How Emily transformed her sleep by accepting insomnia and committing to meaningful daily actions (#60)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Emily’s insomnia struggle began around four months after the birth of her baby. Even though her daughter was sleeping well, Emily was finding it really difficult to fall asleep. She started to get nervous and anxious as her level of exhaustion intensified.

When the medication prescribed by her doctor didn’t work, Emily started to get really concerned. She started researching solutions but found that the more she tried to fix her sleep, the more difficult it became and the more stressful things got.

Emily’s anxiety intensified to the point where the arrival of bedtime would lead to a racing heart and a sense of panic. It felt like her body was preparing for a marathon while she wanted to get a good night of sleep so she could be the mother she wanted to be for her daughter.

Emily’s transformation began when she changed her approach to sleep and her response to insomnia.

She reduced the amount of time she allotted for sleep to more closely match the amount of sleep she was getting on an average night. She started to do something more pleasant whenever she found herself struggling with being awake at night.

She stopped calculating the amount of sleep she was getting each night and she began to look at sleep with less judgement and more neutrality.

Instead of trying to fight or avoid her racing heart and the anxiety, she surrendered to them — she acknowledged their presence and allowed them to exist.

And, she committed to doing things that mattered, even after difficult nights and even when she felt exhausted.

Emily surrendered to whatever might happen each night — and this freed her from the pressure she was putting on herself to generate a certain amount or type of sleep and allowed her to move away from the struggle that came from trying to control her thoughts and feelings.

Today, Emily goes to bed sometime around 11 at night and wakes naturally around seven in the morning. Sleep is no longer a concern or a focus. Her focus now is on living the life she wants to live.

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

Transcript

Martin: Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that by changing how we respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it, we can move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life we want to live.

Martin: 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: Okay. So Emily, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Emily: Thanks for having me, Martin.

Martin: It’s great to have you on. Let’s start right at the very beginning. When did your struggle with sleep begin and what do you think caused your initial issues with sleep?

Emily: I noticed that I started having issues about four months postpartum to having my first child. Was always a pretty good sleeper and actually slept probably longer than the average person and yeah, I started noticing that, um, I just the sleep disturbances from having a newborn I think kind of are what triggered the not falling asleep at night because I was on high alert and that’s where it just spiraled downward.

Martin: So I think people might understand that having a baby is going to create some sleep disruption. And at the same time, they might also acknowledge or predict that, as we start to adjust to having a new baby, as the baby starts to sleep a little bit more reliably through the night. That our sleep might get back on track.

Martin: But I’m assuming that because we’re talking, you found that wasn’t your experience.

Emily: Yeah. I it’s so funny, I remember the exact day, like it was yesterday, I wasn’t, to my knowledge, particularly stressed or anything. I was actually, it was a really nice day, and it was in the fall, and we had taken our daughter to do a little walk in the woods, and just a really nice day, and she was actually Sleeping a good chunk of time through the night at this point.

Emily: And that night, I probably slept one hour. I was just, could not fall asleep next day. I chalked it up to maybe it was something I ate. I just tried to come up with reasons why I couldn’t sleep. And then just assumed tonight I’m going to sleep really good and I’m going to go to bed early because I need to sleep and I need to make up for this.

Emily: And so I think that night when I couldn’t fall asleep knowing how exhausted I was, even though my kiddo was asleep in the next room, I just, that’s where it started to, the nervousness around sleep and the anxiousness around sleep really started to perpetuate.

Martin: It sounds as though At first, when the sleep disruption showed up, you were yeah this kind of sucks, but, it wasn’t having too much of an influence, but then as it continued, it maybe started to generate more concern and maybe start to feel a bit confusing and a bit mysterious and a bit more concerning the longer it went on.

Martin: Was that your experience?

Emily: Yes. I had never experienced anything like this before. I’d had occasional sleepless nights like anyone from having to travel the next day or, just the random night. But I really, um, I went to the doctor and told the doctor that I wasn’t sleeping and the doctor, I was nursing my child at the time.

Emily: So the doctor gave me something that was. Safe while nursing and that really didn’t work. And it, I went, I want to say three or four nights without getting much sleep. I think I slept maybe one or two hours max. And I’ve just started spiraling and I thought, what is going on with me? Is this going to, the all or nothing thinking, is this going to happen, go on forever, am I losing my mind?

Emily: It just Catastrophizing. And I, that’s when I started doing the researching and the Google and looking up postpartum sleep loss remedies and yeah, it just, it became a self fulfilling prophecy at that point. I feel like I just was constantly looking for ways to, and I feel like the more I stressed about it.

Emily: The worst it got, and then it, it turned into that sleep anxiety, and that was really severe for me. It got to the point where I would, it would start to be bedtime, and I would start getting my heart racing, and nervous, just felt like I was going into a panic attack mode. It was like, okay, I’m about to race a marathon, but it’s bedtime.

Emily: So I think that was the hardest part for me, was the anxiety around sleep at that point. Because there was nights where I would lay there, I was sleeping in another room because my poor husband, I was thrashing around and having these little meltdowns in the middle of the night and he had to get up for work the next day.

Emily: And my kiddo, I had to get up and mom the next day. So I think that was also a story that I had created. Like I can’t function if I have to take care of my daughter tomorrow. Yeah. And stories just started to build and build. And my mind just was on overdrive.

Emily: And yeah, it just, it was a rough, a very rough patch. Um, and of course, like I had mentioned earlier, I was constantly trying new things. CBD oil. I was trying weighted blanket calcium, magnesium, or magnesium, the calm supplement. Everybody, I was telling everybody about it at this point, and everybody had their opinions and their remedies for it.

Emily: And I remember actually, at one point coming across an article, About cognitive behavioral therapy for sleep. And this woman wrote a book about it and I, forgive me, I can’t remember her name, but she had talked about how she did the sleep restriction therapy. And I was like, no way. That sounded like the most painful thing for me in the moment.

Emily: I was like, I can’t do this with a four month old baby and try to, because I was thinking in extremes. I was thinking we’re going to get a four hour sleep window here. And, I just wasn’t ready. I had to wait three years to finally put this into practice. So yeah, was, it was a journey for sure.

Martin: I think a lot of people listening are going to identify with the way you’ve described the way it can progress, the way this struggle with sleep can progress, where it starts off and it’s, maybe it starts off more as like an inconvenience.

Martin: It’s not something you give too much thought to. It’s just Oh okay, I’m going to get on with it. Tonight will probably be a better night or I’ll go to bed earlier tonight. But then when it sticks around, there’s that growth in the concern. It starts to consume more of our focus and more of our attention, which in turn can make it harder for us to focus on other things in our life and to do other things in our life, to concentrate on other things in our life.

Martin: And. Because our brain’s number one job is to look out for us, it’s there. Maybe it starts off in the background with lots of different thoughts and feelings and stories and predictions, which over time just get louder and louder and more powerful and more difficult and uncomfortable and more distracting.

Martin: And so we’re not just dealing with what’s going on with our sleep, but we’re also dealing with everything that our mind is doing in response. And because often we identify quite rightly, I think that is another potential obstacle to sleep. We’re not only battling with sleep. Now we’re also battling with our mind.

Martin: And it’s the longer it goes on, it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill, right? It just gets bigger and more unmanageable. And More difficult to deal with them the longer that snowball is rolling down and I think that’s why it’s so easy to get Stuck and just feel so overwhelmed when this shows up.

Emily: Absolutely. I just it was all consuming for sure.

Martin: Was there such a thing as an average night back then and you touched upon it was you found it would find it really hard To fall asleep. Was that the main issue or was it also Waking during the night and then finding it hard to fall back to sleep.

Emily: It was the falling asleep that was the hardest part for me, and I think that’s why I got such tremendous anxiety around bedtime, because it was like just hours that I would lay in bed, and just the longer it took me, the more I would go into a And, I’ve heard a lot of other stories on your podcast and, just in general.

Emily: And some people say they didn’t get that extreme panic like I did, but I realized, after working through it and even in the middle of it, my husband had mentioned, I think you put sleep on too high of a pedestal. And I even did that before this happened. I was ingrained with this idea.

Emily: That we need eight hours of sleep a night, for good health and well being. And I think that those beliefs that were really, cemented from early on are what, what made this sleep anxiety so intense for me. And. Yeah, it was just, it was all consuming and I was doing a lot of the whole, like the CBT talks about like black and white thinking all or nothing.

Emily: Catastrophizing. I think I was doing it all at that point. I just, I was really in it. Yeah. It was definitely old belief and thoughts. From early on that I think led me down that path because, I have friends that have had sleep issues in their life and they’re like, Oh, I’m just tired.

Emily: I’ll just drink extra coffee, and a new day, but I ruminated on it, and then the more tired I was, the more in my face it was, I’m exhausted and I’m so tired. Painfully aware of this. And so I just, yeah, I think that before I had the steps and develop the trust and retaught my brain that, Hey, this isn’t forever, you’re going to get through this and sleepless nights are nothing to be afraid of, but I’ll tell you what I really was living in a lot of anxiety and fear around sleep for Good three years.

Emily: And I ended up having to get on choosing to get on a drug, a prescription drug for it to it helped me with the onset of sleep, but it was when that drug on a low dose started to wear off or not work as well that I thought I don’t want to keep staying on drugs the rest of my life, just to sleep.

Emily: This is a natural thing. I know that I never had issues with sleep. So why is this a life sentence, and it was when on a vacation, when I noticed that I was not getting the sleep, taking my regular medication that I had to find a different way. And by that point, my daughter was already, a toddler.

Emily: sleeping through the night and I took the walk of faith.

Martin: There’s two things that you were talking about that really stood out to me there. And the first was how we can often hold ourselves to standards or have expectations about sleep. And When we do that, I think the natural consequence is we can judge ourselves based on whether we met those expectations or beliefs that we had or standards that we had for ourselves.

Martin: And the thing about expectations is the best possible outcome really is neutral, because if an expectation happens, it’s ah I expected it to happen anyway. So really. the most likely outcome from having expectations is disappointment, frustration, judgment. What if we were able to flip that a little bit and instead of having expectations, maybe see each night as almost like a fresh start or as a as though we’ve never gone to bed before.

Martin: Huh. I don’t know what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen. I’m not holding myself to a certain expectation. And then in the morning, whether we sleep or not, maybe there might be a difference then in how we respond to what happened that night. Maybe we’re not going to be judging how we slept based on certain standards or expectations.

Martin: Maybe we might be able to start practicing seeing what happened that night as being something that happened that night. And that’s all it means. And we’re not trying to trick ourselves. If the night was truly awful, we’re still acknowledging that night was truly awful. And that’s what it was.

Martin: It was a truly awful night. But that’s all it meant. It doesn’t mean anything else. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, that you are broken, that tonight is going to be exactly the same, or that the day, there’s not going to be even one moment of joy during the day. It just means that you had a truly awful night, and I think there can be a difference there when we are able to move away from having those standards or expectations from night to night of how things should be.

Martin: Now you’re able to look back a little bit, is that something that you feel you can identify with?

Emily: Oh yeah high expectations and feeling like I needed to calculate the time that I slept, and looking back now, it’s Oh man, I’m so glad that’s not something that I need to do anymore.

Emily: And I can judge by the way I feel. I don’t need to sit there and go, how many hours did I sleep? Cause I used to wake up and the first thing I would do was look at the clock and calculate the hours. And yeah, it’s sometimes I’ll sleep five hours. It’s four hours and I’ll wake up and I feel pretty rested.

Emily: So yeah, then I don’t have to think about it all day, ruminate on it and create stories about it. So yeah, I was definitely, yeah, I had high expectations and I think that what you said about looking things with neutrality, looking at things more neutral is powerful It’s when I create a story about something, it makes it bigger than it is.

Emily: Instead of just saying, Oh, or I slept instead of I slept this many hours, I slept, you know, or even the whole, that was a terrible night’s sleep. I slept a little it’s interesting how our, my mind picks up on those little things. and holds on to them.

Martin: It is really interesting how the brain works.

Martin: It can be so easy to think of our mind as an adversary when it’s When it seems to be working against us, but the truth is our brain is always working for us. It’s just the To get our attention The only way it can really do that Powerfully is by generating really difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions and stories and predictions to get our attention And where this can backfire is because they don’t feel good and then we try and fight or avoid them and then the brain freaks out even more.

Martin: It’s hey, I’m trying to look out for you and protect you here. Why are you ignoring me? And so it starts to yell louder and we try and suppress or fight it even more. And then before we know it, we’re completely stuck.

Emily: What you said about just allowing those thoughts and feelings was something that really helped me work through all of this.

Emily: Because I was constantly looking for solutions to get away from those thoughts and to get away from the heart racing and everything, instead of just surrendering to it and saying, okay, these thoughts are here and it’s okay. They’re just thoughts. These feelings are here. I can get through them. The more I ran from them, the worse they got. So it’s an interesting, it’s just interesting how that works, it’s okay, if I face this. and don’t try to fix it, mellows out.

Martin: One thing to note is, it’s completely understandable why you would want to fight or avoid or try and run away from these thoughts and feelings, because they don’t feel good and they can be really difficult to experience.

Martin: And I think that pretty much every human being on this planet is hardwired to want to avoid uncomfortable, difficult, unpleasant stuff, and difficult thoughts and feelings fall in that category. So it makes complete sense why. We typically follow that route but like you’ve been talking about, it can so easily just get us feeling stuck because all of our energy and our focus and attention is then just engaged in this tug of war battle with our minds.

Martin: I’m not sure we can ever win that battle. that battle. The brain will always be holding onto that rope. We’ll never be able to pull it, pull that rope over the line. But what if, like you touched upon, what if we can just drop that rope? And so the opponent, let’s say the thoughts and the feelings that we, like the anxiety that we’re trying to get rid of, might still be there.

Martin: Sure. Just because you drop the rope is not going to get rid of it. But how might things be different if the anxiety is there, but now you’re not just focused. And you’re not using all your energy and your attention on pulling that rope. What if you just put the rope down? Might that free up some energy and attention for other things in life?

Martin: Might you be able to notice more of the world around you and open up a little bit more and maybe be better able to do some of the other stuff that’s important to you in life? rather than just everything being on, I’ve got to win this tug of war battle with my mind.

Emily: Yeah, that was that was really comforting working through your program when I got to the part where it was like, you know what, just because I had a difficult night of sleep didn’t mean that I need, needed to cancel plans and essentially put my life on hold.

Emily: And I think just. I’m just seeing that and putting it to test in my day to day life. And there was days when I started working the program where I was just like dead tired. I was like, I am still going to go for my run. I am still going to go out to dinner with my family. And it got to a point where it was like, I laugh now because I’m sitting there like just delirious and we’re eating and I’m like, I’m a superhero, dammit.

Emily: I have slept one hour and look at me. And it got to where it was like reframing my whole thought around sleep. It was like I was basically growing new neurotransmitters in my brain or neural pathways. And I think that, yeah, that’s what started to shift. That’s when I started to see the shift and it wasn’t such a panic inducing thing at night when I couldn’t sleep, and then my brain just finally started clicking with all this new information, but that was a big one for me, just learning to still enjoy the moment and live my life fully.

Emily: Even though. I, thought that I needed to be staying home and resting, yet I was just ruminating and perpetuating the anxiety.

Martin: I would completely agree with you that, yeah that’s superhero stuff there, and I think that anyone experiencing chronic insomnia is a superhero, just to be able to get through each day when they’re tangled up in such a really difficult struggle.

Martin: So I think that’s a great word to use. You might be the first person to use the word superhero on the podcast. I think it’s a very accurate description of anyone struggling with insomnia, whether they’re still finding it really difficult or whether they’ve emerged from it. It doesn’t matter.

Martin: Superheroes, every single one of you. And I like how you described

Martin: that commitment to engaging in things that were important to you, independently of sleep. How that, it sounds like that wasn’t easy, it often required a lot of willpower and determination, more superhero powers emerging here, right? But as you did that, you started to regain some control back from insomnia.

Martin: So you were able to move toward the life you want to live, even while insomnia might have still been present. Even when anxiety and fatigue and exhaustion and all that difficult stuff was still present. But just through those actions, doing things that were important to you, that mattered. And they don’t even have to be big things, right?

Martin: You mentioned a few big things, like still going for a run. Maybe we might just go for a walk. Maybe we might just step outside on the front porch for five or ten minutes. Just anything. If we can just do something that moves us toward the life we want to live when this difficult stuff is present, it helps us regain some of that control back over our own lives and it starts to slowly reduce the level of power and influence that sleep and all the difficult stuff that comes with insomnia can have over us.

Emily: Yeah. It It definitely took a while. It took me about four or five months to finally just, it’s so funny. It was just like one night. I just went to sleep and the sleepiness was such a lovely feeling that like laying there on the couch, watching TV.

Emily: And I just couldn’t even keep my eyes open. I was like, Oh, I like this. So I It was a reassuring feeling because on those nights that were more like particularly rough and I just didn’t get as much sleep. I would remember that day that sleepiness was going to set in because you’re, you’re going to follow your sleep window, you’re going to stay in your sleep window.

Emily: But building that empowerment around sleep and knowing that I’m going to be okay, even on the worst days, the worst thing that can happen is I’m just really tired. That was a big one for me. It’s been a while. So all these recollections are coming up, but I had forgotten that. That was a big one for me. It’s I had created so many stories around not getting sleep and being a good mom and, it just went on and on that I, when I realized the worst that can happen has already happened, you’re just tired, and that I think was a big one for me to get my mind wrapped around.

Emily: The safety aspect of it, you’re still safe, even though you’re not sleeping, you’re still safe, you’re going to be okay, and I needed that because, that was just, the catastrophizing was just ridiculous for me.

Martin: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, where the brain’s number one job is to look out for us.

Martin: I think the part of it does come down to reminding ourselves, either with the way we talk to ourselves or through our actions, that although being awake is not what we want to be, we’d much rather be asleep. We are still safe. We’re at home. We’re in our bedroom.

Martin: There’s not like a grizzly bear prowling around the house looking to eat our legs. But that’s what our brain thinks because we’ve just been struggling night after night. As far as our brain is concerned, being awake is no different to a grizzly bear stalking around the house. So our brain is on high alert to look out for us and protect us.

Martin: And so part of what is part of a different way of responding instead of trying to fight or avoid. all those messages our brain is telling us as it’s trying to look out for us, is exploring actions we might be able to engage in that help train our brain that we are still safe. The, yeah, being awake might suck, we’d much rather be asleep, but it’s not the same as a grizzly bear walking around the house looking to eat us.

Martin: And something that you were talking about that you touched upon was How we can feel powerless when we’re tangled up right in the middle of this struggle. But there are things we can do. There are different ways that we can respond that might be worth experimenting with. And in, as people that regularly listen to this podcast know, my philosophy is always related to moving away from trying to control.

Martin: And the thing that our experience tells us can’t be controlled. So falling asleep in a certain amount of time, getting a certain amount of sleep, getting a certain type of sleep. Not experiencing certain thoughts and feelings. All of our attempts to do that are completely understandable. But I think most of us when we reflect on our own experience realize that maybe they can help temporarily but over the longer term Perhaps not.

Martin: And as we engage in that understandable agenda of trying to control, trying to fight, trying to avoid, it becomes so easy to get pulled away from the person we want to be, or the person who we are, and the life we want to live. We can engage in actions that don’t really reflect who we are. One example might be we cancel on our friends, and that’s something that goes against our values.

Martin: We feel really bad for doing that. It sounds like for you medication even was something that you didn’t really want to do, but you found yourself getting drawn into it. And, that’s not to say that medication is a bad thing. It just depends on what someone’s individual values are.

Martin: Some people are very comfortable taking medication, and that’s perfectly okay, of course. But some people find that they get pulled into this route of medication or supplements or, I don’t know, weighted blankets, anything, as they just try to, Control sleep, fix sleep, and it’s so easy to end up, to pull us into actions that don’t reflect who we are.

Martin: It’s like we get, it’s like a magnet, right? It’s pulling us away from the life we want to live, the more we’re struggling with it.

Emily: Yeah, that control aspect was a big one for me. When I started this journey into recovery A big mantra for me was surrender. And I would at night just say to myself, I surrender to whatever happens tonight.

Emily: If I’m supposed to sleep, I’m going to sleep. If I’m supposed to get up five times, I’m going to get up five times. And I just really practiced letting go of that control. And I really think that once I surrendered, To the tools of this program. That’s when I started seeing real changes. And, um, I’ve had setbacks, but I just am like, okay, time to start back up with these tools again, and it’s okay.

Emily: And don’t freak out like I used to, because I know there’s a workable solution. And. I don’t need to make it bigger than it is just a sleepless night. And I just go through that reassuring my brain again okay, you’ve been through worse and you’ll get through this, so a lot of self talk involved there and it’s helpful.

Emily: I remember there would be times where my husband would be laying next to me and I’d be awake and. I’d start doing the self talk out loud because for some reason that just helped cement it in my brain and He’d be like, oh what and I’d say, oh, I’m just talking to myself Go back to sleep. Don’t mind me.

Emily: It’s just roll over Yeah, it worked though

Martin: It sounds as though that self talk for you involved talking to yourself in a kind way Which might, maybe was different compared to when you were first really tangled up in the struggle, where perhaps you were quite mean on, toward yourself, quite hard on yourself.

Martin: And then you started to adopt an approach where you talk to yourself in, maybe a little bit, with a little bit less judgment, a little bit less criticism in a kind of way. More like how you’d talk to a loved one who might be going through this.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I never thought about that, but, Thinking back to the beginning of when this all started, I would go into these like extremely angry feeling would come over me, the frustration, like I just wanted to go punch a pillow.

Emily: I was so frustrated. And then it just became more of a accepting, gentle approach. Yeah, I, I didn’t even think about that, but yeah, I was, and I never would have thought that it was me being angry towards myself, but it was like, I was probably without even realizing it, thinking what’s wrong with you, why can’t you sleep, instead of just saying, okay, this is happening, it’s not your fault.

Emily: And yeah, I just never thought of that.

Martin: I hope I didn’t put words into your mouth there. It’s just the impression that I got as you were describing it. The, often when we are able to look back and we reflect on how helpful self talk was, it tends to be because we’re talking to ourselves in a kind of way.

Martin: If we feel that self talk is helpful, isn’t really helping us, maybe that means or implies that we might be talking to ourselves a little bit more harshly a little bit less compassionately. So yeah, I was just keen to hear if that was your experience, but I hope I didn’t unintentionally put words into your mouth there.

Emily: Nope, nope, it actually just made me realize that, oh yeah, I was pretty, pretty hard on myself in the beginning. And I didn’t have the knowledge that I do now.

Martin: One word you used earlier was the word surrender. And Sometimes I think that can come with some negative connotations, like it means giving up being okay with insomnia, being okay with anxiety, and it makes sense that a lot of people listening are going to be like, no, I’m not okay with that.

Martin: I cannot surrender to this. I will never, I just do not want to accept this. Does this mean giving up? Does this mean that I just have to be willing to experience this insomnia forever with no change and Be happy to have anxiety forever with no change But so I’m curious to hear your idea on If you had to define surrender in this context of the insomnia struggle How would you define it to people that might be thinking?

Martin: That just sounds to me like giving up and I’m not ready to give up

Emily: well one thing I have to say is I Was following a plan So it wasn’t like I was in the thick of my insomnia, just hanging on by a thread with no guidance. I had the structured plan, but I had to trust, because it wasn’t an overnight fix.

Emily: Obviously it took time and it took trust. It took surrender to the outcome. I wasn’t giving up. I was still following this, but I was surrendering to whatever happened, because like you said, dropping the rope felt a whole lot better than this struggle all the time and trying to fight it and fight it.

Emily: And that’s what made it so bad in the first place. Constantly fighting against the sleepless night, constantly searching for ways to not feel the way I was feeling, constantly searching for ways to. I running away instead of walking through it. So I feel like that surrender was a saving grace for me.

Emily: Like it, it was, it brought peace to me to say, you know what? I am done fighting. I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do and trust what the outcome’s going to be. So I guess it goes more hand in hand with trust or faith. If you want to. You want to take it to that. I’m myself a spiritual person. I know not everyone is.

Emily: But for me it, it was a lot to do with faith and trust.

Martin: I appreciate you sharing that with me. I think what stood out to me was how we, you bounced back to that analogy of dropping the rope and it, I think really it’s, surrender in this context is surrendering the struggle, really.

Martin: That’s how I think about it. It’s about realizing that the ongoing struggle isn’t getting us closer to where we want to be, so how about we surrender that as a strategy and we look to explore some different strategies.

Martin: It’s just so important to emphasize that surrender isn’t just about being okay with experiencing this.

Martin: It’s, and it’s not about just completely giving up and just saying, Okay, I’ve got it, I’m gonna, I have to be comfortable with having insomnia for the rest of my life. It’s just about giving up whatever’s not working. And. looking to explore and maybe practice a different approach. That’s how I would define it.

Martin: But especially just hearing your description of it, I asked you that question without knowing how I would answer it. So I put you on the hot seat there. But I think that this was maybe a helpful discussion for people listening as to what we mean really, when we’re talking about surrendering to, to this difficult stuff.

Emily: No, it’s good to clarify, because I do know that some people could misinterpret surrender as defeat or giving up, but to me, it was like what you said, I’m going to drop all this striving that I’m doing and all this stuff that doesn’t work. And I’m going to trust there’s a new way to do this, even though I haven’t seen it work yet.

Emily: I’m just going to trust, so I guess that, yeah that’s what surrender for that meant for me, just, okay. I am not, I’m just done. I’m done trying all this stuff. I’m done laying here, tossing and turning. I’m done staying home because I’m tired because I think this is what I need to do. I’m just going to.

Emily: Do what somebody else is telling me to do and trust it’s going to work out, not even telling me what to do, suggesting.

Martin: On that note, what, you’ve already touched upon a couple of them already. But what kind of changes did you make to your approach? So you mentioned you were struggling with this, trying all different things for, I think you said about three years.

Martin: Then. You adopted this new approach, this new plan of action. Now you’re able to look back. What changes did you make to your approach or your response to difficult nights or your response to anxiety that you feel were most helpful that were most valuable to you?

Emily: I think now in the beginning it was a little rough, but I started the sleep journal and I started Sleep window, and I made a reasonable sleep window for myself.

Emily: And I just stuck with it. I said, if I’m laying here for more than 15 minutes in the tailspin, or, I’m having anxiety, I just got to get out of bed. And at first I wasn’t doing things that I really enjoyed. It was more like journaling or Sitting in a corner of the room. And I realized after listening to one of your podcasts, that this can be a little more pleasurable.

Emily: I can give my brain more of a a good memory of what happens when I get out of bed instead of I don’t look forward to this. So I, I know it’s not the best solution for everybody, but I had a. A chick flick that I put on the TV, ready to go. I put the dim light in the living room, almost anticipating that it might happen.

Emily: So I lowered my expectations and I would get up and I would cozy up on the couch and just watch this kind of easy breezy TV, nothing heavy, you know? And there were times where it was like, okay, my eyes are heavy, go lay back down. I would lay back down, even though I had the really sleepy feeling and that, that anxiety would kick in.

Emily: So it was, it was challenging at first it wasn’t, even though I was sleepy, I was still getting that almost PTSD in a way, because my brain was still used to bed. Being a struggle or bed equating to fighting, fight or flight. So I it took a long time to retrain my brain that bed was a peaceful place. But that helped me having a sleep window, getting out of bed when I was anxious, making it a good, enjoyable environment was key for me. Because I didn’t want to get out of bed, especially in winter and go sit somewhere quiet. This is depressing. It’s lonely. One thing that you touched on that really helped me was when you had said that when our body knows that we need that restorative sleep, it automatically puts us into a deep sleep to make up for the sleep loss.

Emily: And that really was reassuring for me. Because I was like, Oh, I haven’t had my REM sleep and I haven’t had my deep sleep and I’m not getting, my neurons aren’t firing together. That kind of a thing. I just had a lot of fear around that. And I remember that was mentioned in an interview or somewhere you had talked to somebody about that, that I heard and I was like, Oh, that’s so good to know that our body is.

Emily: Know how to give us the rest we need, when we haven’t had it in a while. So that was big for me. I’m trying to remember the other things. It’s funny. It feels like so long ago now.

Emily: Making myself do things during the day that were fulfilling that was a big one too. It’s just, what? I’m going to make the most of this day, even though I’m exhausted, I’m going to make the most of this day. And that was a big one for me because it taught my brain that life is still good when you’re tired. It’s not,

Emily: I really did in the beginning, I thought my life is being ruined here. This is messing up my joy, my livelihood. And that once again was an unhelpful thinking way of thinking.

Martin: I think the biggest benefit of a sleep window is it’s one of those things that can start us moving away from chasing after sleep. We’re less likely to start going to bed earlier, staying in bed later, in an effort to make more sleep happen. I’m starting to suspect that’s really one of the biggest benefits to having an earliest bedtime and a reasonably consistent out of bedtime in the morning, is it just helps us move away a little bit from that control agenda.

Martin: And Doing something a little bit more pleasant whenever being awake at night gets really difficult. That can be so helpful. And you touched upon how you, it’s like you’re training your brain that it’s possible to have a better experience of being awake. You started off by maybe this has to be boring and miserable in order to create the good conditions for sleep.

Martin: Again, which is one of those remnants of trying to, of the control agenda, right? Which again is understandable. We often get drawn back into it multiple times, but really all we’re looking to do is move away from that struggle. not struggling quite so much with being awake at night every single night. And one way we can do that is to just engage in an alternative activity.

Martin: It doesn’t really matter what it is because our goal isn’t to make sleep happen. We’re not trying to make sleep happen. We’re just trying to experience being awake with a bit less struggle and in turn that might also train the brain again that being awake isn’t a grizzly bear. It’s not a danger to us.

Martin: It doesn’t have to be quite so alert to protect us from being awake. And with that in mind, if someone doesn’t even want to get out of bed, I don’t think there’s any need to force ourselves out of bed. We can read in bed. Watch TV in bed, use the bed as a trampoline if we want. It really doesn’t matter because what we’re looking to do is just build a little bit of skill in being awake with a little bit less struggle.

Martin: That’s really what our new goal is there. And then you mentioned how just the education side of things. was quite helpful. You found it helpful to understand that our brains control sleep architecture, all the different stages of sleep themselves, the brain takes care of that. And that might not always be visible it doesn’t mean that after a certain number of nights of less or no sleep that we’re going to get more sleep.

Martin: Although that does become more likely, there’s no guarantee, but behind the scenes, the way the body compensates and it will generate more deep sleep and it will generate it earlier in the night and spend more time there as a proportion of sleep, for example, if it needs to. And the same with all the other sleep stages.

Martin: And just knowing that. Is, I think, another thing that can help us move away from that control agenda. From trying to make a certain amount or certain type of sleep happen. Because it is something that the brain can and wants to take care of by itself. So would you say that was a reasonable summary of the things that you found helpful?

Emily: Yeah, I’d say. I think just listening, I also did quite a bit of listening to your podcast when I was doing this program. It was a reassurance for me. So, when I went on walks or jogs, I was listening to your interviews and hearing different perspectives and how many people had gone through to the other side it was a driving force for me.

Emily: It was inspiring and it also just kept me pushing. It kept me going. So that was extremely helpful. So I just kind of. Just went in full force. I did the program. I listened to the interviews and just yeah, just changed the way I was doing things like a hundred percent. And it was so nice to learn. There’s just so much knowledge that I gained from listening to all these different stories.

Emily: And, um, it just taught me so much about sleep that I didn’t know. And about the habits. It’s the kind of thought patterns that we get stuck in and the way that I was thinking that wasn’t helpful, so I realized, okay, we could try a new approach here and things will change and it’s okay if it’s not right away, but I look back now, when I was starting to feel more confident around sleep and when I noticed that things were shifting.

Emily: I was still having little things that were triggering for me or causing anxiety. If I went out with a group of friends and it was getting late, I would start getting that anxiety. Oh, it’s late. I’m getting past my sleep window. I need to get home. Those were the thoughts that were coming in and I would feel the anxiety.

Emily: And then now looking back, I don’t even get that. We’ll have late nights. And I just think, Oh, okay. If you sleep less tonight, it’ll be all right. It’s not. It’s not a big deal. So it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty pretty cool how our brain can change.

Martin: Yeah, I completely agree. And sometimes it can feel as though change isn’t possible, but I think change is impossible.

Martin: Change is always happening all around us. It’s, but it’s so easy to feel stuck and to feel that things can’t change, but things can change. And this is one reason why I’m so grateful for people like yourself coming onto the podcast to share your experience, because as you found yourself, it can be so helpful to listen to other people’s stories, to realize that you’re not alone, that this isn’t a situation or an experience that you are going through alone.

Martin: You might not know other people out there, but there are. Lots and lots of people going through this and in a way, I like to think that when you’re able to recognize that, maybe you can just share that struggle or share that burden a little bit, like with with others, even if you don’t know them, it’s just this might sound a bit abstract, but you’re just sending that struggle out into the universe to be shared amongst everyone else that’s going through this.

Martin: Because at any given moment, regardless of what time it is during the night. You’re not alone. There are other people going through this difficulty with you and it can be very easy to lose sight of that.

Emily: Yeah it’s a very lonely condition to be in. That was, I think that one of the most challenging parts about it is you’re in the middle of the night.

Emily: Who do you talk to, you know? And so it was just like a breath of fresh air, Hearing these stories and, and knowing that I wasn’t going through this alone. And it was, yeah, it was very it was a blessing for me. I’m so grateful that you do this work and that you share it with everyone, and I just found you one night in desperation and I’m like, Oh my gosh.

Emily: There’s other people who are telling my story right now, because, when you, when I talk to people in my day to day life, my friends and family, they were scratching their head, or they were offering me the same old stuff that the sleep doctor recommended me or the, I don’t even, I don’t even want to say sleep doctor, all the things, the typical things that they tell you to do.

Emily: Oh, dim lights, no screen time. It’s yeah, I’m well aware of this.

Martin: How long would you say that it took for you to get to that point where you felt that you weren’t just constantly engaged in that tug of war battle, that struggle with sleep and all the thoughts and feelings that come with it, when you felt, yeah, I feel like this is behind me now, like this isn’t, this isn’t having much power and influence over my life anymore.

Martin: I’m in charge of my life now.

Emily: I’d say when I really felt confident and less focused on it, I guess was probably around five months. It took me a while because it was pretty intense for quite a while. And I also weaned off the medication to do the program or no, actually I think I was weaning off of it as I was implementing all the tools.

Emily: Um, so yeah, it took me a while to to start to feel that way, I’d say around five months. And then within about a year, I remember thinking, wow, I haven’t really thought about sleep in a while. This is nice. And I did for a long time though. I stuck with a sleep window.

Emily: Now I don’t really have a sleep window. If I’m tired I don’t try to go to bed to make up for that though. I still go to bed at the same time usually. Even if I didn’t sleep too good the night before. So that’s something that I’ve stuck with. But yeah, I held on to a pretty strict sleep window for a while.

Martin: And over those months, was it just, Constant improvement, or were there lots of ups and downs and setbacks along the way?

Emily: To be completely honest, about four months, I was struggling. There were nights where I slept a couple hours, and I just said, Nope, I’m already this far in, I’m going to keep going.

Emily: And, it was just, it’s strange, it just feels like a shift just happened. It wasn’t like a The anxiety started to go away a little bit. I will say that was gradual after about two months. And then once that anxiety started to lower, then yeah, I was still having sleepless nights, but I remember it just, it’s weird.

Emily: I just had a full night’s sleep one night and I was like, okay. And I was getting more and more, I was starting to feel that sleepiness and Yeah, it’s just my brain just, I don’t know, it just shifted. So everybody, I know everybody’s different, but for me it was just a gradual improvements, but it took a while.

Martin: Yeah, and I like to ask this because I think it is helpful to realize this isn’t really a quick fix. It often takes time and ongoing practice and part of progress. is setbacks and the return of some struggle. That is inevitable. I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who has not experienced setbacks the return of some struggle, return of difficult nights, the return of the difficult thoughts and feelings.

Martin: That’s always going to happen. It’s part of progress. What matters is how we respond. Noticing and being aware of how we’re responding can be so helpful too. Because it doesn’t matter if we find ourselves that we’ve been drawn right back into the struggle and we feel back to square one. It’s never too late to pause, notice this has happened, be kind to yourself because it’s understandable why it happened.

Martin: It’s not your fault that you’ve been drawn back into the struggle. And to just refocus attention on that. An alternative way that the way that you want to be moving forward and to just re engage in that direction. That really is what matters is how we respond to this, the return of some struggle or the return of all this difficult stuff.

Martin: That dictates whether we continue to move closer to where we want to be or either we get pulled back into that old struggle all over again.

Emily: Yeah, the way I think of it is. I’ve had these thought patterns for years, so I have to keep strengthening the new ones. If I start going back into those old channels or neural pathways, I’ve got to go back into the fainter ones and keep digging them, making them thicker and wider and stronger, because it’s just practice, and awareness is a big one for me, being aware of what I’m thinking.

Emily: How I’m responding. And when I was listening to all of your podcasts, it was I’m, I’m grateful that I heard a lot of people saying that they had experienced setbacks because then when it was my turn, I was like, okay, this is normal. This, you know, that recovery is not linear. And yeah it’s It’s, it’s just one day at a time in so many areas of my life.

Emily: And this is one of them, one day at a time, this present moment is the moment that matters and yeah it’s a journey.

Martin: Yeah, absolutely. What’s an average night like for you these days, Emily? Is that, is there such a thing?

Emily: Yeah. I actually go to bed later than I used to. Surprisingly, I used to be a, I need to get in bed by 10 o’clock.

Emily: And now I’m like, yeah, 11 o’clock. I’ll close my book, and I usually just wake up naturally around seven,

Martin: just hearing the difference in the way you describe how a night goes, you can just tell that. it’s just your relationship with it. The way you reflect on it is completely different now.

Martin: It’s just effortless. There’s less attachment to it. It’s just yeah, now, I’ve generally go to bed a bit later. I’ll be reading a book and I’ll wake up naturally around about seven o’clock. That’s all that’s all there is to it. Whereas in the past it would be I will go to bed at this time after doing X, Y, Z.

Martin: You and there’s so much more analysis and attachment to what it all means compared to how you’re, you describe it now in just maybe you used a dozen words there to describe an average night. It’s such a shift.

Emily: It’s just crazy how different things are now, just such a, Oh, I’m just so grateful that I don’t have to worry about that like I used to, take nights that are.

Emily: Less sleep as they come and, okay. That wasn’t fun, but, new day.

Martin: I like to use the word transformation because I think it is a transformation. It’s a transformation in your relationship with sleep. And, because there’s a transformation in your relationship with sleep, and, the level of power and influence it has over your life, there’s often a transformation just in your life too.

Martin: It just becomes so much easier to do the things that matter to you and to be the person you want to be. So I think that maybe transformation is a word that’s overused, but in this case I don’t think it is. I truly believe that everyone that comes onto this podcast, what they’re sharing is transformation.

Martin: So I’m really grateful for you coming on. I’ve got one question for you though, just to wrap things up, Emily. And it’s this, if someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel that they’ve tried everything, that they are beyond help, that they will never be able to stop struggling with insomnia, what would you tell them?

Emily: I’d say no matter how hard. you’re struggling or how hard things are getting, there is a way out. I’m living proof. I went through a long battle with this and I thought it would never get better. And look, just don’t give up on yourself. Keep trying.

Martin: Thank you so much, Emily, for coming on and sharing your experience.

Martin: It’s really appreciated. Thank you.

Emily: Thank you too, Martin. I appreciate you.

Martin: Thanks for listening to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to get your life back from insomnia, I would love to help. You can learn more about the sleep coaching programs I offer at Insomnia Coach — and, if you have any questions, you can email me.

Martin: 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 are not alone and you can sleep.

I want you to be the next insomnia success story I share! If you're ready to move away from the insomnia struggle so you can start living the life you want to live, click here to get my online insomnia coaching course.

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