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How Michelle got to the root cause of her insomnia and improved her sleep after 15 years of unhelpful experiments, research, and sleep efforts (#24)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Michelle spent 15 years researching sleep and trying lots of different things to get rid of her insomnia. She did all she could to control her sleep but all that happened was sleep (or a lack of it) ended up controlling her as it slowly became an obsession and took a hugely influential role in her life.

Fortunately, Michelle got to the root cause of her insomnia — the sleep-related thoughts she had developed and the sleep-related behaviors she implemented in a bid to improve her sleep that were actually perpetuating the problem.

In this episode, Michelle shares the techniques she found most helpful, talks about the short-term difficulties she experienced when changing her sleep habits, and shares how she ended up modifying two core behavioral techniques — sleep restriction and stimulus control — to better suit her while also abandoning all efforts to control sleep.

Today, Michelle averages around seven to eight hours of sleep and lives and plans her life without giving sleep any thought whatsoever. She also knows exactly how to respond to any difficult nights because her new habits are skills that will remain with her for the rest of her life.

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

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

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

Martin Reed:
Hi Michelle. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come on the podcast.

Michelle Pragnell:
A pleasure, Martin.

Martin Reed:
It’s great to have you on. As always, I like to start right at the beginning. So, can you tell us a little bit more about when your sleep problems began and perhaps if you can remember what initially triggered those issues with sleep?

Michelle Pragnell:
It was about 15 years ago after a fairly stressful period in my life. And yeah, I just started having sleep problems, which sort of morphed into insomnia over the years. They crept up on me and I got to the point where I was really struggling with sleep.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So, was it more to do with trouble falling asleep at the start of the night, or was it to do with waking during the night?

Michelle Pragnell:
Yeah, in the beginning, it was waking through the night and not being able to get back to sleep. So, I’d watch TV, but all this was in bed which I realize now is a no-no. And then, it seemed to start at the beginning of the night, so I couldn’t actually get to sleep. And then when I got to sleep, I’d only sleep for short periods of time and I’d wake up and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I really wasn’t getting that deep, revitalizing sleep. The sleep I was getting was fragmented and light, very light. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, yeah. So, I think a lot of us realize that sleep disruption from time to time is just a normal part of life. Everyone experiences some sleep disruption from time to time. Why do you feel that you experienced that initial sleep disruption? What do you feel it then kind of stuck around for so long?

Michelle Pragnell:
Yeah, that’s a very good question. I really wasn’t… I was a little bit oblivious to it all. It all sort of… I was just trying various things, “Oh, I can’t sleep. I’ll watch TV.” Or, “I can’t sleep, I’ll have a glass of wine.” Or, “I can’t sleep, I’ll have a sleeping tablet.” And it took me a long time to realize that I actually had a problem with sleep and it gradually really affected my life by being tired all the time. But I just couldn’t get sleepy.

Martin Reed:
So, before you found Insomnia Coach, what kind of things had you tried? You mentioned a few things there just then. But what kind of things did you try to improve your sleep to get your sleep back on track?

Michelle Pragnell:
Well, I’m a bit of a researcher, so when I realized I actually had a problem, I started obsessing about it and researching about it. And I did this for years and tried just about everything there is out there. I tried herbs, meditation, melatonin, breathing, stretching, just about everything I tried without success, without success. Drugs, I went to the doctor, I got drugs, which worked for a little while but I’d never get more than two or three hours sleep at a stretch. And absolutely nothing worked until I got to the point… One morning I got up, I hadn’t slept all night and I’d just had enough.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, I think I needed to get to that drastic point to say, “Okay, that’s enough. You need to do something now.” But during my research, towards the end… Last year, I came across CBT-I, and it made sense. But to be honest, I thought, “That’s too hard. I can’t do that.” So, I put it on the back burner. But then when I became desperate during COVID, just a couple of months ago, I just got up one day and my husband said, “Well, this is the perfect time. You don’t have any commitments, you’re at home.” So, I thought, “Yep, you’re right. I’ll just do it.” So, I started that night. So, I just needed that push to be desperate enough to try this.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think a lot of people are going to really identify with that description there because I know that I work with a lot of clients and they kind of tell me, “This is kind of my last resort. I’ve heard about this before, but it did sound hard, it sounded challenging. It sounded like it would be a lot of work. I’ve tried everything else. Now I’ve got nothing left to try.”

Michelle Pragnell:
Correct, yes.

Martin Reed:
Because… And that’s understandable and a lot of these alternative solutions so to speak, I think their big selling point is no effort. So, for example, “Take this pill and you’ll sleep.” So, that sounds really easy and straightforward, let’s do it. Or this myriad sleep hygiene thing, if we just don’t watch TV for an hour before bed, suddenly we’ll sleep great again. Minimal effort. But the problem is, is over time, we’ve kind of adopted this whole new thought process about sleep. We think about sleep in a completely different way and we’re implementing these sleep-related behaviors with the best of intentions, often in a bid to improve our sleep. But they kind of backfire and they have the opposite result and they perpetuate the problem. So, it does take some effort to kind of pick away at those thoughts and behaviors and undo them in order to get sleep back on track.

Michelle Pragnell:
That’s exactly what happened to me. Yes, I was actually perpetuating the problem by researching and obsessing about it and trying all different things without realizing what I was doing. And nothing worked, you’re right. All the sleep hygiene things, darkened room, cool room, no TV in bed, no TV before bed. All of that stuff, nothing worked. Absolutely, nothing worked until I came across this and it just made sense, it just made sense.

Martin Reed:
Right, yeah. And that’s it. And it’s on reflection I’m sure. Now you realize, on reflection, it makes sense that all those things before that you tried didn’t work because none of them were actually addressing those thoughts and those behaviors that perpetuate sleep disruption.

Michelle Pragnell:
Correct, yeah.

Martin Reed:
So, you kind of mentioned that you found you were spending a lot of time researching sleep and maybe thinking about sleep during the day. And that’s completely understandable and something I hear about a lot because when we have a problem, we want to solve it. And so, that involves some research. But of course, the problem can be we end up down this rabbit hole where we’re spending hours and hours every single day thinking about sleep, researching sleep, looking for the next thing to try. Asides from that, what kind of other effects were you finding that insomnia was having on your life?

Michelle Pragnell:
Well, it sort of just got worse and I didn’t even realize it. But where I am now looking back, friends and family have said what a difference they’ve noticed in me and I didn’t realize that I was so tired all the time basically dragging myself through life just doing what I had to do. And then come home and, “Oh, I’ve got to get some rest because I didn’t sleep last night.” I’d sleep in, “I can’t get up, I haven’t had much sleep.” Or, “I better go to bed early, I didn’t sleep last night.” So, it was this constant chatter going on in my head about sleeping and needing to get enough sleep. And I would not go out too early in case I needed to sleep in or I wouldn’t go out late in case I needed to get to bed. Then I’d make sure I was always home in the afternoon for a rest in case I’d had a bad night.

Michelle Pragnell:
It was this vicious cycle of obsessing about sleep and all the time depleting my life force I guess if you’d like to explain it like that. Energy, just didn’t have any. Yeah, and I think it was really affecting my immunity, I was getting sick a lot. Yeah, it really wasn’t good but I didn’t actually realize when I was in it. It’s only now that I’m looking back and realizing how much more energy I have, I feel like I have my life back and I can actually do things that I enjoy that I actually wasn’t doing.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think it’s quite amazing isn’t it how insomnia can slowly work its way into all of our thought processes. And we just make so many changes and modifications to our day to either compensate for a difficult night or to somehow try and improve the likelihood of a better night on the upcoming night. And we do end up doing things like you just touched upon. We start to remove things that we would otherwise enjoy. We might no longer go out late at night with friends, for example, because we’re worried about the effect that might have on our sleep.

Martin Reed:
So, we do all these things in a bid to kind of appease insomnia, which have a negative impact on our life and they then don’t really make any difference to our sleep. So, all we’re really doing is just giving sleep this negative role in our life. But everything that we’re doing makes sense and it’s completely understandable why we’re doing them but it’s just unfortunate that they don’t prove to be helpful and they do typically just end up perpetuating the problem.

Michelle Pragnell:
Absolutely, and that’s what happened in my case. It definitely perpetuated the problem. I was making it worse. But anyway.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s completely normal. The default way we respond to ongoing sleep disruption is completely normal. We want to problem solve, we want to fix a problem so it’s completely normal that we’re going to spend time researching sleep. It’s completely normal that we’re going to do whatever we can to increase the likelihood of sleep. It’s completely normal that we’re going to do what we can to set the stage for sleep. But it’s just unfortunate that most of the things that sound and seem and feel quite logical don’t really help very much.

Michelle Pragnell:
Help.

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Michelle Pragnell:
Not at all, no.

Martin Reed:
So, then we just find ourselves putting more effort into sleep and it just becomes this cycle where you put effort into sleep so it becomes more difficult. We put more effort into sleep, we worry about sleep. So, really all these techniques are about is just kind of breaking that cycle and putting our efforts, directing our efforts in a way that’s more constructive. So, we’re still doing something, we’re still being proactive, we’re still taking steps to improve our sleep but we’re doing it in a far more constructive way.

Michelle Pragnell:
Yes, yes, absolutely. Just actually understanding sleep I’ve found has been vital, just understanding it, which I didn’t understand before.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, so was there anything in particular that you learned about sleep that you feel was kind of like this aha, this kind of breakthrough moment that you found really helpful?

Michelle Pragnell:
Oh, definitely. Well, probably many things but just the fact that it just makes sense that if you deprive yourself of sleep, you’re going to sleep and it was just such a comfort knowing. I think the thing that really got to me, and convinced me, was the fact that you said that sleep is natural. It’s natural that the body knows what to do, we did it, we’ve done it from the day we were born. And I thought, “You’re right. It is natural. I’m making all this effort to try to sleep and I shouldn’t have to try to sleep.”

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit more about that because I know that those techniques you mentioned before that you did find really helpful. Only going to bed when you feel sleepy enough for sleep, and always getting out of bed at the same time every day. What was it about those two techniques in particular that you found so helpful and so effective?

Michelle Pragnell:
Well, I was mistaking sleepy with tired. So, when I was… Before I started the program, I’d be so tired I would go to bed but I was never sleepy. I never got sleepy, but I was tired. And of course, I’d go to bed and thrash and toss and turn and everything else that goes with insomnia. But when I started to actually get sleepy, I understood and I thought, “Oh, that’s the difference.” It’s a small difference but it’s actually a huge difference knowing.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, now I don’t go to bed ever unless I’m actually sleepy, regardless of the time. If I’m not sleepy at 11:00, I stay up. If I’m sleepy at… Last night I was a little bit naughty and went to bed at 9:00, which I’ve never done before. I thought, “Oh, this is a risk but I’m so tired and I’m so sleepy.” And I went straight to sleep, and I slept through to four o’clock, which was just… And then I went back by the way till 6:00 and that’s my standard night now. Yeah, so I think the difference between sleepy and tired is paramount and you need to understand that. And if you’re not sleepy, don’t go to bed. Make yourself sleepy. That was important to me.

Michelle Pragnell:
And the issue of getting up at the same time every day, I’ve probably found the hardest because I’m not an early morning person. Some people wake up and spring out of bed straight away, that’s not me. I just want to luxuriate there for a little while. But I have forced myself to do that just because I can see how it’s changed my life and that’s enough motivation for me to get out of bed and I don’t want to go back to where I was.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, I’m at the stage now it doesn’t matter if I overstay in bed, oversleep for 15 minutes, half an hour. But it’s definitely in that range, within half an hour of my allotted get up time. And I’m so much happier doing that because I get up, I exercise, I do a bit of gentle yoga and then I walk or bike and it just feeds on itself. Because I’m getting up at the same time and getting up earlier, I just do it, I don’t think. I do my exercise, I don’t think. And during the day I think, “Gee, I feel really good.” And it’s all happening behind the scenes because I’ve changed my habits. You don’t even have to think about it, it just happens having put in the effort.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I really like how you said it happens behind the scenes because really that’s when sleep works at its best when we allow it to just work behind the scenes. It tends to be when we try to control sleep or put effort into sleep, that sleep becomes more difficult. And you also touched upon a great point, that difference between feeling tired and feeling sleepy because it’s so easy to think that they’re the same thing. So, we go to bed when we feel fatigued, when we feel exhausted and worn out, depleted of energy, which is probably the number one symptom associated with chronic insomnia. The problem is the difference, right, as you touched upon, tiredness doesn’t mean that we’re sleepy enough for sleep.

Michelle Pragnell:
No.

Martin Reed:
It’s different. Sleepiness is when we’ve been awake for long enough and we’re going to fall asleep relatively quickly. So, that’s where allotting an appropriate amount of time for sleep each night can be really helpful because the temptation is to spend a lot of time in bed in a bid to get more sleep. But all that really does is just lead to more wakefulness, more interrupted sleep, fragmented sleep, which isn’t very restorative. We might then also just get out of bed at different times every single day. So, we’re not giving ourself that opportunity to spend enough time awake and active to build that sleep drive to help us sleep at night. And we might be going to bed before we’re actually sleepy enough for sleep and then become concerned by the fact we haven’t fallen asleep. When on reflection, of course, we haven’t fallen asleep because we weren’t sleepy enough for sleep. They can be real kind of breakthrough moments in the process.

Michelle Pragnell:
Absolutely, it certainly was for me.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, so how easy did you find that process especially when you first made that change to maybe spending less time in bed, getting out of bed at the same time each day? Was that something that you found quite easy to change or was it a bit of a struggle at first?

Michelle Pragnell:
It wasn’t easy, I have to be honest. I found it very hard, very difficult, very difficult. I think what helped is because I’d got to a desperate point and I decided I was going to do this. I had confidence in the program from what I’d read and seen. You made it sound so succinct, easy to follow, and it just made sense to me. So, because I had that confidence in the program, I decided that this is going to work from the very beginning, it’s just a matter of time. So, having committed myself to do that and having been able to stay at home and not have to go out and make any commitments, helped a lot because I thought, “Okay, so if I don’t sleep for a week, I don’t sleep for a week. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?”

Michelle Pragnell:
So, I had that mindset before I started but I found it physically very demanding. That staying up till two o’clock in the morning night after night and still not getting sleepy. So, even when I crawled into bed and there was no way I was going one minute past my designated time, I still couldn’t sleep because I still wasn’t sleepy. So yeah, I found it very hard. The first week was very difficult, and then I’d start to get… I had three totally sleepless nights in the first two weeks and then after the second week, I started to get snatches of really deep sleep. And they might’ve only been for a couple of hours but the difference in that sleep and the sleep I’d been getting was amazing and that helped to spur me on. I mean I wasn’t going to give up anyway but that really helped to spur me on. I thought, “Oh, wow. Imagine getting all of this.”

Michelle Pragnell:
So, by the third week, I was starting to get some decent lots of sleep and it was just wonderful, just wonderful. That small amount of sleep gave me enough energy to get through the day. So yeah, that’s how it went for me. It might be quicker for some people, but it just wasn’t quick for me. Well, I suppose it wasn’t too bad, just a couple of weeks. I’m sure other people take longer.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, everyone has their kind of own pace of progress. Some people might be a little bit quicker. Other people might be a little bit longer but as long as you’re consistent with the techniques, in my experience, everyone does get results in the end. So, I think it is important to emphasize that it’s not easy and that you can’t expect to necessarily get great results within a week or maybe even within two weeks.

Michelle Pragnell:
No.

Martin Reed:
It is a process and it does require a lot of effort and a lot of commitment and consistency. But then if you’re able to stay committed, to stay as consistent as possible, the results do come. And they’re often in that form of that kind of little breakthrough moment just as you described where you managed to grab those few hours and they felt really good and that kind of spurred you on. Imagine if you’d never of given yourself the opportunity to get to that point. If you’d have gone through that week of struggle, decided it wasn’t going to work, and then moved on to trying something else. But the fact that you stayed persistent, you carried on, you gave yourself that opportunity to get that little breakthrough moment that gave you that motivation to continue.

Michelle Pragnell:
Definitely. The other thing, Martin, that helped in those first couple of weeks, were your short video clips that you do. You know you do a daily one, just a short one, and if I’d have an issue… And different issues come up while you’re doing it. Well, they did for me, and I’d think, “Oh.” And I just needed some help, I needed some motivation. So, I’d scroll through your short ones. I had no patience to sit through a long one. And I’d try and look for what I was searching… The answers I was searching for.

Michelle Pragnell:
Every time I would find the answer and I’d think, “Oh, okay. All right, good.” And that just helps. Staying in touch, staying in touch, and getting some support in that way was very helpful. Just someone to sort of be there to… It helps to spur you on rather than struggling through it by yourself. That was very helpful.

Martin Reed:
Did you ever experience this thing where you’re kind of maybe struggling during the night and then you kind of fall asleep maybe like 10 minutes before your alarm goes off in the morning, and then your alarm kind of goes off and it’s time to get out of bed and you kind of really want to stay in bed because you kind of just fell asleep? Did you kind of ever experience that?

Michelle Pragnell:
That happened many times. It was very difficult to get out of bed because quite often you’d just be getting into a decent sleep and you would have to get up. And that was one of the things I found on one of your short clips actually, it was about… You said you have to get up but it doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself into activities straight away. If you just want to lounge around a bit… I found that very helpful. Just get up, get dressed, and if I want to put a rug around me and sit on the lounge or read a book, fine. And that’s how I got over that period. That was quite helpful. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up and do this and do that.” Forget it, just wait until you feel ready to do it but you’re not in bed and you’re not trying to sleep. So, you’re not sending your brain the wrong messages. You’re up, and you’re up for the day. You’re awake but you can just lounge around and relax until you feel energetic enough to get up and move on with the day.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Yeah, that can be so helpful because I think that’s one of the hardest things is to try and stick to that consistent hour of bedtime, especially when sometimes it feels like you’re just falling asleep just as that alarm goes off. And now you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, my goal is to sleep, so why am I now getting out of bed?” But it really is about a little bit of short-term pain for some long-term gain because if you do choose to stay in bed, maybe you’ll sleep in later. And that means there’s less time available during the day for that sleep drive to build and help you sleep the following night. So, you’re kind of trading it off. Yeah, it would probably feel really good at the time to get that extra sleep in the morning but if you do that, you’re going end up just kind of trading it in for maybe a less than good night the following night.

Michelle Pragnell:
Well, that very thought went through my mind in the mornings. I thought, “If I stay in bed, I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight.” Or, “It’s going to be harder tonight.” So, that did help to get me up and get me going, definitely.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, sometimes it can be helpful to just remind yourself what your goal is. Is my goal to sleep well at night or to sleep well first thing in the morning? So, if your goal is to sleep well at night, sometimes it’s worth just trading off that little bit of perhaps that potential of a little bit more sleep in the morning and just getting out of bed at that consistent time.

Michelle Pragnell:
I think it definitely is because even if you do stay in, then you’re going to berate yourself when you get up by staying in bed and, “I should’ve got up.” And so, all this is going to around in your mind, so you might as well just get up.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, and one of the things that we want to do is remove all of those thought processes. I like to call it those mental gymnastics because they’re very unhelpful when it comes to sleep because we want to just be removing all the thought processes, not contributing to them. So, the more straightforward and the more clear-cut, the more black and white you can make it, often the better.

Michelle Pragnell:
Yes, yes, I agree, I agree. I had a lot of thought chatters going around in my mind over sleep but I don’t anymore.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, well that leads me in actually to the next question I was going to ask you, this thought chatter because one of the things we can experience is when we’re in bed, our minds just fire up and become really active just at the point when we want to sleep. We can then find ourselves really struggling to kind of quieten the mind, to relax, to try and make sleep happen. What really we end up doing is just associating our bed with kind of effort and struggle, and unpleasant wakefulness.

Martin Reed:
So, we have this technique that we encourage people to try whereby if being in bed doesn’t feel good, we say get out of bed or at least just kind of sit up in bed. Remove yourself from sleep mode, sit up in bed, and read a book. Just do something else just to make the evening a little bit more pleasant. And I think that was something that you tried too. Is it something that you found helpful?

Michelle Pragnell:
Oh, very helpful. Yes, very helpful. So, at first, I would get up when I was in the first few weeks until I got sleepy. And then when I progressed and started to sleep better, in about the fourth week I think it was, once again I turned to you for some advice on that very thing and you said, “It’s okay to sit up in bed. You don’t actually have to get out of bed.” And it’s winter here of course, so that was very encouraging, and that actually worked. So, as long as I wasn’t lying down to read, I would sit up to read… This was a few weeks into the program. I don’t think it would’ve worked if I’d started that from the very beginning. But it definitely started to work once I started getting decent blocks of sleep. So, I would sit up and read. I’d get sleepy and just go back to sleep. That was very helpful.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, yeah. That whole technique really can be quite tricky because it can be really easy to fall into this trap of believing that the reason you’re getting out of bed is to somehow make yourself sleepy or to generate sleep. But in fact, the only goal is to just get out of bed when being in bed doesn’t feel good because when we stay in bed trying to sleep and being frustrated and anxious and worried, we’re just training our brain to associate all that emotion with being in bed. And we’re conditioning ourselves that the bed is not a nice place to be and that’s not really helpful if we want to sleep in bed.

Martin Reed:
So, really our goal and the only way we can train ourselves that the bed is a nice place to be is to only be in bed when being in bed feels good. And when it doesn’t feel good to be in bed, that’s when we need to respond and take action to chip away at that conditioned arousal.

Michelle Pragnell:
Yes, I agree. I agree because it is associated with some sort of tossing and turning and not actually sleeping.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, and one of the main symptoms of that conditioned arousal is when during the day or during the evening you start to feel really sleepy, like you’re almost… Maybe you’re even struggling to stay awake but then the second bedtime rolls around or the moment you get into bed, bang, you feel wide awake. And that is a classic symptom of that conditioned arousal because your brain has learned from experience that the bed isn’t a nice place to be so it kind of… It sees it as a threat and it wants to protect you from that, from going to bed, from being in bed. So, it activates all the same kind of processes that it would if there was a real physical threat and obviously, that is not helpful when it comes to trying to sleep.

Michelle Pragnell:
Absolutely not, and that was me to a T. I would either fall asleep on the lounge or get sleepy on the lounge and go to bed and be wide awake and there was no way I was going to sleep. And I just couldn’t understand that, now I do. But I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sleep once I got to bed because I was actually sleepy. But it doesn’t work.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. And somehow, I think just recognizing the reason for that experience, that it’s not unusual, that there is an explanation for it. That in itself can be just so comforting and reassuring just to help you understand that there’s nothing actually wrong, there is an explanation for what you’re experiencing and there is a solution to it as well.

Michelle Pragnell:
That’s the beauty of this program, it’s the explanation as you said, and that’s very comforting knowing that it’s really not you. You’re not going crazy, there is a reason why you’re in this situation and it can be fixed. I found that very comforting, okay. “Okay, this is how I’ve got here but I don’t have to stay here, I’ve got a choice. I can get out of this by following this program.” And it worked. it was wonderful.

Martin Reed:
So, we’ve talked about the main… The core techniques that we like to work through because they’re really helpful at addressing these thoughts and behaviors that perpetuate sleep disruption. Were there any other techniques that we haven’t mentioned that you found helpful? I know that you kind of touched upon trying to be active during the day, you feel that that helped.

Michelle Pragnell:
Yes, two things that come to mind. One, is yes, being active during the day but before I get onto that, your buffer zone I found very helpful. So, when I got to the point where I was starting to get a reasonable night’s sleep, and getting sleepy and getting into a good routine, I found myself struggling to stay up to my bedtime because I was getting sleepy and tired. And once again, I turned to your advice and you mention the buffer zone, that it’s okay to go to bed within an hour of your designated time once you’ve brought your time forward to wherever it landed. It’s okay to go to bed within an hour of that if you’re sleepy. And once I saw that, once I heard that, it made all the difference because I was like, “Oh, it’s okay. I’m sleepy, I’ll go to bed.” And I went to sleep, which I just… I couldn’t believe it because I thought, “Oh, I won’t sleep because it’s not 12:00 or 11:00 or whatever.” But it actually worked.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, now that’s how I live. When I’m sleepy, I go to bed. If I’m not sleepy, I don’t go to bed. I stay up late or whatever as I mentioned before. The physical exercise makes such a difference. So, at first, during the first few weeks when it was difficult, I didn’t do much. I just went for the odd walk, often at midnight when I was trying to stay awake, I’d just walk around the block or walk around the house or wherever. And I didn’t have much energy to do anything else.

Michelle Pragnell:
But as I started to get sleep, that’s when I started introducing physical activity. Nothing over the top, just yoga in the mornings and either a walk… Or mostly just walking at this stage. And that was the process starting of feeling so much better. So, because I was getting physically tired by the evening, I felt relaxed. A lot of my problem with all of this was not feeling relaxed enough. But introducing the physical activity helped my body relax in the evening. And then naturally, moved to that point where I got sleepy and went to bed. So, yes, those two things were a great help to me.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think one of the benefits to just being active during the day is it just makes less time available for us to be thinking and worrying about sleep first and foremost. If we’re doing something else, the brain has something else to focus on other than thinking and worrying about sleep. And secondly, especially if we’re doing things we enjoy, it may not necessarily even be a physical activity, just something we get a sense of enjoyment and reword, personal enrichment from, it just improves the quality of our day. And it helps us recognize that especially after a difficult night, we can still have some good moments during the day and that we as individuals have the ultimate control over the outcome of our day, over the overall quality of our day rather than just how we slept the previous night.

Martin Reed:
And when it comes to exercise in particular, that’s just good for us in general. It’s good for our overall health, our overall physical and mental wellbeing. We just have to remember that exercise can’t generate sleep. It can generate health… It can make us healthier, make us feel better, which is great for sleep, but it can’t actually generate sleep itself. I’ve had people come to me and tell me that they would spend two hours on the treadmill just before bed to try and tire themselves out to make themselves sleepy. But unfortunately, sleep doesn’t work that way. The only thing that generates sleepiness is being awake for long enough. But being active during the day and doing things we enjoy is so helpful and so beneficial.

Michelle Pragnell:
I agree, and it’s liberating just knowing that fact. I still draw on that point that it’s all about being awake. It doesn’t matter what else you do, it’s all about being awake, and it’s really good to know that. nd I think it’s a very important point for us all to know because you’re right and if you exercise… And it doesn’t matter, you can exercise all day. But if you haven’t been awake long enough, you won’t sleep.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, and I think it’s about enjoying the time we spend awake whether that’s time awake during the day or time awake during the night. If we can enjoy the time we spend awake, we become less concerned about being awake. And when we’re less concerned about being awake, we put less pressure on ourselves to sleep and we maybe think of sleep as being less important than we once did. And once we can let go of that, it tends to make sleep a lot easier.

Michelle Pragnell:
That’s a very good point actually, a very good point, yes. I think you’re right, instead of obsessing about it, yeah. Being awake is what life’s about really.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. And I like how you mentioned the buffer zone as well. I like to encourage everyone to just give themselves time to unwind before going to bed, half an hour or an hour or so before you plan to go to bed just to help us decompress. It’s kind of amazing that those of us that are parents, we know not to put our children to bed… If we have young children, if they’ve just finished running laps around the house, we know that maybe it’s time for a bath, read a book, help them unwind first. But when we become grownups ourselves, that kind of goes out the window and we find ourselves going to bed when we’re still kind of stressed out from the day’s events or worried, feeling a little bit stressed out or anxious.

Martin Reed:
So, it’s important to give ourselves that time to unwind before going to bed. And again, we’re not trying to generate sleep or sleepiness because that’s something we have no control over. We’re just trying to unwind, relax, enjoy that time, that build up to bed, instead of seeing it as something that’s unpleasant. We want to look forward to that time before going to bed. And in terms of using that as a signal to go to bed, I think it’s a great technique when you’re at that transition point when you’re moving away from this kind of quite rigid sleep window, you start to fill up. Most of the time you’re spending in bed is spent asleep and you’re looking to allot more time for sleep, that’s a great way to give yourself that opportunity for more sleep. So, maybe an hour before the start of your sleep window or the start of your earliest bedtime, you just pay no attention to the clock anymore because the clock doesn’t know when you’re sleepy. If you’re sleepy enough for sleep, you go to bed, and then you just see what happens.

Michelle Pragnell:
Very good point about… Yes, not paying any attention to the clock. It doesn’t matter what time you go to bed. It’s just you go to bed when you’re tired… When you’re sleepy, not tired. Yes, and it’s your body. I feel like I’m finally listening to my body. When it needs sleep, it’ll sleep if I just give it all the things it needs to do. And I think the analogy with children is fantastic because all we have to do is look at babies and children and you’re right, if they’re running around… We had grandchildren here last night and they were running around, and I thought, “No, not time for sleep yet. Let’s just calm down, have a read.” The bath, the reading, the rituals that we give our children, we need to look to them and learn from them. That’s all we need to do, similar things. Just calm down, relax, and it will just come. Amazing.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. So, here we are. About two months after you found Insomnia Coach, you found the website. So, what is your sleep like at the current time? What would you say… How would you describe a typical night?

Michelle Pragnell:
Well, I get seven to eight hours. I sleep… Not every night is perfect but even the imperfect nights are nothing like they used to be. So, I haven’t had to get up or even sit up in bed and read a book for I’d say three or four weeks. So, if I wake through the night, which might be in those light sleep cycles, I’m not sure, I easily go back. I’m relaxed, I’m calm, I’m not agitated. I’m not thinking. I just know that I’ll go back and if I don’t go back, I’ll simply sit up and read. So, it’s a simple equation. When I’m sleepy, I know I’ll sleep, and I do. So, I don’t have a rigid bedtime. So, as I said, I just go to bed when I’m sleepy. It’s usually around 10:30 but it can be later if I’m not sleepy. It can be a bit earlier. But when I go to bed, I don’t read, I just go straight to sleep.

Michelle Pragnell:
One thing I do have, which I actually cut out was listening to story tapes because I used to listen to them a lot when I was tossing and turning in bed. But I realized that they weren’t helping me, so I got rid of those. But I’ve come back to those. I feel now they’re not damaging, so if I wake through the night and I just want to get back to sleep, I’ll just put it on and look, I’m asleep in no time. But I can also be asleep if I don’t put the story tape on. It’s not an either-or thing, both work.

Michelle Pragnell:
The main thing for me is I’m calm and relaxed. Whereas I use not to be if I woke up. And I’m not awake for longer than I’d say 15 minutes, if that, sometimes five minutes. And even if I need to go to the bathroom through the night, I go straight back to sleep. It doesn’t wake me up. I don’t even have to worry about turning the light on if I need to go to the bathroom. Like you know the sleep hygiene, no lights. Don’t even turn the light on if you go to the bathroom. It really doesn’t make any difference, it doesn’t to me anyway.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, my sleep time’s good. I’m still getting up at the same time. I’m exercising. Everything’s tickety-boo in my world.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, that’s awesome. I think you touched upon a good point there with the stories that you would listen to is… Really, it doesn’t matter what we do during the night when we’re awake because nothing we do can generate sleep or sleepiness. So, as long as we’re not doing something with a specific goal of trying to generate sleep… So, for example, “I want to listen to this story in the hope that it’s going to make me fall asleep.” That’s a potential trap. But if your goal is, “I’m going to listen to this story because it feels good, it helps me relax, and I enjoy it.” Great. The only time these things become a problem is when we have sleep as the goal because we have no control over it. And as soon as we try and make sleep the goal, it just increases this arousal, we monitor for sleep, and that’s when sleep becomes more difficult.

Michelle Pragnell:
Ah, that’s… Yeah, that makes sense, that makes sense because I think that’s the difference. I used to listen to it to get me to sleep but now I don’t. I listen to it for enjoyment, just for pleasure.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, that’s what I kind of… Yeah, that’s what I detected when you were describing how you at first, you stopped because you felt it wasn’t helping you sleep. But now you listen to it because it’s nice and you find it relaxing. There was kind of that difference, the whole mindset, your kind of goal that you’d associated with that activity had changed.

Michelle Pragnell:
Absolutely.

Martin Reed:
So, it had once maybe been a sleep effort, which is not constructive but now it’s just a relaxation technique and that is constructive.

Michelle Pragnell:
Absolutely, and that’s the difference. Yeah, that’s the big difference now. Yeah, some nights I might have, as I said, not great nights. But the difference now is… Well, they’re nothing like they used to be. I’m not tossing and turning, they’re just not as good. Like I might wake up often or a lot but always get back to sleep. But I might not get that block of six straight hours. I might be waking up for short periods of time in between. But the difference is that now I know the situation, I don’t worry about it. So, if I’ve had a bad night, I don’t give it a second thought the next day. I don’t think, “Oh, I’ve had a bad night. That’s why I’m tired.” And that’s what I used to do. I just don’t think about it because I know, I just feel, “Oh, well. I’ll stay up later the next night.” And that’s what I do. “Okay, I’m not going to go to bed until…” I’ll stay up as late as I can before I fall asleep just to make sure I’ve got that sleep drive.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, in a way, I think of it as a bit of a gift. If I don’t have a great night I think, “Great. The next night’s going to be fantastic.” And it always is. So, it’s no longer an issue. I don’t think about sleep anymore. I’m now one of those people that I used to envy that didn’t think about sleep. I think you even mentioned it and I have friends like that, “What do you mean you can’t sleep? How can you not sleep? Don’t you just go to bed and go to sleep?” “No.” So, they don’t think about sleep. They get tired, they go to bed. They sleep, they get up. And that’s who I am now and it’s wonderful. I don’t think about it, it’s something I feel I’ve achieved. Resetting my body clock, understanding sleep, building up the sleep drive, knowing if I don’t sleep, I will the next night. It’s a whole new ball game. I feel I’m back to where I used to be when I slept like a log. I’m doing it again.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly and that’s great. And I think that’s always the goal. The goal is to just get to this point where we just don’t think about sleep anymore. We don’t react to sleep. Everyone has a difficult night from time to time. It’s important to recognize that nobody has a perfect night of sleep every single night, there’s always ups and downs. Everyone has a difficult night of sleep from time to time and the way we kind of… The best way to kind of ring-fence those difficult nights is really not to react to them. And just as you described, if we don’t react to them, if we don’t worry about them, don’t spend time thinking about them, don’t change our day, modify our plans in response to them, this accumulation of sleep drive that is the result of less sleep makes sleep more likely on subsequent nights. And so, just getting to that point really is the ultimate goal. And so, it’s really, really… I’m really happy for you that you’ve got to that point.

Michelle Pragnell:
Yeah, it’s liberating because I feel now, I can do whatever I want in the day. I can plan whatever I want, as early as I want, as late as I want. It’s liberating, it’s good.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. No, it is great. So, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken out of your day to share your transformation. I know it’s going to help a lot of people. I do have one last question for you, which is a question I like to ask everyone that comes onto the podcast. And so, you’re going to be no different. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, they can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Michelle Pragnell:
Without a doubt, to give it a go. Do yourself a favor, put some time aside for yourself. It will change your life. Do this program because it really does work. And, Martin, you have common sense strategies, you’re succinct in your message, you’re easy to follow. It’s a very supportive program. You can get all the help you need, just put the time in and do yourself a favor and it’ll change your life forever. It is amazing, really wonderful.

Martin Reed:
That’s great. Well, I really appreciate that, Michelle. And just what… I think what’s really encouraging is not only the fact that you don’t even think about sleep anymore but that thing that you just touched upon earlier is when a difficult night happens, I know exactly what to do. You’ve got those skills in place now, which is really all you’re learning is just this new set of skills. And any time, sleep disruption becomes an issue again, you know exactly what to do. You’ve got a clear plan in place on what to do to get your sleep right back on track. So, in a way, you kind of just become your own coach. You don’t need anybody else’s advice, anybody else’s information. You just know exactly what to do to give yourself the best chance of sleep.

Michelle Pragnell:
And that to me, is a great bottom-line to this whole program. I feel I now have control and I feel if at any time in the future my sleep goes off track for whatever reason, I feel I know what to do about it, and now I’ll be able to… If I regress at all, I’ll just be able to implement the strategies again and it will work again. Yes, it’s very powerful, very powerful being in charge of your own life in that area.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly.

Michelle Pragnell:
So, thank you, Martin. It’s… I’m just so glad I came across you and your strategies. I’ve seen a lot of other things, I’ve read a lot of other things but I just found this program was just a common sense, no-fuss approach. Step one, step two, step three, easy to follow. Brilliant. Thank you, Martin.

Martin Reed:
Well, thank you, I appreciate that. And I always do like to say that everyone’s success story is just down to them. I’m simply just the guide. I provide information but it’s up to the individual to kind of follow-through. They’re the ones that have to put the effort in and make these changes, which can be challenging over the short-term. So, really, Michelle, you got success because of your own efforts and your own natural ability to sleep. So, thank you for coming on and sharing your experience.

Michelle Pragnell:
My pleasure, Martin. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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4 thoughts on “How Michelle got to the root cause of her insomnia and improved her sleep after 15 years of unhelpful experiments, research, and sleep efforts (#24)”

  1. Thank you Martin & Michelle. After listening to this podcast, I feel like I’ve been given a life line after suffering from insomnia for so many years. I can relate 100% with Michelle’s sleep issues. I am setting a goal for after the holidays to look further into this program.

    Reply
    • If you can relate to Michelle, that means you can get your sleep right back on track — just as Michelle did! It sounds like you have a good plan in place, Marie! Enjoy the holidays and all the best for 2021!

      Reply

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