How Juergen improved his sleep by becoming more willing to experience wakefulness and difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions (#39)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

As Juergen got older, his sleep began to change. Although this is normal, Juergen didn’t know that at the time! And, just as he began to pay more attention to sleep, COVID hit, work stress increased, and all the places he used to enjoy going to got shut down.

Juergen felt as though insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it were starting to control his life. He felt as though he was losing himself and getting pulled away from the kind of life he wanted to live. This was when we started working together.

Ultimately, Juergen became more willing to experience nighttime wakefulness. He became more accepting of the difficult thoughts and feelings that would show up. Juergen discovered that as long as he didn’t try to battle with all the stuff that was out of his control he could free up all that energy to do things that would help him live the kind of life he wanted to live instead. The skills Juergen learned and repeatedly practiced also helped when tinnitus returned after a long absence.

Today, Juergen can notice when he’s getting distracted by his thoughts and feelings and is better able to disengage autopilot, bring himself back to the present moment, and refocus attention onto the actions he can control — actions that help him be the kind of person he wants to be and help him live the kind of life he wants to live, even in the presence of difficult thoughts and feelings and even after difficult nights.

As a result, all the difficult stuff that is out of his control now has far less of an influence over his life — and he is also sleeping a lot better!

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

Martin Reed:
Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that nobody needs to live with chronic insomnia and that evidence-based cognitive and behavioral techniques can help you enjoy better sleep for the rest of your life.

Martin Reed:
The content of this podcast is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, disorder, or medical condition. It should never replace any advice given to you by your physician or any other licensed healthcare provider. Insomnia Coach LLC offers coaching services only and does not provide therapy, counseling, medical advice, or medical treatment. The statements and opinions expressed by guests are their own and are not necessarily endorsed by Insomnia Coach LLC. All content is provided “as is” and without warranties, either express or implied.

Martin Reed:
Hello, Juergen. Thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah, sure. Thank you for having me and for inviting me. Can’t believe I’m on your podcast after having viewed so many of them when I was in the middle of it. Thank you very much.

Martin Reed:
Oh, absolutely. You’re not the first person to say that. Feels like a journey where you just go full circle, right? You listen and then eventually you know you’ve made it when you come onto the podcast yourself.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Maybe that’s the circle. Not of life!

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. Well, let’s start right at the beginning. When did your sleep problems first begin? And what do you think caused those initial sleep issues?

Juergen Kuhmann:
I think it was a combination of things. I think, first of all I didn’t even realize how sleep would change when I get older. So at that time I was close to 50, and in the onset to it, I was starting to think about my sleep more because I said, “Oh no, I only got this many hours or that many hours.” And then so already there was, at the end of 2019, already starting. And then at beginning of 2020, I had a healthy event. Nothing big. I had a really bad tooth they couldn’t fix. Treatments and so on, I had this pain and infection in my head.

Juergen Kuhmann:
You make up stories about how this you this infection is there and it’s not going to get fixed. They couldn’t fix it after so many hours in the dentist’s chair and so that was bothering me during that time. Then I had a bunch of work stress and then COVID hit. So, which means my outlet was always sports and just swimming and skiing. I’m in in Colorado, and so once COVID hit, they closed the ski area, they closed the pool, so I was home with my work stress and my health problems and that’s where it started. I just said, “Man, how am I going sleep?” And I’m just ruminating and I didn’t have the outlet. I think that was one of the big causes.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So I think probably you recognized that when you were going through that initial health issue with your teeth, your mouth. You probably didn’t think quite so much was wrong when you experienced some initial sleep disruption at that point, because most of us can recognize when something stressful or unpleasant happens we tend to have some difficult nights from time to time as a result. How did it progress? So how did you go from, “Oh, this is okay, it’s some temporary sleep disruption caused by this,” to, “Oh, I think there’s something more serious going on here. This seems to be a real problem.”

Juergen Kuhmann:
The health problem started in January, the work stress, like many people, the corporations, that companies said then, “Okay, this is COVID times, pandemic times, all this change, we have to change our story.” I work for a software company so we had to adjust to, how do our customers now want to do business with us? We want to help them. They changed their business on the spot, so how can we help them? So there was a lot of stress at work to make that switch. And so that was going like February, March of 2020, then they closed everything. And then I think it was April or so, I had this one super bad night where I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to keep my wife awake. And so, “Okay, I’ll sleep downstairs,” and I didn’t sleep at all that whole night.

Juergen Kuhmann:
The next day we wanted to go on a drive and get something done but I had to be fit for that and I wasn’t. I said, “Now I can’t even on my free day when I should not worry about work, I worry about other things so much now I can’t sleep. And so that was the trigger, this compelling event, I guess where I said, “Something’s really wrong. I need to get help.”

Martin Reed:
So what was that sleep disruption like for you? Was it difficulty just falling asleep at the start of the night or maintaining the sleep through the night? Or maybe a little bit of both?

Juergen Kuhmann:
I think mainly falling asleep. So just ruminating on thoughts and trying to stay in control, trying to control my thoughts, because I said, “Oh, now I’m going to think about sleep again.” And I’m so tired I want to sleep, but now this thought comes up again, “Don’t think about that.” So this, trying to be the control freak on things, as we talked before, right? Engineering background, we are known to analyze problems and trying to find solutions for it. And I couldn’t find the solution for it. And trying to find a solution for it, things just progressed to being worse. The methods I used to go through life and fix things didn’t work. So I was, “I need help. I don’t know where to go from here.” No, it’s falling asleep, yeah, to come back to your initial question.

Martin Reed:
So you touched upon the fact that you obviously tried lots of things, which everyone listening to this episode is going to be able to identify with, right? Because we have a problem, we want to fix it so we try lots of different things. Before we started to work together, what kind of things had you tried that upon reflection didn’t prove to be that helpful?

Juergen Kuhmann:
So, initially, in the early phase before that super bad night, I used sometimes melatonin. At that time when we still traveled for business, you remember that time?

Martin Reed:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Juergen Kuhmann:
So I had a lot of also international travel and people said, “Oh, you can use melatonin. Once you get there, you want to catch an hour or two, it’ll help you fall asleep.” So I had a little bit of experience with that stuff. So I used it and it initially helped a little bit, but it started not helping after a while. And then at that time due to the stress, and that started before, already in 2019 with work related stress, I didn’t sleep super great so I drank too much coffee. Not much but it has to always the stronger coffee. Can’t just be a cup of coffee, it has to be one with an espresso shot in it. It’s not that I drink a whole pot of coffee.

Juergen Kuhmann:
I like coffee but not that much, but then I have coffee at 4:00 or 5:00 PM. And then I love beer, so, okay then, to reward myself for the work day, I have a beer or two at night. And then it was little bit my hobby, so you try this and the microbrews that has a lot of alcohol. Not a huge drinker. I drank maybe every other day a bottle or two or three or whatever. But when it was three, I thought about, “Are you sliding into some things?” I was already thinking about, “Three beers at night? That can’t be right.” It was already annoying. And then the whole day with the stress at work and then things that interest you around politics, and so there’s too much on you in terms of stress.

Juergen Kuhmann:
So I knew something was wrong and I tried to fix it. With not getting to sleep at night so I have to wake myself up with coffee, which doesn’t really work. And then reward yourself, sit down with a glass of beer or a two at night, and that certainly didn’t help. I knew I didn’t want sleeping pills. I heard bad things about those before so I never had one ever in my life, but I did try a few things like that.

Martin Reed:
And what about on the behavioral side of things? Did any of your sleep habits or sleep routines change? Did you find yourself doing things like maybe trying to nap during the day or going to bed earlier or staying in bed later in the day? Anything like that to try and catch or chase that sleep?

Juergen Kuhmann:
That’s a good question. Not so much the nap during the day. I don’t think that that came up. Frankly, I don’t remember me napping during the day. I did get out of bed and just said, “I might as well read something,” in the beginning. But the very beginning, I was just lying in bed, getting more worried and more worried and more worried about all kinds of stuff. And when COVID hit, everybody was worrying about, “How is this? What’s happening? Where’s this going?” How this changed our lives and how we go through the day. And my son was six at that time, just in school and that changed and I would have to have him home. There were so many changes. At that same point in time with my health problems. And I think my abuse of caffeine and alcohol at the same time, I just exploded my face, if you will. It’s just bad timing.

Martin Reed:
And how about, did you find that you were making any changes to your day? I mean, obviously when COVID happened, you’d already mentioned there was a lot of stuff you used to enjoy doing that you just couldn’t do anymore, which is out of your control. Was there anything that you found yourself doing to try and maybe compensate for difficult nights? Were you changing your days around in a bit to protect your sleep or to increase the likelihood of sleep happening the following night?

Juergen Kuhmann:
Frankly, I didn’t even know. Before I met you, and I had also a counselor, but what you told me is you can’t control sleep, and I didn’t. I was out of ideas, frankly, more and I didn’t really do anything else and just give up and say, “I need to ask someone for advice what’s happening here with me.” Because I knew at that time how it affected my days. One thing that I noticed is I couldn’t be me anymore. There was that loss of control caused me to lose myself. Said, “I’m the provider, I’m being the one who’s doing the work and providing and have my role in the family. My family relies on me.” And I felt I couldn’t fulfill that role anymore because of the lack of sleep. I couldn’t be productive anymore. And so that losing my previous self was that shock that happened. And I said, “How can I go on if I can’t fix it?” There was a bit of desperation as well.

Martin Reed:
So we worked together for eight weeks, but as you already touched upon, that was a long time ago. It was about a year and a half ago when we were working together. So since then, you’ve just been going it alone, flying solo, as I say. Looking back at your experience when we were working together and how you’ve been doing since then, what do you feel were the issues that made sleep difficult, that perpetuated that sleep disruption? And ultimately, what did you end up doing to address those things?

Juergen Kuhmann:
Sleep, it’s just learning from the counselor as well how to not control my thoughts, but how to look at them in a different way, which the thought that I couldn’t fall asleep scared me and that created anxiety and that kept me up. So just the learning that mechanism is so different from everything else I’ve ever actually experienced probably. I couldn’t think of anything else to let things be, they’re good like that and not be so hard on myself trying to be the good person that succeeds and provides. And giving up on that was probably a hard thing but the thing that turned it around, I would say. I think that’s the main learning out of it. And it was a process. You helped me through as how to look at sleep in general.

Juergen Kuhmann:
So in order to get sleep, you shouldn’t care about it, which is just the opposite, because all I was think… One thing I come back to, what did I do to get my mind off it as well is I just started doing work around the house and going back into the house. When it was worse in beginning of May 2020, it was a few weeks after that initial super bad night is I wouldn’t want to come home because I knew when I was home that’s where the anxiety was. When I was going to bedroom and see my bed, there was like, “Oh, now you have to go there again and you know how this is going to end.” And so all this anxiety was building up.

Juergen Kuhmann:
So I tried to do a lot of work outside, yard work and whatnot and just to get my mind off it, but inside me, I was always thinking about sleep. And to let go of that, and you taught me some good tricks, I have to say. You wouldn’t call them tricks, but these were things to have me rethink how I see sleep, which is tricking my engineering mind into thinking differently. That was the first time that I think in my long life I thought about things like that, to letting go of things is the key, to just let it happen. And some things just happen and you don’t have to be in the driver’s seat. I think that’s one of the biggest learnings actually for my life.

Juergen Kuhmann:
I think, and I told you before, I think I lead now a much healthier life because I learned how to let go and not have to fix. I read a saying just a few weeks says, “You don’t have to fix every problem every day, just fix one and let the other be.” But in our society, I guess it’s like producing things and solving problems is a value we carry, but it can be counterproductive as we’ve seen.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. I think really the whole struggle with insomnia, it does come down to control. Right? There’s a problem, we want to fix it, in this case it’ll be I’m spending too much time awake at night, I’m feeling anxious. So we put effort into sleep and we put effort into trying to fight those uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and worry. But the brain is generating all those difficult thoughts and feelings because it’s trying to protect us. So it’s trying to explore ways to help us out. So it’s telling us, “Look, there’s something going on here. We got to fix this.” But because those feelings don’t feel good, naturally we want to fight them or avoid them and that tells the brain that we’re ignoring it, we’re not listening. So what does the brain do? It thinks that there’s a very real threat here and you are not listening so it yells even louder and those thoughts and those feelings then become even more intense. And I just-

Juergen Kuhmann:
And you feel the threat, although it’s all in your head. Everything’s all mind games and your brain’s just doing, I guess what, like you said, what it’s programmed to do to identify a threat and point it out to us. But that’s counter productive to what our conscious mind wants.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. I mean, the brain can’t really tell the difference between a real physical threat like a bear on your bed during the night, or just a perceived threat, which is being awake at night. It can easily fire up all those same defense mechanisms; the racing heart, the sweats, the chills, whatever, that whole fight or flight response, it’s no different. But obviously it doesn’t feel good and we’re trying to push that away and it’s coming back even stronger and that leads to more anxiety and more worry and more sleep difficulties.

Martin Reed:
So in my experience, I see that people tend to struggle to put insomnia behind them for as long as we’re engaged in that completely understandable and default path of trying to avoid nighttime wakefulness or trying to fight or avoid all those difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions that come with insomnia. Because none of those things are within our control. We just cannot control what goes on in our minds and we cannot control sleep. And you said yourself-

Juergen Kuhmann:
Makes so much sense now.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.-

Juergen Kuhmann:
It’s like, “Wow, I never thought this would be the solution,” is to not really… But it is a way to behave and think differently, yeah. It’s just a different kind of solution.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And it is very different because I think from birth, we are trained to try and avoid difficult feelings. Like, when we’re babies, as soon as we cry, someone picks us up, soothes us, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” How many times in our lives are we told to cheer up, to smile, to lighten up, to have a sense of humor? We’re just bombarded throughout our entire lives, told how we should be feeling. So whenever we don’t feel that way, we immediately think, “There’s something wrong here, we need to fix it.”

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah. This is pursuit of happiness all the time. We have to be happy today, and then tomorrow we wake up and we have to be happy tomorrow. And then when it isn’t this way for…. I mean, the main phase for me was three months and I wasn’t happy. There was not much happiness. You taught me to pull out some happiness by, I remember sitting on the porch and asking you questions, and out there and I said, “Why do you reward yourself for a bad night?” I said, “I can do that. I can find a reward for myself for not sleeping well.” So there’s these things that you then translated into actions I could take. Because if you, where I was at the point where I was helpless, I had no tools left.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And I think you find these tools. They’re not going to fix it from one day to another, but gives you that little bit of hope and good feeling and happiness. So when I had a bad night, I just got myself a couple of donuts. I went to Starbucks and had a great breakfast that my family didn’t have. So I rewarded myself with food, I guess. So, but no matter what it was, right? So getting out of the fear or the bad mood once a day and make that your new rule, that gave me a little bit of hope, I said, “Okay, I’m making progress.”

Juergen Kuhmann:
Or the thing that you said, maybe I’m jumping the gun here in terms of what you want to ask next, but just thinking about that it’s not about how it feels today, it’s how the long term development is. It’s not that you are not sleeping today, it’s about just essentially working on the anxiety, just getting that down, and then you solve the problem in an indirect way, not directly, which I try to do and failed, utterly failed.

Martin Reed:
I love the way you touched upon that pursuit of happiness, because I think for many of us, if not all of us, we consider true happiness to just be that absence of difficulty, the absence of suffering. So as long as we try and eliminate any causes of suffering or any difficult feelings and emotions in that pursuit of happiness, we’re going to get caught up in that struggle. Happy people can be happy without the absence of difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences. It’s just the difference, I think, is for happy people, they focus on what they can do, what they can control.

Martin Reed:
So they’re more likely to be engaged in actions that they have control over that help them just continually move toward the life they want to live, even when there’s some difficult stuff going on at the same time. And I think that’s where the trap is. We think that in order to be happy, we’ve got to get rid of all the bad stuff. That’s not the case. We just need to keep doing the good stuff, maybe adding more of the good stuff and that in the end becomes our focus. And I think that’s the true secret to happiness.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah. Because there will always be some suffering in our lives. You see ourselves or somebody else, some bad stuff happening, but we can create those happy moments for ourselves and then be good with it. Done this. You’ve got some good times today, or if you don’t have them today, tomorrow is another day. That constant pursuit of, to coming back to the sleep, right? “Oh, today it didn’t work again. I only slept three hours, four hours. I feel tired today. I don’t feel like myself today.” I learned to move on from there and find parts of happiness even though… And I said about losing myself in the beginning. Because I didn’t get to sleep I didn’t feel like myself. Regaining parts of that. After three months they opened the pool again so I could go swimming. That helps.

Juergen Kuhmann:
So regaining a little bit more of, okay, that’s your old identity, that’s your old self, that’s what you found happiness in and you could go back to doing some exercise. We found back, also back to spirituality, I have to say I always considered myself a Christian and a believer but I didn’t practice any of this. And maybe COVID helped that too. But I fought my way back to that and that became a new me, that there’s somebody else who is in control and let go. It’s the same, when I got back into going to church and listening to and reading some scripture, I said, “It talks about being patient in affliction.” I said, “That’s it. You have to be patient in affliction. You have to let go.”

Juergen Kuhmann:
And if you believe in God or not, it’s not about religion, it’s about you can’t control everything. There’s other things that you got to let go for a day and just work on it. And sometimes it’s not the solution. The way to make yourself better might not be the direct way you think about. It might be that path not a lot of people go with letting go and being fine with discomfort. When I first read that line, I said, “Yeah, how can you be fine with discomfort?” But I think that’s life. There’s discomfort everywhere, small and large, and we have to accept that we are not in control of that. we’re just one person.

Martin Reed:
And I think it’s important to not gloss over this discomfort, because when we’re living with insomnia, when we’re living with anxiety, it is difficult. We’re not trying to trick ourselves. We’re not trying to think positive or to distract ourselves from that or to convince ourselves that it’s okay. All we’re really trying to do is to recognize that, yeah, it is difficult, it is challenging. This doesn’t feel good, but we just need to focus on what we can control. And we can’t control sleep, and we can’t control those difficult thoughts and feelings, they are definitely unpleasant. But let’s look at what we can do, what we do have control over that helps us really just live a life that’s aligned with our values even when all this difficult stuff is still present.

Martin Reed:
So instead of trying to fight or avoid the anxiety, maybe we just make a little bit of space for it, we acknowledge it’s there so the brain knows that we are listening to it. We’re not trying to ignore what the brain is saying. We acknowledge what the brain is saying. We make a little bit of space for all those difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions. And then we shift our attention onto our actions. What can we do now that helps us move toward the kind of life we want to live even when all this stuff is going on in the background that doesn’t feel good?

Juergen Kuhmann:
So that comes in, and I’m a total layman about this, right? So I had this counselor who was doing this acceptance therapy, and what you just said, that sounded like basically which I know not much about, but he used that to foster this acceptance of difficult thoughts and then to move on from there. And then in the beginning, that the sleep thought I recalled, it said, which is, “Oh, I can’t fall asleep. It’s not working again today.” This thought, to accept it, to say, “Oh, hello, welcome. You are here. The sleep thought is back. I acknowledge it, it’s true. I, again, can’t fall asleep tonight but I’m moving… Thank you for letting me know. Now I’m moving on to…” And then they have this body based exercises, which you see yourself where you lie in bed and stuff like that.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And maybe the thought comes again, you say, “Oh, you’re back again. Hi. Right. Thank you very much. Again, thanks for letting me know,” and then you go. And I guess the brain at some point gives up on showing you that same thought over and over again because you don’t react to it. I guess that’s how I understood that but it helped me deal with those thoughts. I got so scared about it every time, which was the main issue in the beginning. And so that anxiety lessened over time, over the months. And so I was able to let go.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And it was hard, but you still did things. I still worked out, I still did my work, so it could be me although there was this pain inside. It was tough, not sugarcoating it, but it’s a tool. And that’s what I was looking for in the beginning, get a tool because I was out of tools, and that was a tool I could use and that gave me safety. I felt I had some level of control how to react to that situation I found myself and I felt about it, so a way to go about it. And then hearing from you is that people had success give you that hope, watch your podcast and see how other people were successful with that. I have to say, this is not to be underestimated. If people’s stories out there that made it through and I just hoped I would be one of those people that make it through, and I did, yeah.

Martin Reed:
I like the way you refer to these actions that you can engage in that you have control over as tools, because tools don’t necessarily solve a problem-

Juergen Kuhmann:
Very procedural.

Martin Reed:
Yes, I mean-

Juergen Kuhmann:
Programmer. So there has to be a program!

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. And that can be a real benefit. Tools, they’re not the solution itself but they help us get to that point. They help us on our journey. So I always say, if we implement something, if we implement a tool from the toolbox, if we have a great night of sleep, that’s not because the tool worked, that’s just because what you’ve been doing has proven to be helpful. And often it comes down to, we’re not trying quite so much that night to avoid nighttime wakefulness or to battle with all the stuff that’s going on in our mind. And similarly, if we have a difficult night, it’s not because the tools or the techniques or whatever you’ve done didn’t work, it’s just because on that night, maybe you were trying a little bit harder to avoid that nighttime wakefulness or you were battling a little bit more with everything going on in your mind.

Juergen Kuhmann:
That’s right.

Martin Reed:
It really is helpful to just focus on what we can control. And that’s where it can be an asset. You mentioned, “Oh, my engineer background. I just want this clear flow chart. If this happens, do this. Do this, do this, do this.” And that can actually end up being an advantage because we can be really tempted to engage in all different kinds of experiments. You know, “I’m going to try this, see if it works. Should I carry on doing that?”

Martin Reed:
If we just instead can just make a decision, stick to it, we just give ourselves a clear plan, so we might say, for example, “I’m not going to go to bed tonight before such and such a time, like before nine o’clock, because I know that I’m never sleepy before nine o’clock. I’m never falling asleep before nine o’clock. So I’m going to decide, number one, I will not go to bed before nine o’clock. Number two, no matter how the night goes, I’m going to get out of bed to start my day at,” choose the time, five o’clock, six o’clock, whatever feels good for you, seven o’clock, doesn’t matter. But you’ve just made that decision, you’re going to stick with it. One less thing to be thinking about.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And there’s that promise then. Once you have a bad night and you get up, for me from the beginning was 5:30. I had 11:30 to 5:30. 11:30 to 5:00 or something. I got up at 5:00 and I said, “I had a bad night.” But then you said, “This will create sleep pressure and you should have a better experience the next night. If the next night doesn’t work out either in terms of getting a little bit more sleep, at some point you will sleep.” So that also gave me hope to say, “Okay, I go that path. At some point, I will make a step forward.” So it’s always this little bit of piece of happiness I can get following this tool. You don’t want to use a tool that said, “Oh, it’s probably never going to work.” But you said, “Okay, there’s the sleep pressure so at some point your brain will make you sleep no matter what.” So that was great learning as well.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And that’s the great thing about allotting an appropriate amount of time for sleep, because our temptation is to spend lots and lots of time in bed to try and chase sleep, to give sleep a good opportunity to happen, but that often just leads her more wakefulness during the night and keeps us trapped in that struggle.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah, I was afraid of it, yeah. So reducing that time certainly helped, yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And it also just helps remind us that we can still get sleepy. We can experience that intense sleepiness and it reminds us that no matter how difficult things are, sleep will always happen in the end. We will not remain awake indefinitely. We’ve never lost that ability to sleep.

Juergen Kuhmann:
It was hard sometimes at nine o’clock watching TV on the couch, I will be so sleepy. I said, “Oh, I can sleep on that couch, no problem. I fall asleep right now,” I wouldn’t have had any problem doing that, but I had to wait until 11:30. That was tough, staying awake. And then by the time 11:00 comes around, that anxiety comes up and, boom, I’m awake. But over time, it helped regulate it, definitely. It gave you, what do you call it? I forgot. What’s the English word? It gave you a route to go on. You had, maybe this is what you should do. And that gave me some sense of security. Know what to do and I know it’s going to produce a good result at some point and trust you in that. Because I used to watch your podcast where other people said it worked for them and also your professional advice in that.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And the other parts of the plan that sometimes could be quite comforting is you always have that option during the night, if being in bed just really feels awful, really unpleasant, you can always just change that and just do something that you… I mean, you’re awake anyway. Why not do something that just makes being awake more pleasant? That technique also, or that tool or whatever you want to call it, the strategy is helpful during the day, too. If the day is difficult, how about we do something that might make the day a bit more enjoyable? And often that comes back to what our own values are, just living a life or engaging activities that help us move toward the life we want to live.

Martin Reed:
If we can keep doing those things, we’re helping to create and maintain good conditions for sleep, but we’re also training the brain that it doesn’t need to fear being awake at night. There’s no real danger or threat there. And we’re proving that by spending less time in bed. So the brain’s like, “Oh wait, how can wakefulness be a danger if this guy’s spending less time in bed?” If we’re doing things to make being awake at night more pleasant rather than tossing and turning and fighting, and if we’re living the kind of life we want to live during the day, even after difficult nights, the brain eventually learns that, “There’s no real threat here.”

Martin Reed:
And the real magic happens when we can drop that battle with our brains, you know? So the brain knows, “Oh, this person’s taking this seriously. They’re listening to what I’m saying. But also, on reflection, I’m seeing that being awake at night isn’t a threat.” And so it just starts to get quieter on quieter on quieter until we don’t really even notice it anymore. I think that’s where everyone who’s made this transformation, that’s really what they reflect on the process was.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah. And in the beginning, I didn’t know that the brain is there and your conscious mind. I didn’t know you had to convince your… I’m using improper terms, probably. You’ve talking about “the brain had to learn”, I didn’t know they were separate things. I think, but there’s this brain that works on its own terms telling you to be anxious then you’re anxious. You feel it and you went, “Why am I anxious?” But I am. I can feel that that feeling is not very pleasant. And I mean, the turning point was when I go to bed, I say, “I don’t have to sleep if I don’t. If I’m not sleeping, I’m not sleeping.”

Juergen Kuhmann:
I say, “I don’t have to sleep. Maybe I just watch shows my wife doesn’t want to watch, but yeah, I can now because I’m not sleeping.” So there’s this positive, there’s an opportunity of doing something valuable to yourself, for yourself and I don’t care about sleep anymore. That’s where I am and I’m getting between, last week I had five and a half hours once, but I know why I had five and a half hours, because it was a lot of things going on right now with us. And so I know why I had only five and half hours. Two days later I sleep eight because I know that stress is over. But I don’t care anymore about it. And when you’re in it, that’s all you care about, is sleep.

Juergen Kuhmann:
The worst day was, it was 11:30 and I already was worried about sleep. How crazy is that? That’s the state you are in. And so starting not caring about sleep is easy to say when you’re out of it because at some point you usually I usually get 6:00 to 7:00, 7:15 or something like that. So I still know how long I sleep but I really don’t care about it.

Martin Reed:
I think that’s the key difference. We are always going to have some difficult nights. Just as we touched upon before, the real secret to happiness isn’t the elimination of everything that’s difficult in our lives. So we’re always going to have some difficult nights of sleep from time to time, what’s different is our reaction to it, how we interpret the meaning of that difficult night. And anyone that’s listened to a few of these podcast episodes will probably recognize that common trait is, “Yeah, I still have some difficult nights from time to time, but I really don’t care about them that much. They don’t consume my days. I don’t start to worry about what the next night will bring.” It’s just our relationship with those difficult nights and whatever the brain might want to generate in response is completely…

Juergen Kuhmann:
I’m actually at that stage right now, when I have a bad night I know I’m going to groggy in the morning, but come 10:00, 11:00 I’m woken up and I’m just going about my day. So it doesn’t when you’re in it, then you always think about it most of the time and it affects your day. And when I have a bad night now, I typically know why it was shorter and I don’t care anymore, because I know sleep pressure builds, like you told me. So the next night or night after that, I’m just going to be sleeping longer again. So yeah, that not making it the middle, the center of your life is I think the most important outcome. Not putting at the center of life and being able to just accept when there’s a shorter night. And typically I can tell why too.

Martin Reed:
So moving on, when we were no longer working together, you told me that you ended up developing tinnitus. And understandably that generated some concern where your brain was looking out for you again. So there were some anxious thoughts and feelings there. And before we recorded this episode, you said that insomnia and tinnitus tend to share that similar trait. They both tend to survive and thrive when we remain anxious about them. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? I mean, I’m no tinnitus expert but I’m sure that some people listening might recognize that. So I’d love to hear some thoughts.

Juergen Kuhmann:
I had experience with tinnitus before, almost 20 years ago, loud concert and stress and so on so I developed this ring in the ear. And back then I went through a therapy called tinnitus retraining. So anyone who has tinnitus should look at that.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And so I got tinnitus I back, and it was the time where I was just getting better with getting off insomnia. I was sleeping better, then comes tinnitus. Martin, I was devastated. Because as you said, they share traits of anxiety. And when you get tinnitus, the thing that you develop is anxiety about how it affects your life, your day, you as a person, you start to think about you can’t do certain things anymore because you have that noise in your head and nobody else can see it. It’s like with insomnia, you can’t see it by looking at a person that they have it. And then come the sleep worries again. Because when you have tinnitus, you have that noise in your head, it affects your sleep, right? How can you sleep?

Juergen Kuhmann:
First of all, you develop anxiety, and then there’s a noise there. And I knew that this TRT, this retraining therapy helped me before, but I also knew it was a long-term process. It took me a year last time to get through it where it wouldn’t affect me anymore and it would be much quieter. But at the time when that onset happened, these feelings came up again, “When am I going to be sleeping again?” But what I found going through is, while still getting out of insomnia, I mean we had stopped working together, so I was good on insomnia, but then the sleeplessness came back because of tinnitus. I thought, “Okay, now these two problems are going to combine forces and I’m never going to sleep again.” I remember being totally devastated about it.

Juergen Kuhmann:
What I found out is you can only be anxious about one thing at a time. So me being anxious about tinnitus kept out the anxiety of insomnia, the deep down trying to control sleep because I knew how to not control sleep, to actually let it go. I still knew that, it was just very present in my mind. And I knew how to treat it, TRT. So with TRT, I know how to treat tinnitus with sound therapy and they have some CBT stuff as well. So it’s a little bit similar treatment like insomnia.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And so after those first initial weeks, I had my tool set for tinnitus, I had my tool set for insomnia, which was really more tools than maybe I wanted, but the focus was on the retraining therapy for tinnitus, not so much on insomnia, but doing the one helped the other. So essentially, I never experienced insomnia to that same degree when I had tinnitus, to the same degree before I had it again. So that was the lucky outcome. But in sense of therapy, it shares quite a few traits. What the therapy does to reduce the goal is not to reduce the sound in your head, the ringing in your head, it’s to reduce anxiety. So I said, “Oh, yeah, that’s what insomnia… Insomnia was not how you slept, but how anxious you were, and there’s always the next day.” And with tinnitus, they have ups and downs. It’s louder, it’s quieter, but over time you make progress.

Juergen Kuhmann:
I still have those ups and downs with tinnitus as well. And those, then I can think back about what I learned, also with insomnia to say, “Okay, today is not the best day, but I remember two days ago I had a fantastic day.” And I can take that as, “Okay, you have the tools, you keep going where you’re going.” So it’s tough being faced with that, but the tools are very similar. Also, the acceptance of thoughts, of negative thoughts and accepting those. And I said before, being patient with yourself and being kind to yourself in affliction, those things are learned when I went through insomnia.

Juergen Kuhmann:
As I said before, I think I live a much healthier life now. Also, not so much drinking anymore. Not because I think I… That essentially, I’m German so I still like beer, but it’s not such a big deal anymore and I don’t want to use it more as a crutch. I still drink coffee, just not so crazy anymore. So, and I’m more compassionate with myself. So putting that pressure on myself to do the right thing and to be the productive person, I stepped away from that and… look, other people go through lives in much more relaxed way than I did and they’re happy too. So I can now see other people living another life than I did trying to be this high performer in the corporate world, there’re other things to life, and I learned to see that and accept that.

Martin Reed:
I think it really can be this journey of self discovery, right?

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah.

Martin Reed:
I mean, it’s hard to see any advantage or any silver lining to insomnia and anxiety when you’re really caught up in the middle of it all. But when you get to that point where you’re able to emerge from it, it can be this sensation or this sense that, “I’ve learned something about myself here.” Like you just touched upon, “I learned that I can maybe be kinder to myself when I’m going through difficulties.” And a lot of people also tell me that they’re now more in touch with their values, the things that are important to them that they have control over. These are things we never lose. We never lose control of our actions. We can always do things, no matter how small that help us move toward the life we want to live. And when people emerge from this journey, it can be this reflection that we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, and now we might even be able to live our lives in a more enriching way than we would ever have had insomnia, had anxiety never played a role or an influence in our lives.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah. It’s a tough way to learn to lead a better life. It’s a tough way to learn it, but I guess it was time for me to learn it. Because I knew I wasn’t heading down in a good direction. There was too much heady things on me. I tried to fix it with things I knew weren’t good for me. As a technical person, I live in reality and all this. If I don’t see it’s not real, “Oh, a lot of things we don’t see that are real.” And I certainly see that now. And I touched on spirituality before. I always was spiritual, but there are many things between heaven that we have no control over and we don’t know how those work.

Juergen Kuhmann:
And as you said, there’s the brain of yours and there’s your conscious actions, and that those are two separate on your mind. I don’t know if you’re using the right terms, but there’s a separation of the brain that’s on automatic. It does what it does, how it’s programmed, and it can go into a rabbit hole that makes you feel worse in how you consciously lead your life. And you can’t reprogram that brain just by flipping a switch, it has to learn anew as a program, new piece of code. So my brain had to learn a new piece of code. But it takes some time and you have to be compassionate with yourself. So, a lot of learning that came out of it. Now looking back, it’s always easy. When you’re in it, you have to be more tactical and you need those tools. But, no, I wouldn’t say insomnia was a great experience, but going, learning how to deal with difficulty like that, that’s the positive thing I take away from it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Juergen, I really appreciate the time that you’ve given up to come on. I think that people are going to get a lot of value out of what we’ve discussed. The way you’ve described things is just really easy to identify with everything that you’ve described. But I do have one last question for you before you go, if that’s okay. And it’s this: if someone with chronic insomnia is listening and feels as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Juergen Kuhmann:
I think first of all is, listen to other people’s story, listen to mine and listen to all the other ones, Martin, that you put out, because also with tinnitus, a lot of people don’t know there’s a way to reduce it and more or less get rid of it, if you will. Because like with insomnia sleep problems, you don’t think about them anymore. You can get to that point and then it’s not a problem anymore in your life because you dealt with it. So I think the first step to give you hope that you can get better, you can get better back to your own self is to listening to other people’s stories. Everybody had a little bit different journey and that’s what I really appreciated, is you putting out stories of other insomnia sufferers. It said how did they go through that journey.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Because when you’re first faced with it, there’s no door you can go through. And suddenly you hear other people talk about it, “Well, that’s the door I went through and that’s the path I went and that’s the door this person went through.” And at some point, there’s some people you said, “Okay, they come from a different place,” but you find other people said, “Oh yeah, he or she, that’s like me.” And giving you that success story is very important as a first step to say, “There is a way for you to go as well.” And it might be a way no other one went before, but there is one for you as well. So that’s the one thing I would say, listen to all these stories, the good stories that are out there. People have gone through that before. And be compassionate with yourself. It will take the time it’ll take but you’ll get better, but step by step. So we have to be patient with ourselves.

Martin Reed:
Well, that’s great. I think that’s a really positive note to end on. So thank you again, Juergen, for coming up to the podcast and sharing your journey with us.

Juergen Kuhmann:
Yeah. Thanks, Martin, for inviting me.

Martin Reed:
Thanks for listening to The Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to implement evidence-based cognitive and behavioral techniques to improve your sleep but think you might need some additional support and guidance, I would love to help. There are two ways we can work together. First, you can get my online coaching course. This is the most popular option. My course combines sleep education with individualized coaching and is guaranteed to improve your sleep. You will learn new ways of thinking about sleep and implement better sleep habits over a period of eight weeks. This gives you time to build sleep confidence and notice results without feeling overwhelmed. You can get the course and start right now at insomniacoach.com/online.

Martin Reed:
I also offer a phone coaching package where we start with a one hour call. This can be voice only or video, your choice, and we come up with an initial two-week plan that will have you implementing cognitive and behavioral techniques that will lead to long term improvements in your sleep. You get unlimited email-based support and guidance for two weeks after the call along with a half-hour follow-up call at the end of the two weeks. You can book the phone coaching package at insomniacoach.com/phone.

Martin Reed:
I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Insomnia Coach Podcast. I’m Martin Reed, and as always, I’d like to leave you with this important reminder — you can sleep.

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

Share this page

Leave a Comment