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Jim struggled with insomnia for over 10 years. At first, he thought it was a symptom of heavy drinking, a poor diet, working late, and experiencing a lot of stress. However, the insomnia stuck around even after Jim addressed these issues. This led to many years of ongoing sleep disruption, fear, frustration, and anxiety.
In this episode, Jim shares the changes he made that helped him put his insomnia behind him. Instead of chasing after sleep, he began to spend less time in bed and always got out of bed at the same time every day. He started to get out of bed at night instead of staring at the ceiling for hours.
Instead of spending time before bed doing things in an attempt to make sleep happen, he simply set aside some time to unwind and do things that were relaxing and enjoyable.
Ultimately, Jim stopped trying to fight or avoid nighttime wakefulness. He stopped trying to fight or avoid the difficult thoughts and feelings that often come with nighttime wakefulness.
Today, Jim knows that he can still enjoy really good nights of sleep — even after the most stressful days — because he is no longer engaged in a competition with sleep.
Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that by changing how we respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it, we can move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life we want to live.
The content of this podcast is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, disorder, or medical condition. It should never replace any advice given to you by your physician or any other licensed healthcare provider. Insomnia Coach LLC offers coaching services only and does not provide therapy, counseling, medical advice, or medical treatment. The statements and opinions expressed by guests are their own and are not necessarily endorsed by Insomnia Coach LLC. All content is provided “as is” and without warranties, either express or implied.
Hi, Jim. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.
Hey Martin, thanks for having me. Really appreciate the opportunity.
Well, let’s start right at the beginning. If you can just tell us a little bit more about when your sleep problems first began, and what you think caused those initial issues with sleep.
Yeah, so I’ve had sleep problems for probably the last decade. It really was alcohol. I was a heavy drinker. In fact, you could say I was a high functioning alcoholic. Caffeine. When I wasn’t drinking alcohol, I was drinking caffeinated beverages. I drank coffee for a number of years. And then when I quit coffee, I went over to some black tea and green tea, and even when I was drinking tea, I was really drinking too much of it.
The other contributing factor was diet. I was eating standard American diet, was snacking all the time, and was even eating before I would go to bed. I would have a late night snack before I would go to bed, and I didn’t really even realize what impact that was having on my sleep.
I was working a lot of late hours, had a lot of stress in my life. Still do occasionally have stress in my life, but it’s not as bad now. And then, a lot of bad sleep habits that I acquired over the years. I found myself trying to jump into bed early and stay into bed late, trying to grab naps.
The sleep wasn’t really bad right away. It probably took me about a decade for my sleep to become completely dysfunctional, and at the worst, I was taking sleeping pills with alcohol. I think that was probably the lowest point of my life, in terms of trying to get a good night’s rest.
And so, what was sleep like for you during this period? Was it difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep? A bit of both? Was there ever an average kind of night?
Yeah, I guess I would say I sucked at all aspects of sleep. I would lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. I would tell people that was a hobby of mine, as I would be laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to fall asleep.
When I did get to sleep, I would often wake up. I remember the 2:00 hour, for some reason, I would wake up at 2:00 every night. And I knew when I would wake up that the chances of me falling back asleep were pretty rare. And then, I would wake up earlier than when I wanted, before the alarm went off.
And I just, I felt like the only thing I was really getting was just light sleep. I was spending 10 hours in bed, approximately 10 hours in bed, but I was probably sleeping five or six of those hours at best.
And eventually, I got to the point where I was having great anxiety about sleep, which created more sleep issues. There were times that I was afraid to jump in bed because I knew it was just going to be a frustrating night of me trying to compete against sleep, and I would wake up frustrated, and I didn’t know what to do about it. And this went on for many, many, many years.
Yeah. You kind of touched upon it a little bit, in terms of the anxiety there, but were you also finding that this sleep disruption was also having an effect on your days, like in your daily life? And if so, what kind of influence was that having for you?
Yeah. I was experiencing things like short term memory loss, lack of ability to focus, fatigue and tiredness in the afternoon. I’m a part-time athlete, so I’m an endurance athlete, and so I spend a lot of time road biking and swimming and doing things like in strength training. And I just found I wasn’t recovering from those activities, and I just didn’t feel myself.
And I knew sleep was the cause, because occasionally I would’ve a good night’s sleep. What would happen is, I would’ve three or four nights of really horrible sleep, and that would build up, and then I would just basically pass out one evening and get maybe a good, solid six or seven hours. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen often enough. But then, on those days when I got a good quality sleep, I felt really good. So, I knew sleep was kind of the cause of all of the daytime disorders that I was experiencing.
Yeah. So, before you found Insomnia Coach, what kind of things had you tried in a bid to just improve your sleep, improve your situation and struggle?
Yeah, so, obviously I tried a lot of Google therapy.
And I would just try the little things that I thought were the cause. I would try to resolve those issues. I went to a couple sleep doctors. The first sleep doc doctor I went to prescribed me Ambien. I can’t even remember the dosage of it. But I took that for a number of years, but to be honest with you, I never liked the effects of it. But it worked, partially. It partially worked. So I would take Ambien, and then the next day I felt sluggish almost the entire day. And I think, I don’t know why I continued to take it. I guess I really didn’t have another solution, and so I was able to sleep pretty okay. Not great, but pretty okay. Take an Ambien.
Over the years, I had gone to probably three different sleep doctors. I also had a sleep study that was done. They brought me into a hotel room, hooked me up to a monitor. They actually hook you with diodes all over your body, and then they’re like, “Okay, we want you to go to sleep now.” And you’re like, “How am I supposed to sleep with all this equipment, with like, two or three video cameras looking out over me to watch me?” And of course I didn’t sleep, you know? And so, it kind of ruined the whole point of the exercise.
But I think I did sleep like an hour and a half, and afterwards they gave me a diagnosis of… What was it? I’ve got this written down here. I can’t remember. Yeah. I don’t remember what the diagnosis was, but basically it was like a psychological sleep disorder that indicated that I really was asleep when I thought I was awake, which basically to me meant that I slept really lightly. They didn’t find any breathing disorders or any other type of sleep dysfunctions.
Oh, I just remembered. Yeah, the sleep study was paradoxical insomnia, is what they prescribed me with. I had to Google it to find out what that meant. Yeah. And when the sleep study was over, they actually indicated I was sleeping parts of it, but I remember, I remember distinctly some of the thoughts that I had while I was supposedly asleep, and I told them, I said, “I was just meditating.” They said, “No, your heart rate was really low.” And I said, “Well, my normal resting heart rate is between 35 and 40.” I said, “So if you’re going to go by that, then I guess I’m asleep right now talking to you.”
So, I went from sleep doctor to sleep doctor. Really didn’t find any solutions. And then, I finally came upon another sleep doctor that basically said, “You should give cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia a try,” and that’s kind of how I wound up finding you.
Yeah. And it’s interesting just hearing you talk about all these things you tried and the experience that you went through, because I think a lot of people are going to really resonate with what you’re saying, because when we’re struggling, we want to look for a solution to the problem, right? And when it comes to sleep, we often, from person to person, we all do very similar things, and a lot of it is grounded in medication or supplements, the kind of sleep hygiene, like changing our bedtime rituals or developing new rituals. And all these things really, over the long term at least, aren’t usually that helpful, just because they don’t really get to the root cause of what is feeding the insomnia, what’s keeping that insomnia alive.
And often, it is related to our behaviors and our thought processes, our relationship with our thoughts. I don’t think it’s our thoughts themselves, because we all experience thoughts. Some are pleasant, some are unpleasant, but often it’s our reaction to those thoughts, that temptation to try and fight or avoid the really difficult and uncomfortable ones, that then just kind of serve to make them push back harder, lead to more arousal and create more difficult conditions for sleep to happen.
I’m curious, just after I gave that little spiel, if any of that, looking back in your experience, if that sounds as though it’s something you identify with.
Yeah. I mean, I tried all those things that you talked about, and you’re right. Identifying the root cause is totally essential. I mean, I think, unfortunately, with sleep it’s complex, and sometimes people have multiple root causes. I mean, I look back over the years, and based on what I was just telling your listeners and viewers and you is that I had many root causes. I mean, I had alcohol abuse, caffeine, diet, poor sleep habits, just poor eating, and even eating before bedtime. I had to resolve all of those.
But I guess, once I fixed all of those, though, I figured that my sleep would also improve, and unfortunately the root cause of that was really that I needed to retrain my brain, is that my sleep habits had gotten so sloppy that I needed to really retrain myself on how to sleep, because I was laying in bed and I wasn’t sleeping efficiently, and I wasn’t following a good structured sleep habit. So even though I cleaned up all other aspects of my life that would normally contribute to good sleep, until I fixed that single root cause, I wasn’t going to be able to address the issue.
Yeah. And that is basically insomnia, chronic insomnia at least, in a nutshell, because we have these triggers for sleep disruption. We can never eliminate them all. Some we might be able to, but never all of them. There’s probably billions of them, that can all just temporarily disrupt our sleep for as long as they’re relevant, or as long as they’re an issue.
But once they’re no longer an issue, whether that’s because we were able to eliminate those triggers, or if we’ve just kind of adapted to them, if the sleep issues stick around, it’s always because of these perpetuating factors, these things like our behaviors, our relationship with our thoughts.
And so, that can also sometimes be this area of mystery or additional concern, because we can think, well, look, I’ve got rid of this. Let’s say I had a really stressful job, and I think that’s why I’m struggling to sleep. I’ve left that job now. I’ve got a really good job. I’m really happy. I love it. I’m chilled out, relaxed. I love going in, but my sleep issues have stuck around. Now I’m really concerned, because does this mean something’s wrong? Something’s broken with me, because my sleep issues are still here, yet what was causing the sleep issues has gone?
But that’s normal, and it is down to these perpetuating factors behind insomnia. I like to say they give insomnia the oxygen it needs to survive, even when that trigger is no longer around anymore. And it’s down to those behaviors that we completely understandably implement in a bid to improve sleep.
Like you touched upon, we might start chasing sleep, going to bed earlier, staying in bed later, just spending a lot more time for sleep. We might be changing our days and our routines around to try and protect our sleep, or to conserve energy, to protect us from that sense of fatigue.
And we really can be tempted to get involved in that endless and exhausting battle with all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are being generated by our brain in a bid to protect us. It’s looking out for us, but it’s just trying so hard that it’s kind of getting in the way. And these are all the things that keep that insomnia going long after whatever initially triggered it is no longer around.
Yeah, and you begin to feel helpless, because you’re chasing all these things, but you don’t really know which one of it is that’s contributing to sleep. I mean, for the longest time I thought stress was a big factor in whether I was going to sleep or not. And stress used to be one of the triggers. If I had a stressful day, it was very difficult for me to sleep. But when I started to go through your program, I would notice that I could have a horrendously stressful day and still sleep pretty decently, so I started to realize, while stress is a contributing factor, it’s not really the underlying cause of why I’m not sleeping. And then, you’ve got to figure out, you got to really address those structural sleep issues that you’re dealing with, and that’s what I found to be successful.
Yeah. So, let’s talk about that a little bit more. When we were working together, what changes did you make, that on reflection now, you’re like, yeah, they were really helpful?
Well, the sleep restriction was honestly the most helpful thing. I could not have solved my sleep problem without going through sleep restriction. And I don’t think of it as sleep restriction. I think more of it as a gaining efficiency with sleep, or restructuring sleep. Sleep restriction is, the term almost doesn’t describe truly what it’s doing for you.
And over time, well, you saw the results. Every day that I did this, I got better and better at sleep, and toward the end of the eight week program, I was sleeping pretty efficiently. So, that was one of the things that was super helpful. The other was a sleep buffer, the idea of having to 30-minute to a one-hour period of time to unwind, and I find that time to be extremely important.
I’ve experimented with different things during that sleep buffer, some that I found successful and some not so successful. Like I think I told you, when I was going through your program at first, I was meditating during my sleep buffer, and I’ve stopped doing that. The reason why is because what happened was, my brain would start to associate meditation with sleep, and so then I would try to meditate at work and I’d fall asleep. And so, that wasn’t a good thing. I didn’t want my brain to associate meditation with sleep, and so I discontinued that.
I find reading to be really peaceful and relaxing, and so, lower the lights a little bit, grab a good book and just read. Or sometimes I’ll just sit in a darkened room and just kind of relax, and I find that to be helpful as well. But to be honest with you, I’ve had nights where I’ve watched TV up until the moment I go to bed, and I’ve slept perfectly well.
And so, I think sleep buffer helps. I notice I do sleep better with sleep buffer, but I go back to sleep restriction, and talking about sleep restriction, the important thing there is going to bed at the same time every single night, waking up at the same time in the next morning. And I think the more important of the two is waking up at the same time every morning.
So in other words, there will be times when I go to bed at, for whatever reason, if I get together with friends or something, I may go to bed at midnight, and that’s okay if I do that occasionally, but I still have to get up at 5:30 in the morning, which is my wake up time. And so, no matter what, if I go to a rock concert, or I get together with friends, or have insomnia for some reason, you never extend that wake up time beyond 5:30 in the morning.
The other thing I found to be hugely important was looking at the bed in a very different light. I had anxiety before when I would look at the bed, because I had this very dysfunctional view of it and sleep in general. And so, now the bed is only for sleeping, and so I don’t… I used to lay in bed. I used to eat in bed. I used to read in bed, and I don’t do any of those things anymore. I don’t even sit on the bed anymore. So, if I’m in the bedroom and want to sit somewhere, I’ll sit beside the bed. I won’t sit on it, because I just want my mind to associate that bed with the place where I sleep.
The other thing that’s kind of helpful too is, if I know I’m going to have insomnia for some reason is just, if lay in bed for like a half hour, 45 minutes, and I know I’m not getting to sleep, I get out of bed, and then I’ll go read, or I’ll go sit in the living room. Sometimes I’ll even watch TV. And then when I feel tired again, I’ll go jump back in bed.
So, those are the techniques that you taught me, and honestly all of them have been hugely successful, because I’ve been insomnia-free for like a year now, and I think I’ve only, within that whole year, I’m still surprised to say this, but within that year, I think there’s, probably can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had insomnia. And I don’t even remember when they were.
There’s times of maybe sleepless nights, and maybe that’s not insomnia, where I don’t sleep as well, but then the next evening, I’m able to sleep again. So, those are the things that have really helped. I think the sleep restriction though, if I wouldn’t have done the sleep restriction and really restructured the sleep, I probably would not have been as successful.
Yeah. There’s so much great stuff there, and I think that last point you made, yeah, still, I can remember that I’ve had a few difficult nights over the past year. I can’t really remember when they happened though, or anything else about them. I think that’s important, because it’s normal and natural to have some difficult nights from time to time. That’s just part of being a human being. But what changes is our relationship with them, our reaction to them. Now they’re not this huge, difficult, challenging, painful influence on our life anymore. They’re just, oh, I’ve had a difficult night. That’s in the past. Just our relationship with those difficult nights when they happen just completely changes.
We can never eliminate difficult nights from time to time. There’s always going to be some difficult nights, just as there’s always going to be some difficult days, but it’s just our relationship just completely changes. When we’ve put insomnia behind us, it just has far less of an effect on our life, and that’s really what our ultimate goal is, I think. That’s where the transformation happens, when we’re kind of okay with those difficult nights happening, then they tend to happen really infrequently compared to when we’re really determined and really desperate, almost, to avoid them. That’s when they’re more likely to happen.
Yeah. I don’t get anxiety anymore. If I have a sleepless night, it doesn’t bother me, because I just have confidence now that my brain knows how to sleep, and I know that, okay, so I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I only slept four hours last night. I know I’ll sleep good the next night. And that’s huge, having that confidence.
I read something recently that says, about sleep confidence, and it was like, we don’t need to have confidence in our ability to sleep. If you ask someone who sleeps well, how confident are you about sleep? They’ll probably give you this kind of blank, confused stare. We don’t need to be confident to sleep. We just need to be awake for long enough and sleep will always happen. And the more we try to either feel confident, or the more we try to make sleep happen, or the more we try to feel a certain way or think certain thoughts, that’s when we tend to get trapped, tangled up in that struggle, you know?
Yeah. No, that makes sense. But I think, when you’re an insomniac and you haven’t and you haven’t slept well in like half a decade or a decade, you need to build some of that confidence and some successes before you can get to that point where you can sleep successfully again, because sleep is, you associate sleep with this negative event, and it’s not a good thing. You get into that bad mindset associated with sleep.
Yeah. And I think you made a great point as well, when you talked about sleep restriction, about it’s awful terminology, and I completely agree with you, because it sounds like we are restricting sleep, like we’re taking sleep away from you. But really, what we’re doing is, we are trying to take long periods of wakefulness away from you, just because so many of us, when we are struggling with chronic insomnia, we are spending more time in bed, and there’s a big gap between the amount of sleep we’re generally getting and the amount of time we’re allotting for sleep. So we are kind of, almost in a way, setting ourselves up for long periods of wakefulness.
So, with sleep restriction, all we’re doing is just trying to more closely match the amount of time we spend in bed, or the amount of time we set aside for sleep to happen, so that’s more closely aligned with how much sleep we’re getting at the current time, in our current reality, but with a little bit of time added on, just because we all spend a little bit of time awake. No one generally falls asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, and we all spend a little bit of time awake during the night.
So, sleep restriction can sound really scary, because it sounds like we’re taking even more sleep away, but really what we’re doing is we’re just creating conditions to help take some of that wakefulness away, whilst also just building up more of that natural biological sleep drive, which occurs the longer that we are awake, the stronger that drive, the stronger that pressure for sleep to happen.
And what’s also helpful with that sleep restriction is it kind of gives us an earliest possible bedtime and a final out of bedtime in the morning. And like you said, that final out of bed time is probably way more important than the front end, than the bedtime. That’s why I like to think of the start of our sleep window just as an earliest possible bedtime. So, we don’t go to bed before then, but we might not even go to bed at the start of the sleep window if we don’t feel sleepy enough for sleep, because a clock doesn’t know when we’re sleepy enough for sleep. We might want to be living our lives. We might be out socializing with friends, as you touched upon.
But if we can try and stick close to that out of bed time in the morning, that can just be good as a kind of anchor, as a reference point for our body clock, that consistent out of bed time in the morning. It stops us from that temptation to chase after sleep, and if we’re always getting out of bed around the same time in the morning, it ensures that we’re giving ourselves lots of time during the day, lots of wakefulness to build up that sleep drive to help with sleep the following night. So, that’s where that sleep restriction can be helpful, but totally agree with you that the terminology is terrible.
Yeah. And I was just thinking, in terms of the wake time, it helps set that biological clock, because what I’ve noticed over time is that now I wake up one or two minutes now before my alarm goes off, and I feel like I’ve got enough energy to go through the day. Whereas before, when the alarm clock went off, I would hit the snooze button multiple times, and my body didn’t associate that alarm going off, or my wake time is the time that I needed to be up and active. And so, having the same wake up time every day has just been huge, because my body knows, look, it’s 5:30. It’s time for you to get up. It’s time for you to begin your day. And I don’t even need to set an alarm. I do, but I don’t recall the last time I actually got up to the alarm. I always get up a few minutes in advance of it. And even if I’m only getting four hours of sleep a night, because I stayed up late or something, still, my body wakes up at 5:30 now.
Yeah. It’s pretty amazing. I like how you touched upon something as well with that kind of wind down time that you give yourself in the evening, how really, listening to you talk about that, what struck me was the fact that you got to this place where maybe at first you were kind of doing things in an effort to try and make sleep happen or to make sleep more likely, to make yourself feel relaxed and sleepy. But you got to a point where it was just time for you. Time for you to just do stuff that you found relaxing and enjoyable, whether that’s reading or whether it’s watching TV.
And I think that’s important to emphasize, because when we talk about taking time to wind down, it can push us into this area of rituals and sleep efforts, where we are engaged in all this stuff to try and make sleep happen. And anytime we do that, anytime we engage in effort around sleep, we make conditions for sleep less favorable. Really, our only goal is to just give ourselves some me time before we go to bed, just some time to unwind and just do stuff that we find relaxing and enjoyable. It’s not something that’s going to make sleep happen. It’s just some pleasant time for ourselves to unwind at the end of the day, before going to bed, just to help make that transition from wakefulness to going to bed more pleasant, more relaxing, more enjoyable, just so it feels good.
Yeah, and it’s a transition from the work day to to the bedtime, because honestly, without that, some people, and I used to have the habit of feeling like I could work up until the point when I went to bed. And now, you’re right, it’s having a little bit of that me time, so you can let those workday thoughts leave the brain, and you can do something relaxing.
But I fell into that trap that you described. I was trying to use the sleep buffer as the time where I was just chasing after sleep, and that’s why I was meditating during that time, and I was doing anything possible to try to set myself up for success. I’m a lot more casual about it now.
I do find that there’s certain activities that I really cannot do during my sleep buffer, though. One of them is, I can’t do gaming. I’m a PC gamer, a console gamer, and I simply can’t do that because my adrenaline gets brought up. If I’m playing a first person shooter, an RPG, and then if I were to do that and then try to jump in bed, I’m not going to be able to get to sleep.
So, that’s one thing I do notice. I think people have to find whatever activities are good for them, whether it’s knitting, reading, whatever it is, but it’s probably going to need to be something relaxing, both mentally and physically, versus something that stimulates the brain or stimulates the body. That’s kind of what I’ve found.
Yeah. That’s a great point, and I think it’s not something we need to get really wrapped up in trials and experiments. A lot of it does just come down to either our own experience or just a little bit of common sense. If we do something that’s really going to release a lot of adrenaline in our body, then maybe that’s not the best thing to be engaged in. But other people, they love it. I have clients that tell me, “I love playing Call of Duty at night before bed. I find it really relaxes me.” And personally, I think that’s crazy, but you know, we’re all different. We all know what makes us feel good, so it really doesn’t matter. There shouldn’t be any rules, regulations around this. It’s just stuff that you find relaxing and enjoyable before going to bed can be really helpful.
And similarly, that’s a good little transition into our reaction to wakefulness during the night. When we wake during the night, again, there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves fall back to sleep, and the more we try, the more difficult it’s going to be. So again, you touched upon getting out of bed and doing something else. So again, all we are doing here is, if it doesn’t feel good to be awake at night, let’s just give ourselves the opportunity to make being awake more pleasant. Because we can’t control sleep and wakefulness, but we can control what we do.
So if it feels really uncomfortable to be awake in bed, we’re tossing and turning, frustrated, angry, depressed, not feeling good, battling with sleep and wakefulness, let’s just get out of bed and just do something more appealing instead. And if we do feel sleepy again, then we might return to bed and allow ourselves to be in bed for as long as it feels good to be in bed until our alarm goes off in the morning. We might fall back to sleep. We might not. We can’t control that stuff. All we can control are our actions. So, we always have that option, if being awake at night doesn’t feel good we can do something else that might make being awake a little bit more pleasant.
Yep. Yeah, I find if I can’t sleep, I’ll just get up and I’ll just, I don’t turn the TV on, but I’ll just sit in the living room, and I’ll just relax. And sometimes I’ll read, but sometimes just sitting on the couch for a little while and just relaxing, and then after 15, 20 minutes, my body’s like, okay, let’s go back to bed, and then I’ll go back to bed and I’ll successfully fall asleep. Doesn’t happen that often, but maybe once or twice a month at most.
But I don’t fight it anymore. Whereas I used to lay in bed and agonize. Used to play the game, looking at the alarm clock and saying, okay, I have four hours now before I have to get up. Okay, I have three hours, I have to get up. Some strategizing. Okay, if I just fall asleep now, I should be able to get enough sleep to be able to be energetic for tomorrow. And those kind of thoughts are very destructive, and they don’t help you get to sleep.
Yeah. It’s so tempting to just be staring at that clock during all that wakefulness, right?And it’s always one of the first things when I’m talking to clients is, hey, you want to try something different? How about we don’t check the clock? From the moment you go to bed to when you get up in the morning, let’s just try not checking the clock and just see if you find that helpful. And everyone’s different. We never know how each individual is going to react, but I would say the vast majority of clients find that really helpful. It’s such a small change to make, but it can just be so helpful. It just eliminates such a big source of pressure and worry and anxiety, just not checking that time.
Yeah. I used to do that too. I used to turn the alarm clock around and not look at it. But I find, now I don’t have any anxiety around the time, so I just leave it there. So if I wake up and it’s 3:00, and I’m like, no big deal. But before, it gave me significant anxiety to be constantly checking the alarm clock, and I had to turn it around and not look at it, because it was just a constant source of worry about how much time I’ve been laying in bed and how much time I have left before I have to get up.
Yeah. Well, one thing I did just want to cover, if you feel okay talking about it was, I remember when we first started working together, you were taking, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was some kind of over the counter sleep supplement, and one of your goals was to kind of move away from that. And so, when you felt ready to do so, you were like, all right, I’m going to start by cutting this in half, and that first night you took half that dose. You found it did take longer to fall asleep, and I remember you sharing that with me. Can you tell us a little bit more about that process, how you started to taper off that supplement and move away from it?
Yeah. At one point I was taking 10 milligrams of melatonin, which is way too much. I don’t recommend anybody take that amount of melatonin. But then I was taking, I think when I was seeing you, I was taking six milligrams of melatonin. I cut it down to three, and then I cut it down to zero. But what I found with melatonin is that the substance works for a little while, but then over time, your body just gets used to it and you need more and more of it for it to work and I don’t notice the difference in my sleep quality between when I take melatonin and when I don’t.
The problem is, it’s unregulated, and I don’t think we know what the upper limit is, and I don’t think we know what the long term ramifications on people’s health is. My naturopath was okay with it in low doses, but even she said I shouldn’t be taking it for the rest of my life. So, it was a temporary solution at best, and then I found over time, the efficacy of the melatonin was just, it was degrading.
And so, yeah, I went from six milligrams down to three milligrams, and then after, I think, a week or two weeks, tapered it down to one or two milligrams. And I know some people that take one or two milligrams at night and they find that successful, but I think it’s more of a mental crutch than anything. I think that’s what it was for me. And once I discovered that it was a mental crutch, that it was just something that I felt like was helping me, I was able to get rid of it then, and my sleep was just fine.
Yeah. We were touching earlier upon this, one of the, I’m going to use that horrible phrase again, the sleep restriction. I prefer sleep window. Let’s say sleep window, with that earliest possible bedtime, really consistent out of bed time in the morning. One of the real benefits is it stops us from chasing sleep.
I remember when you started that process of tapering the supplement, you had some initial sleep disruption. If we didn’t have that sleep window, what our temptation is going to be, I’m going to sleep in for longer now to try and catch up on that lost sleep, or I’m going to go to bed earlier the next night. And really what that does is, it just kind of, that sleep disruption can then leak into following nights.
But I remember with you, you were just really determined. I’m going to stick to that sleep window, even though I’m having these difficult nights, even though I’m tapering off this sleep supplement. And then, as a result, you kind of kept things, you kept your routine consistent, and so once the brain was doing a little bit less monitoring for the results of that change, that tapering process, you found that things stabilized again, and you got right back on track, and that is completely down to your own efforts to commit to behaviors that just create those good conditions for sleep, create and maintain those good conditions for sleep. One of which is not chasing after sleep, having that really consistent sleep schedule.
Yeah. I had no choice. I feel I had no choice but to really stick strictly to your sleep recommendations, because after more than a decade of insomnia and trying different things, and going to different sleep doctors, I was desperate. I found you on YouTube and you had this pleasant demeanor. You seem to… you obviously know a lot about sleep. But if this wasn’t going to be the cure, I didn’t know where I was going to go next, because sleeping pills didn’t work, melatonin supplements didn’t work, different sleep techniques that I tried didn’t work. And so, yeah, that’s the reason why I stuck to it as much as possible.
I think I was more strict with me than you were through the program, Because you were like, “Well, if you need an extra 15 minutes in your sleep window, why don’t you add it?” And I said to you at one point, I’m like, “No, I’ll stay here for a little while. I want to make sure that I’ve gained as much efficiency as possible before I move on to the next 15 minute increment.”
And then, after you and I had worked together, then I added 15 minute increments slowly over time, and got my body used to that new window, while keeping the efficiency, because that was important to me. What I didn’t want to do is go, okay, here’s my reduced sleep window, and then, okay, go back to eight or nine hour sleep window. I wouldn’t bring that efficiency along with me with those changes. So, just layering on a little bit more sleep to the beginning of my sleep schedule was kind of the way I got back to what I would consider a normal amount of sleep.
Yeah. I think it’s important to emphasize too that, like with any of these techniques that we are talking about, none of them can generate sleep. None of them make sleep happen. They just help set the stage for sleep, and they just help us avoid falling into that trap of implementing behaviors that just perpetuate sleep disruption, that give insomnia the oxygen it needs to keep going.
And so, I just think that’s helpful just to just emphasize. That’s why, when clients say to me, “Oh, I really wish I could just go to bed earlier.” Well, how about you just allow yourself to go to bed a bit earlier? 15 minutes, half an hour, maybe even an hour earlier. If you’re feeling really sleepy you’re really struggling to stay awake, why not just go to bed and see what happens? You know, after all that, if it starts to feel unpleasant being in bed, you’ve always got that opportunity to just get back out of bed again and just do something more enjoyable. And if that sense of sleepiness comes back, then you can just return to bed.
We just want to make the process of sleep more natural, and in the short term, this can involve changing our behaviors in a way that might not feel quite so natural, but as we kind of see some results, see that, ah, these are making some changes, these are influencing things in a positive way, then we can start loosening the reins, so to speak, and giving ourselves more opportunity for sleep, being little bit less rigid with ourselves and being a bit more flexible.
Something that you touched upon earlier, like right near the start of this conversation, as you said that you found the really stressful days, they started to no longer have such an impact on your sleep as they used to in the past. I’m curious to hear more about that. Why do you think that these stressful days started to have less impact on your sleep, less influence than they did in the past?
Well, I think it was because I finally addressed the underlying cause of the sleep issue, which was creating a good sleep structure and a good sleep window. So my brain, whether I was stressed or not stressed, my body and brain kind of knew that, look, this is the time that you’re supposed to sleep, and now I associate that time with sleep.
I do notice that after a stressful day, I don’t sleep as well than I would if I had a less stressful day. But I think the sleep buffer also was the other piece of it that contributed significantly, was having that space between the stress of the day and the time when you’re supposed to sleep. If you think about it, it’s like a demilitarized zone. It’s like this space where we’re going to keep the conflict away from. But so, having that space and that zone where you can just kind of relax, that free time, and then your brain can transition from one mode to the other mode, and then finally, by the time you go to bed, you can just, you get in bed and you can fall asleep with, with greater efficiency.
So, I think it was a couple of things that contributed to that. But yeah, so stress nowadays, I mean, I have days that are tremendously stressful, and I can’t think of any of them that created insomnia. Which is kind of surprising to me, even a year later because, because I used to associate stress with the insomnia.
Yeah. I think something, a little hint there at the end was the fact that, because we feel stressed in a similar way, just because we feel anxious, just because we feel worried, that doesn’t mean that sleep can’t happen because we feel stressed, because we feel worried, because we feel anxious. Often, it’s our battle with that that makes sleep more difficult, because it doesn’t feel good to feel stressed. It doesn’t feel good to feel worried. It doesn’t feel good to feel anxious. So we try and push that away. We try and fight it, we try and avoid it.
And then, when we get involved in that battle, I think that’s what truly makes sleep more difficult. It’s not necessarily the presence of these thoughts and feelings, it’s our reaction to them, and because they don’t feel good, we want to push them away. Then they push back harder. Then we try and push back harder. That’s what makes sleep more difficult. So I think, when we get to that point where we still have stress, we still have worry, we still have anxiety, because we’re human beings, we all experience those feelings, those emotions. If we can just get to a point where we just kind of acknowledge that I’m feeling stressed, I’m feeling anxious, and maybe even just make a little bit of space for that to hang out, and then just redirect our attention onto where we are, what we’re doing.
And that’s where I think that wind down routine can be helpful, just giving ourselves some time to sit, let that stress just hang out on our shoulder whilst we read a book or watch TV or just do something pleasant, relaxing and enjoyable. Because it’s not that presence sitting on our shoulder that stops sleep. It’s us trying to keep brushing it off our shoulder, then it pops back, and then we try and brush it off again. I think that’s what truly makes sleep more difficult.
Yeah. It’s kind of the same concept with meditation. When you have the bad thoughts coming in, you’re not supposed to fight them off. You’re supposed to kind of just let them flow through you. I know I notice with stress, it will affect your sleep. It will affect the quality, and in terms of some of the dreams that you have, but it doesn’t necessarily need to take over your entire sleeping life. And that always surprised me, because I just always thought that there was just a strong correlation between stressful days and not sleeping.
So, I’m glad I’m past that, because now I’ll have horribly stressful days. I’ll have some days where I’m working until 9:00 or 10:00 at night when I have a board meeting, and then I’ll go home and be wound up and still need an hour before I can hit the bed, and it could be midnight, but then have a really good night’s sleep and wake up the next day feeling refreshed. It’s a good feeling.
Yeah. So, here we are now. It’s been over a year since we stopped working together. What’s an average night like for you now, Jim? Is there an average night? I’d just love to hear your experience with what sleep is typically like for you nowadays.
So, I’m pretty pleased to tell you that after more than a year, I’m averaging seven hours of sleep a night.
I wake up about three times each night, and that’s not because of insomnia it’s because I have an overactive bladder. So I’ll wake up, I’ll go hit the restroom, but then I come back to bed and I’ll fall back asleep within two or three minutes. And so, that’s an average night for me.
Last night, I did really well. I don’t know why, but I went to bed maybe 10 minutes earlier than I normally would, but I got like seven and a half hours of sleep last night, which is unbelievable. And so, yeah, it’s been good. And I may experience insomnia maybe, at most, once a month.
And this is coming from a guy that, when I came to you, again, I hadn’t slept well in probably a decade. And, and that decade was probably closer to maybe two decades. I don’t even know, but it was, it was a lot more than 10 years. And I just, I could count the number of times I slept well in a month on a single hand before, and now, and now it’s very unusual for me to have a poor night’s sleep now.
Wow. And how about the days? Do they tend to feel any different? Because I always like to think that people without insomnia, they always just think that insomnia is a nighttime problem, but I think that it can be a real daytime challenge as well, because all those, that fatigue, the thoughts, the feelings, all the stuff that comes along for the ride can really affect our days too. Are you finding any changing in your days now that your nights are a bit different?
Yeah. I have energy to make it through the entire day now, where I don’t start feeling tired until maybe an hour or two hours. Maybe an hour, half hour before sleep. So before, I used to get tired in the afternoon around 2:00, and I would feel like the rest of the day, I was extraordinarily tired. I’d like I had fatigue. I wouldn’t recover from physical activity. My mental acuity was way off, so I wouldn’t be able to focus on any one thing. So, so those are some of the things that I experienced before.
But now, I feel sharp. I feel like I have enough energy to make it through the day, and I have focus. So, yeah, it’s been great. I feel for people that have insomnia. I occasionally go on your forum and see what the people are dealing with, and I’m very thankful that I’ve gone through your program and that I’m not at that space anymore.
And hopefully this video will help your viewers, and more people will reach out to you and go through the program. I think for me, you have different programs that you offer, but for me, the eight-week program, really being able to rediscipline my sleep and learn all the techniques that you taught, I don’t think I could have solved it without going through that program.
Yeah. That’s great. I’m really grateful that you’ve come on and just shared your experience in your own words, just because I think it’s so helpful for people to listen to a transformation like yours. Because I think if anyone listening to this or watching this can identify with the kind of things that you are talking about, your experience with the sleep disruption, then they might recognize that their insomnia isn’t unique. That if you were able to put it behind you and get to a different place, then they can too. And it’s just so powerful to hear this from guests, from people that have been through it, so I’m really grateful that you’ve taken the time out for your day to come on and share this in your own words.
But having said that, I’ve got one last question for you, Jim, and it’s a question that I ask everyone, so I don’t want to leave you out, and it’s this: If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and feels as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, that they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?
I guess the biggest thing, the key is, you said if they have insomnia for a long period of time, I think you really have to find a program like yours that can help retrain them on how to sleep, and build the sleep efficiency, create the sleep structure that’s needed.
I think that was the only way, because again, I went to three different sleep doctors, had a sleep study, was on different types of over the counter sleep medicine, sleeping pills. Absolutely none of that stuff worked, for a decade. It wasn’t until I discovered your approach and met you that I was able to resolve this. So, my recommendation is try to deal with the underlying root cause, which is usually, which is poor sleep habits, and try to fix the sleep structure. And I think your program does that very well.
Great. Well, I really appreciate that, Jim, and I appreciate, again, you taking the time out of your day to come on to the podcast. Thank you so much.
Well, I appreciate you having me on, thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life you want to live, I would love to help. You can get started right now by enrolling in my online course or you can book my phone coaching package. My online course runs for six weeks. It will help you make changes that can create better conditions for sleep, it will help you identify and get rid of any behaviors that might be making sleep more difficult, and it will help you respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it in a more workable way. You can work through the course in two ways. You can choose the self-coaching option and work through it by yourself with the support of an online forum that is available only to clients.
Or, you can choose to add one-on-one email coaching and work through the course with me by your side. With the one-on-one coaching option, you get unlimited email access to me for eight weeks, starting from the day you enroll. Any time you have a question or concern, any time you are unsure about anything, any time you want to focus on the challenges you face or any difficulties that show up, you can email me and I will be there to coach and support you. You can get the course and start right now at insomniacoach.com.
With the phone coaching package, we start with a one-hour call (voice only or video — your choice) and come up with an initial two-week plan that will help you create better conditions for sleep and practice moving away from struggling with insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it. You get unlimited email access to me for two weeks after the call and a half-hour follow-up call at the end of the two weeks. You can book the phone coaching package at insomniacoach.com/phone.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Insomnia Coach Podcast. I’m Martin Reed, and as always, I’d like to leave you with this important reminder — you can sleep.
I want you to be the next insomnia success story I share! If you're ready to move away from the insomnia struggle so you can start living the life you want to live, click here to get my online insomnia coaching course.
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