How David overcame three years of insomnia by addressing his obsession with sleep using CBT-I, acceptance, and mindfulness techniques (#8)

Like many people, David struggled with the odd night of poor sleep every now and again — but three years ago a night of absolutely no sleep led to sleep-related worry and the fear that he had lost the ability to sleep. This led to more nights of bad sleep (and many nights of no sleep whatsoever) and this compounded the problem. Eventually, David discovered that it was his worry and obsession with sleep that was perpetuating his insomnia. His recognition of this, along with the implementation of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), acceptance, and mindfulness techniques helped him get his sleep back on track.

David runs two websites: Letting Focus and Tenant’s Guide to Successful Renting and is the author of Successful Property Letting – How to Make Money in Buy to Let.

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 cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) techniques can help you enjoy better sleep for the rest of your life.

Martin Reed: So, first of all, David, thank you for joining us today on the podcast.

David Lawrenson: Okay, thank you.

Martin Reed: So, let’s start right at the beginning. Tell us a bit about when sleep became a problem for you. Are you able to recall what initially triggered your insomnia? And how long ago did this all begin for you?

David Lawrenson: Well, in a major way, it started about three years ago actually, around now. Yes, 2 years 11 months, 3 years ago. I had occasional problems with not being able to sleep very well, before that, on the odd evening, odd night. But the first time was about a half a year before it started in a big way. I went through a whole night without any sleep. But there have been a few times, as I was growing up, when I couldn’t sleep for a long time.

David Lawrenson: And the funny thing was, my dad was suffering from insomnia. I think I heard him talk about it when I was young, little from the age of eight. And I think that was in the back of my mind. But the thing that really started it in the modern time, so this was three years ago, was I had this asthma develop. So, I hadn’t had asthma before, and it was just crazy. I thought, “Well, what is this?” I go and play football, because I play football a couple of times a week, and I would really struggle to be breathing after it.

David Lawrenson: This went on for quite a while. And then, it got really bad, and finally, I couldn’t sleep through the night. I was also quite worried about it. It took a bit longer than it should to sort of figure out what it was. But I was a little bit shocked to have asthma anyway. Never had it before. So, I had my first proper, I had another night with no sleep at all. And there were a couple of these. I got the asthma sorted out, but the sleep problem remained. And I have the occasional nights where, well sometimes a bit more than occasional, where I have a whole night where I didn’t sleep at all. I’m beginning to think I’ve lost the ability to sleep.

David Lawrenson: Anyway, that was the start of it, and that was about three years ago now that it started. And it started with asthma, although I had the occasional night of non sleep before that, but not very many. That was when it started. And it started getting quite bad then.

Martin Reed: Yeah. It’s quite a typical pattern. A lot of people can identify that first night or that first string of nights and recognize the worry that caused and that thought, you know, “Have I lost the ability to sleep?” That is just so common, and I just think that thought alone just really perpetuates sleep issues for so many people. So, I think it’s really helpful that you just even used that as an example. Just so we can reassure people who are listening to this podcast that we never lose the ability to sleep. We can definitely make sleep more difficult for ourselves. When we’re anxious about things, or when we have high levels of stress, it’s definitely more difficult to sleep.

Martin Reed: That’s actually intentional. It’s like the body’s way of protecting us from a perceived threat. It’s kind of this evolutionary reservation of powers, so to speak. Like you don’t want to be falling asleep if you’re in a cave with a saber-toothed tiger around outside. As soon as you feel worried, the brain will kind of suspend sleep, but we never lose that ability. Eventually, even if we have no sleep, like zero minutes of sleep for, let’s say, four days, we will eventually sleep at some point because it’s just a core biological function that we never lose the ability to sleep.

David Lawrenson: You know what? Actually, you really hit it on the head there. In fact, that statement you’ve made, or some of them, that you cannot lose the ability to sleep, you will sleep in the end, it’s natural no matter how stressed you get or how worried or anything, core biological function, all that stuff you just said, that was… I mean, there’s not that many things… I’ve read an awful lot. I’m a voracious reader. I’m a writer as well. Maybe you’ll mention that later and plug me a little bit.

Martin Reed: Absolutely.

David Lawrenson: I’ve researched and researched on what is going on. One of the things was… You wrote that, and it’s so true. Because I thought I had lost the ability to sleep. And I kind of believed your words, but in the end, the thing that convinced me, and I had to say this, was… Having gone through this frequent nights of no sleep for two and a half years, I eventually thought, “If I don’t sleep one night at all, I will sleep the next.” And I wrote down a little diary and every time it happened. I just could not keep my eyes away. Then I realized, you cannot lose the ability to sleep. You’re right.

David Lawrenson: And if you do and you have to the next day get through it. The ability to will come. It will come. And it’s so true, what you’re saying.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. It’s almost like there’s that silver lining, because when we’re up at night struggling with sleep, it’s awful, right? But-

David Lawrenson: Yeah.

Martin Reed: I just want to share that knowledge that every night of struggle, like say there’s a string of bad nights, it just exponentially compounds and increases the chance of sleep coming on the next night. You know?

David Lawrenson: Yeah.

Martin Reed: It just becomes more and more likely because that sleep drive is always building. The only time that it might continue to be a problem is if you try compensating for that bad night of sleep by maybe lying in bed all day, the next day. Or just trying to conserve energy or canceling plans, just because then you might just start to reduce that sleep drive through inactivity, or you might nap during the day. And that kind of just keeps you firmly grounded in square one. So it really is a case of just trying to keep your days as normal as possible and just rely on your body’s natural ability to sleep, which never, ever goes away.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, I totally agree. In fact, one of the things you can actually do after a night of nil sleep, I started to get to the point where I’d say, “You know what? I can actually look forward to it tonight…” Because I think actually, eventually I realized I couldn’t get two in a row. And I do read, by the way, your forum. There are few people who claim they get two in a row but I never have. And I could then look for the every night of no sleep or the longer you didn’t sleep, the more likely it was. It took me, actually, despite your words. It took me about two and a half years to realize, “Yeah, that’s so true,” because it’s happening every time. I didn’t sleep one night, or I had very little sleep, I would always just keel right over and sleep the next one.

Martin Reed: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s normal because when we have insomnia or anytime we’re dealing with a problem, our brain wants to just focus on that problem. It very rarely looks at the bigger picture. So when we have this fear that we’ve lost our ability to sleep, that’s what our brain will focus on. And it takes like a conscious effort. Even if we read stuff, it still takes a conscious effort for us to take that step back and think, “All right. Well, is this really accurate? Have I actually lost my ability to sleep?” And look for evidence that you haven’t, because all your brain wants to do is look for evidence that you have and kind of problem solve based on that. So it really does take this conscious effort. And it can take time just to have that kind of breakthrough insightful moment. Like you described, it took a couple of years for you to just recognize that.

David Lawrenson: My wife would tell me you’re going to sleep tonight. I wouldn’t believe it. Eventually, of course, it was true. So I started in this diary. And then I would write down what happened and what I did. You know what? I realized then; you could not keep your eyes open, you tried to sit up and watch something exciting, watching a football match in the tele, but you’d fall asleep. It would just take you over. I couldn’t go two nights with no sleep. Eventually, sleep drive would come. Once I realized that, that was part of the path to redemption to making life better.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned that three years ago, stemmed from this one night, and it kind of snowballed from there. What do you think kind of progressed it because we all have bad nights every now and then, right? What do you think progressed it from just like this one or two bad nights to becoming a problem that lasted in your case for a number of years?

David Lawrenson: I think I’d just spend the next whole day thinking about it. After a night of no sleep, I’d always feel quite bad. I’d feel this tightness in the chest and everything. And of the course, it’s hard not to think about that.

Martin Reed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrenson: And particularly in the early part of the day, it would be this feeling of, “I’m actually feeling quite depressed, really.” There’s tightness in the chest. And then thinking about it almost it would be like, “What’s it going to be like tonight?” And this exacerbated it. I think all that did exacerbate it really. And that’s what made it worse. And then, I got, the worst it was, it sometimes would be eight or nine nights in a month where I didn’t sleep at all. Nil sleep.

David Lawrenson: And, to be specific about it, because some people think they have a problem if they got like five hours. And other people seriously have it worse than me but, ultimately, you do sleep in the end. But that was what would go on. As it went on, there was a few months, it varied up and down. And sometimes five nil sleep nights in a month, sometimes the highest was nine. And like most, I think most people that are stuck with insomnia, because they’re like relentlessly… We’ll talk about, I’m sure, control things. I write it all down. I have a record of it.

Martin Reed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrenson: Everything was recorded down.

Martin Reed: Right.

David Lawrenson: Probably not a very right thing to do. But I did.

Martin Reed: I think again, that’s just one of these normal things. As soon as you become concerned about something, where it’s just natural that we want to either record it so we can notice trends and analyze it and spend a lot of time thinking about it. I think that’s all completely normal. But it’s definitely something that when it comes to sleep, it can often be unconstructive. Because the more time we think about sleep, it kind of implies we’re kind of training ourselves that sleep is something that we can control, when really, we can’t. We can set the stage for sleep. But in terms of, “I’m going to click my fingers and make myself fall asleep.” And, “I’m going to sleep X number of hours, wake X number of times during the night and wake at x time in the morning on the dot.”

Martin Reed: We have no control over any of that. And yeah. So, it’s normal to have these thoughts. And that tightness in the chest and this feeling of a depressed mood. That’s all really actually quite normal too. Because we often will monitor for the results of a bad night of sleep.

David Lawrenson: Yeah.

Martin Reed: So if we have a bad night, or no sleep is as you experienced, then we monitor our body, like, “Okay, that that was an awful night. How am I feeling?” And you’re actually specifically looking for these effects in your body.

Martin Reed: And when we do that, we can notice things that we’ve never noticed before. Some people describe it, as that tightness in the chest, others describe it as, “I found it… My breathing was really weird.” Just because you’re paying more attention to how you breathe. You’re focusing your attention on every in breath and every out breath, and maybe trying to pace it or control it. And so you just become this hyper aware. It’s this hyper arousal, which is present in every case of insomnia. And so, as I think you recognize, you’re focusing on that, and that just increases your worrying about sleeping. And you think more about sleep and maybe even just become more obsessive about sleep. And that ends up just compounding the problem, making sleep more difficult.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, that’s true. Absolutely right. And I should probably point out that there was three other pillars, really, that helped because… I just think there might be others. But many aspects of the basic cognitive behavior. Behavioral CBT-I. Cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, especially sleep restriction. When it was very bad, keeping sleep restrictions, it’s paradoxical but that helped. But I also like adding into the CBT-I and sleep restriction approach, which I’m sure you’ll talk about a minute, but also a big chunk of sort of mindfulness. As far as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but basically, it’s mindfulness. And there’s some principles of that as well, that’ll help to, combining all that together with that was all a good help.

Martin Reed: Yeah, I definitely want to talk more about that. In a previous podcast episode, at the time that we’re talking right now, it’s not live yet, but it will be by the time this one is published. I spoke to a psychologist, specifically about ACT, or this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And how to kind of use it in conjunction with CBT-I. And I thought that he gave this really good, his name is Nick Wignall, he gave this really good insight where he kind of associated like CBT-I is like the core, you know? That’s like the foundation, that’s where it’s usually very helpful to start. And then with ACT, with A-C-T, it’s kind of more this more advanced level, because with ACT it’s more accepting your current circumstances, right? So if you’re having a night where you can’t sleep, it’s more a case of, “Okay, look, I have no control over this. I’m struggling to sleep right now.”

Martin Reed: And just kind of being comfortable with your current situation and your current thoughts. And for someone that’s been suffering with insomnia, if that’s the first thing you tell them to do, I think that’s a really hard sell. To say, “Oh, you have insomnia? That’s okay. Just accept it and welcome it.”

Martin Reed: So I think that it is really helpful when used in conjunction with CBT-I. And I’m kind of finding that reading in the Insomnia Coach forum, too. The people that tend to be successful with ACT are people that started out with CBT-I, or are combining some elements of CBT-I with the acceptance techniques.

David Lawrenson: I agree with that. Yeah. Absolutely. Do you know what I was thinking? I must plug this, but I think it’s good. This is Jon Kabat-Zinn video, the 28 minute one, called… Jon Kabat-Zinn talking about seven attitudes of mindfulness.

Martin Reed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrenson: And I went on an eight week course all about mindfulness. It was all right. I would go up there every Saturday up to Central London and do it, and so-so. But really, that 28 minute video about, “Seven Attitudes of Mindfulness,” really helps. But you’re right. I did add that all after doing a bit of CBT-I. A lot of the CBT-I things, that’s good. And with sleep restriction as well, when it was bad, to build up my sleep drive. And the key elements for mindfulness was acceptance, non controlling, letting go, being in the moment, and trusting in yourself.

David Lawrenson: And once you read about that, it really helps to add on. I think it goes really well with CBT-I, actually. It does. I mean, doesn’t it? It doesn’t contradict it. It’s just an additional thing. I think you’re probably right, it’s probably hard to just say, “I will just accept it,” for someone who’s really struggling. “Yeah, right. I got cancer just accept it.”

Martin Reed: Yeah.

David Lawrenson: There’s the thing though. So say, “Oh, you got insomnia. It could be worse.” Right? You know? It could be the Big C. And it isn’t. So, in some ways accepting is maybe part of it.

Martin Reed: Yeah, and I think you made a really good point, because every now and then I’ll get an email from someone and they’ll say, “Well, I’ve heard of A-C-T or ACT. What should I do? Is it better to go with C-B-T or A-C-T?” So many acronyms. And I say, “Well, they’re really actually quite similar.” It only really is the stimulus control component, which tends to be different. So with CBT-I, generally speaking, we say if you’re in bed tossing and turning, feeling anxious and frustrated, it’s usually best to remove yourself from that situation and just get out of bed until you feel relaxed and sleepy again before returning to bed. Whereas ACT is more about kind of accepting the current situation, seeing if you’re able to remain calm and relaxed, and just seeing if sleep returns.

Martin Reed: But the way I tend to implement the CBT-I techniques in relation to stimulus control is I like to start people with get out of bed, if you’re finding it really difficult, and you’re feeling uncomfortable and stressed and frustrated and anxious. But if you are feeling calm, then there’s no need to get out of bed. So they’re really quite similar in that regard, I think. And to think that it has to be one or the other is the wrong way of approaching it. I think they both are really complementary to one another.

David Lawrenson: I would agree. Here in Britain, under our national health service… Because I’ve been through that too, with them, two sessions of this. They don’t have any idea. They just say you should get out of bed. And I think it depends on the person and how you feel, as you said. But here in Britain, they follow Colin Espie’s approach in his book Overcoming Insomnia.

Martin Reed: Yeah.

David Lawrenson: And I’ve got a couple of issues with some of the things in his book. But one of the things is that, “Yeah, you should always get out of bed after 15 minutes.” One, I think, watching the clock for 15 minutes is very short. Second, watching the clock isn’t good. Third, it’s just how you feel if you feel accepted, accept it.

David Lawrenson: But here in the NHS in Britain, if you’re a British listener to this then, I’ll bet I found that that’s too prescriptive. And I think if you can accept it, be there and be calm, then fine stay there. If you don’t, and you really get fed up with it, get up and watch a nature program or a repeat something funny. That’s all the British people are talking about here. Coronation Street, one of our great soaps, that’ll make you fall asleep, maybe or just relaxed.

Martin Reed: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s you touched upon an important point there is we can’t be too prescriptive, as providers, or as coaches. This really has to be a two way relationship. And so for example, myself, as a coach, if I’m working with someone, and they’ve been getting out of bed for a couple of weeks, and they’re really struggling with it, and they feel it’s not helping, then that’s when we can modify things and say, “Well, how about we try just sitting up in bed, just removing you from that sleep…” I like to say, “Going from sleep mode to wake mode.”

Martin Reed: So when you’re lying down in bed, that’s sleep mode. But when you’re sitting up in bed and reading a book or something like that, then that’s your wake mode. And then when you feel relaxed and sleepy, then you can lie back down. So you’re still kind of trying to avoid associating lying down in bed with all these negative emotions and wakefulness, but you’re not actually forcing yourself to get out of bed at the same time.

Martin Reed: So just staying really prescriptive and saying, “No, you must get out of bed no matter what.” It doesn’t work for everyone. And it’s really important for providers, and people that have insomnia when they’re looking for providers or working with people, to express your concerns, because it really should be this collaborative relationship with whoever you’re working with. And there should be modifications made, and there should be consideration to your own circumstances being made because otherwise it makes it hard to progress when it feels very top down. You know? Would you agree with that?

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Early it was different. But that’s the approach they have in Britain, unfortunately. They insist on you getting out of bed after 15 minutes. It is quite nuts. And that’s what they say, Colin Espie’s book goes on about that. Also, in his book, he says, “Oh, if you don’t know where you’re sleeping in.” You go, “No actually, Colin, I have nights where I know for a fact I don’t sleep at all, as I know many other people on your forum have.”

David Lawrenson: So that’s not right either. “You’re sleeping in.” No, not necessarily Mr. Espie. But unfortunately, this is the approach the NHS in Britain have. But I think it’s right, you’ve got to be, you’ve got to either accept… Either, or. Sometimes I, in the middle of the night, now might be awake but I’m much calmer about it now. I’ll just get up and watch a bit of TV.

Martin Reed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Lawrenson: After I’m fed up with it. But sometimes I can just lie there and accept it. Usually I do the latter. But then I am much more on the road to recovery and it’s much easier when you’re on the road to recovery to just accept it. I do, I heavily agree with this reducing the stimulus in the evening. I don’t look at any computer screens, I do watch TV, I find that makes me fall asleep. I have a nice warm bath, I have a relaxing time. I don’t do anything… I won’t watch a thriller or anything like that. It’ll always be something laid back.

David Lawrenson: And if I go out for a night out and I’m chatting with my mates, having a few drinks, I’m very wired. And sometimes I have to calm down and just chill out and watch TV for an hour. And if that takes me to 2:00 AM in the morning? Well, so be it. That’s the way it is. Just to have that calm down, that’s important for me too.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. And so many people with insomnia, because they’re fed all this sleep hygiene advice, which we know for a fact doesn’t work for people with chronic insomnia, they’ve moved past that, is they have this fear or concern about things they’re allowed to do in the evening.

David Lawrenson: Yeah.

Martin Reed: And they’re like, “I want to watch TV. I used to love watching TV before bed, but I can’t do that anymore.” That’s a common statement I hear. So then I say, “Well, why can’t you watch TV anymore?” “Oh, that’s what I read the sleep hygiene advice says you can’t watch TV at night.” And it really doesn’t matter what you do at night. I’m a big fan of that, roughly like a one hour buffer zone before you plan on going to bed. But all you do during that time, no specific activities.

Martin Reed: It’s just anything that you find relaxing and enjoyable. So if that’s watching TV great, like you said, probably not a good idea to watch like a thriller or something that’s going to be upsetting. But anything that you enjoy, if you enjoy watching that. I have a client that used to love painting. And she stopped doing that in the evening, because she became concerned that that would cognitively arouse her, and keep her mind active when she wanted it to be winding down. And so these are all understandable why we would do these things. But we’re kind of taking away all those things we enjoyed, in response to the insomnia, in an attempt to make it better. But it just makes us more miserable. And that actually makes our sleep worse.

David Lawrenson: Yeah. I haven’t really changed that much. Just chilling out and watching TV. But yeah, you can’t be too prescriptive. I think having a big meal, as well, late. But it’s whatever works for you. But I don’t do too much. I can’t say as well to people as well. But yeah, you often get advice in the quality newspapers. They often have a whole big thing about sleep. Here, we’ll have it in The Times or the Daily Telegraph, you might have it in the New York Times where… Or stuff. Just don’t read it because most of the advice in there, it’s really Noddy and Janet and John stuff.

David Lawrenson: For people who’ve got real insomnia, most of it is rubbish. And they often conflict insomnia with people who don’t get enough sleep because they’re too busy working. And they don’t understand the difference. And so I decided I wouldn’t read it. People, sometimes my aunt sends me this stuff, something in the Daily Telegraph, “Here’s something. I’ll post it to you.” Because she doesn’t do the internet. I get it. I’ve read it all before. Most of it’s freaking crap. I think it’s a bit about, “Oh, you’ve got to have eight hours of sleep.” Well, that’s nonsense anyway, for most people, certainly my age, they don’t need it. Rubbish.

Martin Reed: Absolutely. I have a lot of conversation with colleagues of mine who are also believers in CBT-I. And we get so frustrated, because we always get this influx of emails whenever this sleep article hits, that hits the media and gets picked up. And it’s really problematic, because it kind of feeds into all these sleep related worries and anxieties that people with insomnia have. And we read these articles, and then we become more worried. And the problem is when I talk to the authors of content like this, they tell me, “Well, look, I wasn’t aiming the at people with insomnia.” Or, “I’m aiming it at people that are kind of burning the candle at both ends. You know? They’re not getting enough sleep. But that’s because of their lifestyle choice.”

Martin Reed: But the problem is, is they’re not the people that are reading these articles. The people that are reading these articles are the people with insomnia. And they don’t want to be reading stuff that says, “If you only get seven hours and 30 minutes of sleep, your chances of diabetes goes up,” or something like that. Because first of all, that’s just going to lead to more worry. And second of all, the way the media kind of quotes these research articles is a little bit manipulative. I’m going to say it in a way, like the way they interpret the results. Because at the end of the day, not one study has found that chronic insomnia causes any specific health problem whatsoever. So sometimes they’ll find associations, but these associations could be caused by anything.

Martin Reed: It’s kind of like saying that, we found the people that have ashtrays in their houses are more likely to get lung cancer. And then they’ll start writing headlines, “Ashtrays Cause Lung Cancer,” just because there’s that association. But there’s never, to this day, and I don’t think there ever will be, this research study that comes out and says, chronic insomnia causes this, because it doesn’t exist. And this idea that we all need eight hours of sleep, I have no idea where this has come from. No idea whatsoever. And every everyone that I talked to that works with sleep patients, they don’t really know either, like where this whole myth that we need eight hours of sleep comes from, because we all have individual sleep requirements.

Martin Reed: And one person might do great just getting five hours of sleep every night, whereas someone else might need, let’s say closer to nine. But the average, when we wire people up to all the machines is normally closer to like six hours. So where we got this idea that we all should be striving for eight hours is completely beyond me. And as soon as we strive to get more sleep than we need or more sleep than we’re actually capable of, often that can actually trigger sleep problems.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, totally. Yeah. Totally.

Martin Reed: And there was one more thing, I wanted to just highlight that you said. “If I’m struggling with sleep, I might get out of bed and watch TV.” It kind of reminded me of what a client told me and they have this acronym, okay? It’s called W-W-A-N-S-D. And it stands for what would a normal sleeper do?

Martin Reed: So anytime she’s in bed struggling with sleep, she thinks, “Okay, what would a normal sleeper do?” And so in her mind, she’s like, “Well, a normal sleeper surely wouldn’t still be in bed tossing and turning fighting with the bed sheets of three hours, they’d probably get out of bed, maybe watch TV or read a book or something like that.” So, that’s kind of her attitude. She’s had this mental shift. And I think that’s really interesting and really helpful too.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, absolutely. That’s totally true, too. Yeah. Okay. Are you going to ask me about — because obsessiveness is interesting, though — and I’m a bit. Yeah. Go on. I’ll let you ask the question.

Martin Reed: Yeah, go on. So let’s talk about this. Because this was one of the reasons actually why I was really keen to get you on the podcast was because you felt that you had this realization or this epiphany, this moment of discovery where you related, kind of like an obsessive personality? Or maybe like a very ambitious personality trait with insomnia and sleep problems? Can you tell us a bit more about that?

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Because I’m quite a successful person. So I’m, quite well off. I’m the author of this book and everything. And, yeah. I’ve done okay in life, quite but so that’s good. So, that’s interesting. And I got to thinking when I read your forum, I got an impression, because you can tell by the way the people write there. Most of them can write proper English, even if they’re American, they can write proper English. And they’re intelligent people, and they’re probably quite successful, and they might be quite controlling with it. And obsessive.

David Lawrenson: Now, so here’s the thing with me. So one day I was running in the park, I just finished my run and something hit me, I thought, “Hang on a minute. There’s been other times in my life where I’ve been…” Because I was thinking about sleep a lot. But this time was just starting to get better actually. I was already on the road to recovery. And I thought, there’s been times in my life, where I’ve been obsessed about stuff. This at the moment, it was an obsession about the sleep, and thinking about it, and researching it, and worrying about it. I hadn’t slept that night, what was going to happen?

David Lawrenson: And I lost the ability to sleep and all this stuff. And I thought, “Gosh, it’s been about four or five other times of my life, at certain times, where I became obsessed about other things. And then the focus was on thinking about it and wasted some small chunks of my life being like that,” So, I just thought… It’s like it hit me one day at the end of this run. And I thought, “Gosh, that’s it.” I’ve got this element of controlling because I’m quite successful, quite controlling in my life.

David Lawrenson: People meet me and they think I’m quite funny and I’m quite laid back. Well, actually, I’m quite driven, actually. And people that are very close to me, like my wife, and my best friends might see it, other people wouldn’t. But also, it borders on sort of being a little bit obsessive. And I’d say my brother and my father are both at strong elements of OCD, as is my son too, actually. And I think it’s sort of a trait. But once I realized that, you know, how excessive and controlling I could be and focusing on something like sleep. And thinking about it all the time. That was a big chunk, to my road to recovery.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s something that I see as well. And, again, it’s one of these things that when you kind of scratch below the surface and think about a little bit more, it does make a lot of sense, because let’s say that we want to get ahead in our careers. We’ll retrain, maybe. We’ll go to school or study. We’ll work hard. We sacrifice a lot of things, because we get really focused on this end goal. So we can control our own destiny in that regard.

Martin Reed: But when it comes to sleep, so we’re struggling with sleep, we’re having a hard time with sleep, it makes sense that in our experience, when we’ve really focused on something, and we’ve kind of made that our goal we’ve got there. So then we focus on sleep, we become really obsessed with sleep, we think about all the things we can do to fix the problem. And we try and control sleep. But sleep doesn’t work that way, it’s probably one of the things that works best, the least attention we pay to it. It’s the complete opposite.

Martin Reed: You can kind of compare it with becoming healthier. So losing weight or exercising more, you do that by eating healthier foods or eating less or getting more physical exercise in, and then you’ll reach your goal. But with sleep, if you try and control it, and you kind of implement any kind of sleep effort, it makes sleep almost impossible. And so that’s why I think that these professional people, these very highly driven people tend to perhaps struggle with insomnia more than others.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, totally agree with that. And actually I think there must be somebody that studied that. I think there’s something in it and certainly reading, the people who suffer from real insomnia. Real insomnia, where people don’t sleep at night, and looking at some of the people that go and comment on your forum, are like that. This isn’t just mucking around insomnia. This is proper insomnia. And they all seem to be, I get the impression, their quite successful, but also probably maybe quite controlling if they’re honest about it.

David Lawrenson: And that’s why the elements of mindfulness, involving not controlling, being in the moment, trusting yourself, acceptance, letting go. Actually, although, seem contrary to the Anglo Saxon world, our world of work and being driven. It’s something not bad about just giving yourself a bit of a break, actually. And it actually makes you, ironically, more successful because if there are times we need to just ease back, not control, be in the moment, trust ourselves. And that’s why I think mindfulness and ACT flow. But just general elements of mindfulness adds to and compliments CBT-I actually, cognitive therapy and sleep restriction. I think it all goes together. But it’s important, though, for people who are very controlling to let go and be accepting.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. And I think just whilst you were saying that, I just had this thought, I think one reason as well is why this obsession can be a problem or like when we’re really highly driven individuals, why that can be a problem, is because so many of the times in the past, when we’ve tried to reach a goal, we’ve been successful, and we’ve reached that goal because of our efforts. And then when we try and transfer that to sleep, we try to sleep. We implement a technique, or a behavior to try and improve our sleep. When it doesn’t work, then we become really worried because anytime we’ve focused and tried something in the past, we’ve been successful. But now when we’ve applied this to sleep, it’s suddenly it’s not. And I think that can really lead to this worry, “Oh, well. I must have lost my ability to sleep then. There must be something seriously wrong here.”

David Lawrenson: Yeah, exactly. Maybe because in our lives and our business lives, we try A, “Oh, it didn’t work. I’ll try B.” And eventually, we do something, and it works. And you get to where you want to be in the in your profession, or maybe do something else. And my career took a lot of different paths. In the end, I got to where I wanted. I got successful.

David Lawrenson: Sleep though, it doesn’t work like that. You can try all the tips and techniques you get into Sunday papers in the long article about sleep, but they probably won’t work for you anyway, because they’re not designed for proper people with real insomnia. And you get frustrated because you won’t because… It defines control, doesn’t it? It’s one of these things. And that’s the paradox. It totally defines controlling. But when you realize this, and if you realize you’re obsessive and a controlling person, just the realization of that was one of the big things for me, along with like your comments, “You will sleep in the end. It’s natural. It’s a core biological function.” But realizing the obsessiveness, big part of getting better. And there’s 101 days since how I’ve had a nil sleep night.

Martin Reed: That’s awesome. So yeah, and I think you touched upon this earlier, is you can just give yourself permission to have that bad night. If you’re finding a night where you’re struggling, that’s okay. Just give yourself permission to have a bad night, rather than always trying to control it.

David Lawrenson: Yeah, exactly, and that’s what I do now. Yeah, sometimes you never know, it might come back, I don’t know if it does, but I will always get sleep in the end. I think knowing that… Because I’ve had periods where I got better, but not as long as this. This is a really long period now. Hopefully it will never come back but if it does, I know I will sleep in the end. I haven’t lost my ability to sleep. And as long as I don’t realize I can’t try to do too much controlling, then I’ll be fine.

Martin Reed: Exactly. I think that’s that’s the right attitude to take. It’s so easy to fall into this idea where you kind of feel like you’re getting your sleep back on track. But there’s always that nagging doubt, what’s going to happen, how am I going to react if I have a bad night again, but it’s completely normal to have a bad night, everyone has them. So if like a week down the road, a month down the road, a year down the road, you have a bad night again, it’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong with your sleep system. It’s just to be expected that you’re going to have a bad night every now and then. And as long as you don’t fall back into that trap of worrying about it again and becoming obsessed and making that your focus, the chances are your sleep will just get right back on track all by itself.

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Occasionally, if I ever have a bad night now of little sleep, it’s usually because I just let myself go, I slept too long the night before, like eight hours ago. And then usually I’m just not that tired because I don’t need that much sleep. And it’s happened after I’ve had eight hours, which is a lot for me. So the next night, yeah, I’m probably not going to be that tired. So don’t even think about trying to get to sleep much before 2:00 AM, as you probably won’t. And I really… Watching your body really, but without that over obsessive, controlling way. I do think this controlling obsessiveness is a part of it for us who struggle.

Martin Reed: Yeah.

David Lawrenson: I do.

Martin Reed: Yeah, I think I agree with you. And, I think also when you have those bad nights, it’s what you just described. Just recognizing any external cause, not spending a lot of time dwelling on it. Maybe just like, a few seconds, if you have a bad night, was there anything obvious that could have caused this? Maybe you had a tight deadline at work, or maybe you’ve been out with friends that night, or you watched a horror movie or something. And if there’s that external cause, then you know that that was the problem, but at the same time, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes our bodies just decide, “Hey, you’re not going to get much sleep tonight.” And there’s nothing we can do about it. So it really is a case of just kind of accepting and trusting the amount of sleep that the body generates for us in any given night is the amount of sleep that the body has just determined that we need on that given night.

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Yeah. I spent a lot of time thrashing around rather find causes of it. And it wasn’t necessarily an obvious cause when I was really bad, but that was because I was so worried about it and trying to control it all the time. That was creating the problem. But of course, the big thing was realizing I would sleep in the end. I would. It would come. And actually, you know what? I could often get a lot of things done, despite the fact that I’d go to sleep and sometimes get little sleep, no sleep sometimes, I could get a surprising amount done actually. I could still get through stuff. I’m self employed, because I’m a bit fortunate in this regard, I could ease back a bit, but usually you have go to work, but I still get quite awful lot done, as much done anyway, as I would probably in a normal day.

David Lawrenson: So it would be okay. Sometimes if anything, matter of fact, when I’ve got a nil sleep night, was I didn’t feel like going out the following night, on a social occasion. And occasionally that was hard. And sometimes I would be all tired and if I was really bad, I didn’t do those things. But I’d try to just push through, as best I could. But I could get a surprising amount done.

Martin Reed: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a really big insight, because when we have insomnia, we really kind of look to see the negative impacts of sleep on our day, when really it tends not to have as big of an impact as we think. And this is one reason why I really encourage people to try not to modify their day in response to a bad night of sleep. Because when we do that, when we call in sick or if we cancel plans with friends, we’re basically guaranteeing that that bad night of sleep is going to have a negative impact on us. Whereas if we just try and go about our day as normal, it will probably be a little bit more difficult. No doubt about it, I’m not trying to downplay this, but we might notice a few good moments, we might notice an okay moment, or a moment where we smile, or we laugh, or a really productive moment, or that breakthrough at work.

Martin Reed: And that can just remind us and reinforce the idea that our day isn’t completely dependent on our sleep. Just like we can have a really bad day after a great night of sleep, we can have a good day after a really bad night of sleep too.

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Or an okay day. And actually, one of the things sometimes was, even when I was really bad, I’d have a night of nil sleep and then the next night, I’d always sleep. And then I’d often feel, “Gosh, I feel so… And it’s so good.” And so grateful for that and lovely. And look around and see all the beauty of the world and going to the park and really enjoy. I just, “Yeah. I’m still okay.” It actually made me appreciate life a bit more, rather than just taking it for granted actually.

David Lawrenson: So now I’m feeling much better, I really take things for granted. And I’m just so grateful that it’s back normal and knowing that this thing is this curse or this obsession is what it is. It’s a bit of an obsession, really.

David Lawrenson: And I do think it’s important to realize that people… I think for me, I’m sleeping well, five or six hours is fine, and I feel great. And I actually don’t need any more than that. If I tried to just lie there. It’s crazy to want anymore than that. I’ve long since realized that for quite a long time anyway, because that’s all I’ve ever really had any way even since I was about 18-20. Because I never really slept that much.

Martin Reed: So can you tell us, are there any techniques like, either from CBT-I or ACT that you’re still regularly implementing? Or is it just a case of, you’re really not doing anything, not really thinking about sleep anymore, and you’re just kind of going about, just listening to your own body in terms of when to go to bed and when to get out of bed?

David Lawrenson: As a wind down routine, I tend to stick to that. Not overly obsessive. I won’t to go to bed at a certain time. It is roughly around about between 11 and 12. But if I’m out with some friends until 2:00 AM, fine. I don’t change my life. I’ll have a little wind down, I’ll have a warm bath and do all that. And I just sit down, chill out on the sofa, watch TV, often fall asleep and stay on the sofa. This is quite important. It’s really comfy. And I don’t necessarily go to my bed, and if I stay there all night, it’s okay. And I think that’s fine. That’s a big thing. And so if I’m in bed or I’m on the sofa, as long as I get the sleep, that’s fine.

David Lawrenson: Whenever there’s other times you go to bed and do the things that we like to do in bed, there’s other times for that. So I do that. And I always think that realizing, as I said before you will sleep in the end. It’s a natural function. If I don’t sleep one night, I’ll sleep the next. I haven’t lost it and I realized that from what you said eventually, from my own experience, the importance of realizing about that I’m a kind of controlling person. I think a lot of people really battling insomnia are, and to accept and be in the moment. All the mindfulness stuff.

David Lawrenson: I really think that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Seven Attitudes of Mindfulness YouTube is brilliant. You don’t have to learn all about mindfulness. Just listen to that, that’s all it is. That’s all it is, don’t bother going on… But if you want to go to an eight week course, it’s very relaxing. But his thing explains it. CBT-I. Keeping a diary was good, I did that and I occasionally do it now, even when I’m really well, just to realize how good life is. And sleep restriction sometimes. Yeah, I try to keep my sleep down to if I am tempted to keep on for more than six hours, I tend to try to force myself to get up, have a cup of tea, because if I sleep too long, the next night might be a problem. So those are the things I do.

Martin Reed: Yeah.

David Lawrenson: And also avoid reading any nonsense in a local quality papers about sleep because most is rubbish.

Martin Reed: Yeah, absolutely. I was keen to ask you that question because a question that I get quite often is, do I have to follow these techniques or these rules for the rest of my life? So I try and explain that, no, they’re more just, we use them because they will help get your sleep back on track in the shortest time possible. But as your sleep improves in response, that’s not something that you have to follow for the rest of your life, you don’t have to follow that prescribed out of bed time, or even the one hour wind down time or avoiding naps, if you don’t want to once your sleep improves. But the great thing about the techniques is, should you sleep ever become a problem again in the future, because you’re now familiar with the techniques that worked for you in the past, you can just kind of pull them out of your back pocket and just implement them again, in order to get your sleep back on the right track.

David Lawrenson: Right. Yeah. I also have to say, in terms of like I don’t practice mindfulness. I don’t sit down for 10 minutes of mindful time. I’m just not that kind of person, I’m too driven. Too much going on in my mind, it’s always whizzing around, but I just see that what I did is, I will say sometimes, “Yeah. I’ve done quite a bit today. Yeah, and I could do that as well, but you know what I’m just gonna have to finish at four today. I’m just gonna just give myself a bit of a break and chill a bit.” Because there’s always another day. And so, that’s the only thing I do do. I wouldn’t say I’m very unzen like, really. But I’ve cut myself as a bit of slack. I think people should do that. If they just get that from mindfulness, that’s enough. They don’t need to go long course, but just give yourself a bit of a break. You are right though.

David Lawrenson: You can dig them out, you know what they are and can use them where appropriate. Some of the people recommended that book by Guy Meadows, that’s pretty good. I think his book is good. I’ll leave it at that, it’s a good book to read. I think I went to one of his seminars. Anyway, I was unimpressed with that, but the book is extremely good. But I still think mindfulness, acceptance, really. Pared with CBT-I. But it’s all good. And you obviously on your forum has been good to read some other people’s experiences, as well. Good supportive stuff there. Sometimes I look at that, not so much these days. But now and again.

Martin Reed: Yeah. That’s great. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us, because I think you’ve given us this slightly different insight, because we focused on the obsession with sleep and how that can kind of feed into insomnia, and touched upon ACT as an alternative, or as a supplement to CBT-I. And I think you’ve given some great resources, you shared some good resources, like the Zinn video, and a couple of good books, so I’ll make sure they get in the notes as well, some people can check them out.

Martin Reed: So yeah, I really do appreciate you spending the time to come on. Before you go, I know I’ve taken a lot of your time, but there’s this one question that I always like to ask right at the end of all the podcast episodes. So if someone with chronic insomnia is listening to this, and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, they’re beyond help, they can’t do anything to improve their sleep. What would you tell them?

David Lawrenson: That’s good. I would say sleep will come in the end, just get through it. Sleep will come, you’ve not lost the ability to sleep. No one does. And yeah, I think that’d be the one thing that I would say to them. And just possibly let go of their need to control it, as far as they can. It’s not easy to do this. But that’s part of it as people come in the end. It will come, and they haven’t lost the ability.

Martin Reed: That’s great. Alright, well, thank you so much for coming on with us today David, I think it’s been really helpful.

David Lawrenson: Thank you.

Martin Reed: I think a lot of people are going to relate to your story. And I’m hoping that it will inspire them and just give them some motivation, and give them some hope that just as you got through your insomnia, they can too. So thank you so much.

David Lawrenson: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Martin Reed: Thanks for listening to The Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to implement cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, CBT-I 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 unlimited support and guidance and is guaranteed to improve your sleep. I will teach you and help you implement new CBT-I techniques 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

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 CBT-I 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

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
Overcoming Insomnia by Colin Espie

The 9 Attitudes of Mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn

9 Attitudes Jon Kabat Zinn

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

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