as well. And so I wasn’t striving anymore for the eight hours a night, thinking that, that was what was required, because that’s what you hear in popular media. But I find now that I certainly don’t need eight hours of sleep.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think those two, they’re two great additions to what we were talking about, not checking the clock, being the first can be so helpful. I think that the best outcome that can be achieved from checking the clock is probably neutral, no outcome whatsoever, but more than nine times out of 10, I think it probably just increases arousal and makes sleep more difficult. If nothing else, even if you don’t recognize that checking the clock is something that generates anxiety, if nothing else, when you check the clock, your brain has to interpret the time, figure out what that means, how much time is left. See no matter what, you’re always going to be ratcheting up arousal a little bit at a time when we want arousal to be low.

Martin Reed:
So I think it can also take some adjustment, I think you just commented on, when you take that clock away, at first, you’ll probably wake up during the night and your brain will be, “What time is it? We need to know what time it is.” And if you’ve just turned it away, there might be that temptation to look back, does take a little bit of time I think to get used to not having that clock there, because you look at, I would say more than nine out of 10 bedrooms, the alarm clock’s right there right next to your head. Most of us have just become so conditioned to having the time right next to our faces, for suddenly it to be removed does take some adjustment, but I think it can be really helpful.

Martin Reed:
And at the end of the day, a clock doesn’t know when we’re sleepy, we have no reason to know the time during the night. If we need an alarm, we can maybe move the clock to the other side of the room and turn it away and that way we still benefit from the alarm, but it’s a lot harder for us to give into that temptation to check the time. The other point that you mentioned, just recognizing that we probably don’t need eight hours of sleep each night. I think very few people actually get eight hours of sleep, even great sleepers. I don’t think there’s very many that get eight hours.

Martin Reed:
We all have an individual sleep requirement and striving to get more sleep, that very act of actually trying to make sleep happen, it’s one of those things that activates our worst enemy arousal. As soon as we put effort into sleep, we activate the arousal system and that very act of striving can make sleep more difficult, so I think that they were two great create additional tips that you shared there, and I’m glad that you found them helpful too.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. Thanks.

Martin Reed:
So we kind of talked about all these things that you’ve done to get you to improve your sleep, so what’s your sleep nowadays? Well, how would you describe an average night?

Chad Mullin:
Yeah, I mean, I’m sleeping even quite well now. I go to bed around 10:00 every night and on the weekends it might be 10:30, my wife and I might stay up and watch a movie, but I go to bed around 10:00 and then I’m up between 5:00 and 5:30 every morning. And honestly, I typically do wake up in the middle of the night, I get about a five or six hour solid chunk of sleep and I’ll wake up anywhere between 3:30 and 4:30, and I will lay there for a minute and, or get up and use the bathroom and then go back to bed and go back to sleep for another hour, hour and a half, but I won’t be awake for long typically. And yeah, it’s great. I mean, I feel well rested I’m much happier than I was six months ago or whatever, or a year ago at this point and life feels normal again. And I think like I said, “I feel like I’ve been freed from prison,” honestly. So…

Martin Reed:
Yeah. That’s great. I think you made an important point too, that you still wake up during the night, because waking during the night is a normal part of sleep. No one kind of falls right to sleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, it’s natural that it takes time to fall asleep, and we all wake up multiple times during the night. Very short awakenings typically, so we often don’t remember them, and especially if we don’t have insomnia, we pay no attention to them, so we fall right back to sleep really quickly.

Martin Reed:
The difference is if we have a lot of worry or anxiety about sleep, which is common in people with chronic insomnia or we’re monitoring for sleep, when those normal awakenings happen, then we worry about them, we pay a lot of attention to them, pull off focus on them, worry about them and it’s probably that reaction that then makes it more difficult for back to sleep. So I think it’s really great that you mentioned, “Yeah, I still wake up a couple of times a night,” but the difference now is, so much easier to fall back to sleep just because your mindset around those awakenings and around sleep in general has changed.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. And I would say that prior to that dreaded night that I had in September, 2019, I didn’t think about it at the time or before, but I remember waking up and looking at the clock and I remember this time of 4:08, it seemed I’d wake up three or four nights a week and see that time 4:08 and I would think nothing of it. I wouldn’t even mention it when I woke up in the morning or get out of bed and my wife would ask me how I’d slept. I’d say, “Fine.” Great. I wouldn’t even mention that I had woken up at 4:08, but once insomnia hit, it was like, “I woke up four times last night.” And it was, every wakening was just so much more meaningful or I suppose dreaded, but not now, not now, now it’s good.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. That’s good. And have you ever had any repeats of those really difficult nights and where you find that you just get really little sleep or maybe no sleep at all? Or do you generally find that you’re not even experiencing in those kinds of nights anymore?

Chad Mullin:
I’m not experiencing the no sleep at all nights at all. I would say maybe once a month I’ll have a night or once every few weeks I’ll have a night where I have a difficult time getting to sleep maybe, or I have a difficult time getting back to sleep at four o’clock in the morning. Those nights are typically when I know that I have something coming up, so it’s no different than it was prior to insomnia, I experienced those nights before as well, or if I’ve done something particularly active or arousing prior to bed, I may have a difficult time falling off to sleep. And when I say a difficult time now, it’s probably an hour, an hour and a half to get to sleep.

Chad Mullin:
But again, those are few and far between, it might be once a month at this point. But the takeaway to that is I know and this is the line you use at the end of your podcast is like, “You can sleep,” and I know that the next night, or even the night after that, I’m going to sleep, it’s going to happen, I can’t control the fact that I’m not going to, so I take encouragement from that.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And I think it is a really important point to make that nobody has a great night of sleep every single night, it’s impossible, there’s always going to be some temporary sleep disruption every now and then. Often it comes from a really obvious cause, let’s say for example, you’ve got a big meeting the next day, or even if you were just going to go on vacation the next day, then there’s some sleep disruption, but the difference is how we react to it, when we pay less attention to it, when we’re able to recognize those obvious external causes.

Martin Reed:
But even sometimes there might not be, we might just have a difficult night for no obvious reason, but I think when we’ve got insomnia behind us, the difference is we don’t kind of really dwell on the difficult night, we just continue on as normal. And because we continue on as normal, we’re not engaging in those thoughts and those behaviors that can perpetuate that sleep disruption and make it harder for sleep to get back on track. And so when we remove ourselves as probably the biggest potential obstacle to sleep, we allow sleep to do what it wants to do, and it gets back on track all by itself.

Chad Mullin:
Yeah. So true. Yep.

Martin Reed:
So I really appreciate all the time that you’ve given up to come on and talk us through your insomnia journey. There is always this one question that I like to ask people at the end of every episode, so I’d like to ask the question to you as well, and 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 can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Chad Mullin:
I would say you are not alone. And I think as humans, we need to know that, that’s one of our deepest desires is to be known, and that we’re not alone, and that there is hope. And I would say to seek out the insomnia coach, his website, or the podcast and certainly connect with him and don’t be stubborn me, and try to do it alone, because you’ll have much more success if you talk with Martin and help him or have him help you work through it. And then lastly, one of the things I tell folks that work with me or for me is that life is simple, but it’s not easy, but it’s easier if you keep it simple, and so I think the same is true for this program, it is simple, but it is not easy, but do it anyway.

Martin Reed:
I love it. I think that’s a great note to end on, so thank you again so much for taking the time to come onto the podcast Chad, it’s really appreciated.

Chad Mullin:
Absolutely Martin. It was great to talk to 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.

Mentioned in this episode:

The Sleep Book by Dr. Guy Meadows

Podcast episode that covers clock watching: How sleep restriction helped Dave fall asleep faster, spend less time awake during the night, and get more sleep (#15)

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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2 thoughts on “How Chad improved his sleep by undoing all the changes he had made in response to his insomnia (#28)”

  1. i always enjoy your podcasts and i think they have been more helpful than any of the insomnia “advice” out there!

    Reply
    • That means a lot to me, Bob — thank you. I wouldn’t be able to do this podcast without my guests, though — so I am really appreciative of them giving up their time to share their stories in such a candid, motivating, and inspiring way!

      Reply

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