How Nick stopped his mind (and sleep) from controlling his life by letting go of the struggle with his mind (and sleep) (#41)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Nick’s insomnia journey began in 2000 when he relocated and started a new job. Stress, uncertainty, and anxiety took over his life as he found that the more he tried to fight or avoid his thoughts the more powerful they became.

Nick felt helpless. He didn’t know how to deal with the difficult thoughts and feelings he was experiencing and he didn’t know how to improve his sleep. The more he tried, the more he struggled.

In this episode, Nick shares how he adopted a new approach to dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to control them, he began to acknowledge them and make space for them. Instead of fighting with them and getting distracted by them, he validated them and then redirected his attention on actions that would help him move toward the life he wanted to live.

Nick practiced kindly bringing his mind back to the present whenever it started to time travel. He began to notice and savor all the things he was missing out on when he found himself running on autopilot. He started to focus on living a life aligned with his values — doing things that were important to him — even after difficult nights and even in the presence of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Today, Nick has a different and more workable relationship with sleep and the full range of thoughts and feelings he experiences as a human being. He is no longer haunted by sleep. He sees sleep as part of his life but not his entire 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, Nick. Thank you so much for coming onto the podcast today.

Nick Hobbs:
Hi, Martin. It’s really lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Martin Reed:
Absolutely. I can’t wait to get onto our discussion, so let’s just get started right away. When did your sleep problems first begin, and what do you think caused those initial issues with sleep?

Nick Hobbs:
It’s lovely when you got hindsight, isn’t it? I can look back and around about the year 2000, I moved states, and started to live in a new city, and a new situation. And at the time, I would’ve told you that I was anxious about starting a new job. And, but looking back, I can see that it wasn’t partly situational crisis of just uncertainty, unknowing. But actually when I look back, that was a big life change as well. That was a big shift in direction. And I guess how I would answer that question now would be that well, partly it’s to do with in daily stress reaching a certain level, where on which I wasn’t really dealing with. But the other side of that was a sense of not being sure whether I was heading in the right direction with the decision that I’d made about moving to another place.

Nick Hobbs:
So that’s a slightly bigger picture concern or uncertainty. And I think the other thing was that having done the course with you, looking back, it’s a really interesting question, because it shows me that I actually didn’t know a lot about what to do when my sleep was being disturbed by the things that happened to us in our life. Does that make sense?

Martin Reed:
Yeah.

Nick Hobbs:
So I can see now that I didn’t have a great ability to respond to the needs that I had at the time.

Martin Reed:
So talking about that response, because I think most of us can recognize, there are always going to be some times in our life when we have some difficult nights, especially if there’s a big life change going on, or if something unusual or stressful happens in our lives. And normally sleep will just get right back on track as soon as we’ve adapted, or as soon as that event is behind us. But often, as you’ve experienced yourself, those sleep problems can stick around. So looking back, what was it you think that kept those sleep issues around? Why didn’t they just sort themselves out after that life change that you just described had occurred?

Nick Hobbs:
Partly, I think they resolved in about 2007. So I’d say there was a bit of a seven year period there where the sleep was a really unknown prospect for me, where I just lost confidence. So it’s partly about losing confidence in my ability to do something, which had never really been a preoccupation of mine up until that time. And so the changes kept coming throughout that period. I relocated again several times in that period, so that constant trying to define… And this is a period of young adulthood. And so that in itself was maybe partly about a life cycle issue that it just took time to find my way, and my place in the world. But I think more than anything, because a lot of people have to find their way in the world.

Nick Hobbs:
Not everyone is having sleep issues. So to me, then I look back and I go, “Well, actually, lack of confidence was a huge one.” And just lack of insight about what it is that keeps things going. So I just developed really, probably quite, unhelpful ways of responding to the way my brain. We talk about in your course, you talk about operant conditioning, and you talk about the way that our brain is wired to foresee threats and dangers, and to highlight those, and bring those to your attention. So I really didn’t have a very good way of responding to that. I felt really trapped by those thoughts. When they appeared, they just took over. That was the agenda, and I didn’t have, really, any ways to unhook from that.

Nick Hobbs:
And then I thought I could control my thoughts and my feelings. I thought that was the way to go. Try and distract myself from the things that were going on inside of me. And so therefore, inevitably, of course, nothing seemed to get resolved. It seems pretty straightforward now, doesn’t it? When you say it like that, but at the time, I just remember being so confused by the whole process. And therefore, it just kept rolling and taking on its own life. And then anxiety becomes then anxiety about anxiety, and it’s the hall of mirrors, isn’t it? You get this bigger response. Oh my God, I got these feelings of anxiety.

Nick Hobbs:
I start to associate bedtime with this sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence. And then from there, it builds to a thought process that kicks in where you start to just become hyper alert, but not necessarily attentive to the thought processes that are keeping that going. You’re not able to going to necessarily notice what’s happening, just in it. It’s very confusing space to be. It’s a bit of a labyrinth, isn’t it? It’s probably a good word for it, really.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I completely agree with you. But when you were trapped in that struggle, what were those nights like? Was there a typical night or would you have trouble just first falling asleep? Or was it staying asleep? Or it’s just every night different… But it’s always a struggle?

Nick Hobbs:
Yeah. Look, it was a war of attrition. I think you can keep going and going, and it’s amazing how far you can go without sleep really, how far you can push yourself. But of course, then you collapse into this sleep. It takes over eventually. But it’s a good word for it, struggle, because it was. It really felt like those nights just ended up being a struggle. First, it would start off with a benign acceptance that, maybe it’ll come, maybe it won’t. And then you hear a partner sleeping or you start to get envious. You kick off, your mind starts running along these paths. Well, why is it not me? And what is it about me?

Nick Hobbs:
You get a bit preoccupied, very much preoccupied and self-centric. I think that those interior thought processes, it would be very much about not getting to sleep, and then ramping up, and then not sleeping, and then becoming, “Oh, well, the time. The one thing I don’t want to hear is the birds before the sun rises. The one thing I don’t want to see is the sun.” And of course, that’s exactly what would happen. The birds would come and they would become, instead of sweet sounding harbingers of a beautiful new day, they became this awesome specter of the drudgery that I’d have to force myself through the next day. So I just became very cued to those things, and quite demoralized and dispirited.

Nick Hobbs:
So by dawn, I was exhausted. I had mentally fought my way and tried to control myself. I’d be angry, full of self pity, definitely confused. And a source of distress for people around me too. You could see me in obvious distress, and they really couldn’t do anything to help me. And I didn’t really know how to help myself either, really. I just felt very helpless in that. So those nights, and they would come, there would be a run of them. And then maybe it would settle down, and there would usually be some anticipatory trigger. If it wasn’t, “I’m not going to go to sleep,” it might be, “Oh, gee, I’ve got to get up early in the morning.” That’s a classic one, isn’t it?

Nick Hobbs:
I’ve got to get up early in the morning. Oh, I hope I get to sleep because I really wouldn’t like to not get to sleep, and on it goes. This kind of self-talk and self worry and, “Oh, shit. It didn’t happen before and maybe it’s going to happen again. Oh.” So yeah, that’s a typical pattern for me at the time. Right through, and then it would settle, and then maybe something, another change would come in life. And at 2007, another shift, and 2010 there were periods where it would lull for a little while. And then it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s come back. Oh, I thought I’d left these things behind, and here they are again coming to haunt me.” And it would get even worse then because like, “Oh my God. I’m never going to be free of this.”

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think it’s interesting as well how, like I touched upon earlier, it tends to start with this trigger. So there’s this trigger of a life change. We’re relocating for example. And that becomes, all our concern around that, it manifests. The symptom becomes difficult nights of sleep. But then sometimes it can morph into then your concern isn’t about whatever that trigger was. So for example, you’re not really concerned about the relocation anymore, because either you’ve just adapted to it’s happening or it’s already happened.

Martin Reed:
Then the concern becomes, am I going to sleep tonight? Is this sleep problem going to go away? How long is it going to take me to fall asleep? Why am I not falling asleep yet? What’s going to happen if I don’t get any sleep? So it shifts. The concern was once on that trigger for insomnia but when that triggers disappeared, the concern is still there. But the concern now moves on solely to sleep. And I think that’s where we get caught up in that struggle.

Nick Hobbs:
No, I agree with you. I think it really takes on a life of its own, which is even scarier really, when you realize that. You go, “Oh my God.” You think it’s related to, if I just fix things in my life. And then you’re, “Well, but why is it still here?”

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly.

Nick Hobbs:
Our brains are really adaptable, aren’t they? They’re really absorbing and they take account of so many things. So yeah. I agree. I think you’ve described that very well, definitely.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Well, what’s our brain’s number one job is to look out for us, so it’s always going to be monitoring for threats. And as soon as it detects a slight hint of a threat, it’s going to amplify it and amplify it and amplify it. And because, often, when the brain identifies a threat, we don’t feel good. Whether it’s that fight or flight response, some anxiety or stress, because it doesn’t feel good. Normally, we want to avoid it or push it away or suppress it. And then the brain’s like, “There’s this threat and now you’re ignoring me.” So what does the brain do? It’s got to yell louder and louder and louder. And that’s when we get really tangled up in that struggle, and through no fault of our own because it’s just our normal human response.

Martin Reed:
We don’t want to feel that way, but the brain thinks it’s being ignored. So it just yells harder and harder, and so then we try harder and harder to push it away as like a tug of war. The more we are trying, the more difficult it becomes. And the more fatigued we feel, all those symptoms that we associate with insomnia is often down to that struggle, that battle with sleep itself, wakefulness and how we’re feeling.

Nick Hobbs:
I think you captured that really well.

Martin Reed:
Oh, thank you. I think people that have never struggled with insomnia really also don’t recognize that it’s not just a nighttime issue. It’s something we carry during the day as well, whether it’s through how we feel, or through all the stuff that’s going through our head, or even how that influences the things we do. Our actions and our behaviors. How are you finding the sleep? Whether it was because you had difficult nights or just all that mental chatter about what if. How are you finding that was affecting your days?

Nick Hobbs:
It was having a very significant effect on my days because you know that you could be having a very different day if you’d slept. So this comparison point between the Nick that sleeps and the Nick that doesn’t sleep is just so present in every part of that day. And you just learn to find resources. So on the one side of it, you’ve got the handbrake on and you just can’t seem to figure out how to get the handbrake off. But you know you’ve got to push through. So some days, I would actually not turn up to work. I would just stay at home and just feel quite useless, and do very little, and just wait helplessly for the night to come, right?

Nick Hobbs:
And realizing that I’d really never got any solution. Other times, I’d just push through, go to work, get through the day, feel exhausted, feel numb. Your body just becomes so over driven and over aroused, and that your body system, you know that they’re in high alert. Your stomach’s not functioning well and your brain is just feeling so tired, and it’s just been going on and on and around and around and around. And you just have a sense that this is not the life that I know that I can live, but I don’t quite know how to get to the promised land. I don’t know really how to get out of this labyrinth that you’d described before. And the way my mind is just seems to be telling me about all these alarms and alerts.

Nick Hobbs:
And it seems to be going off and off and off. But I know logically, I know that I really didn’t need to not sleep that night. The things that I was worried about happening the next day, sometimes they didn’t even occur. Sometimes they happened, but they weren’t bad. So I know that I was talking myself into an unnecessary state of arousal. I know I was elevated in the night, and I would look back and go, “Why do I do that? What is the reason? What is the purpose? How can I be really that keyed up that I don’t sleep?” So I would come out of it with a self… there would be this self-criticism in the back of my mind during the day.

Nick Hobbs:
Why, Nick? What is wrong with you? Maybe there’s something wrong with you. Gee, Martin, why do we have a brain, really? I know you’ve explained it, but gee, it does play havoc in a world where you really feel like you’ve got to fit into a 9:00 to 5:00 structure. I love routines and I love structures now. And I don’t struggle with them half for so much as I did then. And it does make it very hard to fit into a routine life. But ironically, that’s a bit of a savior too. You just get up. Those days, you haven’t slept then well, I’m just going to follow the pattern. I’m just going to go and do what I have to do.

Nick Hobbs:
I may not be a hundred percent around it, but might be pretty average. But often, that’s probably an internal perception. Externally, people may not know. And that’s the other thing I didn’t know what to do about in the day when I was really deep in the sleep problems, is what to do about talking about it. I didn’t talk about it much. Maybe an admission of weakness or dysfunction, or maybe projected an image of myself that I didn’t like. So there was a sense of shame around it. So I didn’t talk about it openly, but when I did, you would find that lots of people get affected by sleep. And lots of people have sleep that is probably less than ideal to them. And I think a lot of those conversations weren’t very helpful to me either because they didn’t really know what the answers were either, right?

Nick Hobbs:
So talking about it wasn’t particularly helpful, and there were lots of well-meaning people that would give me lots of suggestions that didn’t seem to work. And in the end, I actually just didn’t talk about it really with anyone. And then it becomes very private and very internal, and in a way, it’s strangely isolating, and a bit of a lonely space. Yeah. And that’s why it’s been really nice about coming across this whole phenomenon of sleep coaching. And I don’t know if that’s more recent, but boy, it would’ve been very useful to get that much earlier on in my life for sure. It’s a very constructive way of talking about sleep, I think.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think also, you touched upon a really good point about how very few of us talk about our struggles. So just to use, for example, social networking as an example, everything we see on social media like on Facebook, on Instagram, everyone’s always really happy. They’re on vacation, they’re happy families, they’re doing things that look really exciting and enjoyable. We never see any of the struggle. It’s always filtered out. So whenever we are struggling, which is a normal part of being a human being, we feel there’s something wrong.

Martin Reed:
Whereas what would probably be more wrong would just be living a life where we’re happy and fulfilled 100% of the time, and never ever feeling any pain, or any struggle, or any anxiety, or stress, or worry. That’s all filtered away from us. So it can really turn ourselves inwards thinking there is something wrong. Why aren’t we feeling this way? Why aren’t we feeling as good as everyone else? Why are we struggling? And the truth is, everyone out there is struggling. It’s just we’re all hiding it from one another.

Nick Hobbs:
Yeah, we do. We have these things very privately but as well, in addition to that, I think you’re right. Addition to that is we don’t necessarily know how to respond to people’s problems either. And when I would open up, the most common response would be a problem solving response. And what I valued about coming in contact with your program and the way you run that program is what’s really evident in the way you talk about people’s experiences that you validate them. You validate what’s going on for them.

Nick Hobbs:
You don’t try and focus on the outcome and the guarantee, do this and you’ll have that. And it’s not a problem solving approach so much as it’s one about understanding. And it’s one about validating and understanding what’s actually happening for people. And then working from that spot, which takes a lot of that pressure off, because it’s the pressure that we build internally, in our minds, and the expectations that you’re right. We have these expectations about how we should look, behave, feel, be, and experience life that come to us from so many different places.

Nick Hobbs:
And we want that. They’re very inspiring images, and I think my expectations around wanting to be the perfect sleeper were very much a part of that too. I don’t think I was any different, but I did really respond to the validation that comes through the way you communicate with your audience.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Well, I appreciate that. And the reason why that’s important to me is because all these things we’re feeling, all these struggles that we’re struggling with, all the challenges we face, they’re real. And so why would we try to deny that? Why encourage getting wrapped up in trying to fight that? It makes sense that we would want to fight it, but it would be a losing battle because we just can’t control what’s going on inside of us. And all of our thoughts and our feelings, we can’t control that. We can temporarily maybe feel better, temporarily. Some people might take a couple of drinks, temporarily feel better, for example. But over the long term, we just can’t control how we feel. It’s just one extra struggle that we are just going to be involving ourselves in, and we’re all human beings.

Martin Reed:
So we’re all going to feel an experience, the full range of human emotions throughout our life. Some of them are going to make us feel good. Some are not going to make us feel good. Sometimes, just acknowledging what we’re feeling can just be so helpful. Not trying to push it away, not trying to deny it, just acknowledging what we’re feeling is real because it is. But then maybe, just exploring our relationship with those thoughts and those feelings. So instead of just by default, which is human nature, trying to push them away when they don’t feel good, maybe just making a little bit of space for them.

Martin Reed:
Allowing them to come and go as they please. And even whilst they’re there, doing things that are important to us, and that truly are going to have a very real influence on the life we live. If we do things that are important to us, even when all that stuff is sitting inside of our brain. Because we always have control over our actions, but we never really have control over what’s going on inside our brains in terms of what it’s thinking, what it’s feeling.

Nick Hobbs:
Well said. I think that probably is the heart CBT-I.

Martin Reed:
I think the traditional cognitive side of the CBT model is all about how accurate are these thoughts that I’m having? Maybe there’s a more accurate way of thinking and maybe trying to change those thoughts from one type of thought that might not be very accurate, or helpful to a thought that is more accurate, and maybe more helpful. But I’m increasingly believing that we don’t even need to get tangled up there. We just need to acknowledge what those thoughts and feelings are that we’re having. Allow them to exist.

Martin Reed:
We don’t have to evaluate them. We don’t have to get caught up in them. We just need to acknowledge them, that they’re there. If we do have to take action, oh, the kitchen’s on fire. Well, yeah, we don’t just want that to sit in the back of our mind and let the kitchen burn down. There’s some stuff that we do have to take action on, but if it’s other things like, “I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow. I’m not going to be able to meet up with my friends tonight.” Maybe we just make some space for those thoughts to exist and then go about our actions anyway, regardless choosing to do things that are important to us, even in the presence of all that really difficult stuff going on inside our minds.

Nick Hobbs:
Yeah. I when you say that, I can definitely look back and I can go, “Wow, I wasn’t doing any of that.” I was just really focused on trying to push the feeling of anxiety away from myself. Trying to suppress it very effectively, but try and somehow distract myself from the thinking that was going along. So I would, at times, especially when I was doing your program, wake up in the night and I wasn’t even sure whether I’d been asleep or not. And so then I, “Oh, I probably didn’t even fall asleep. Oh, gee.” Really, it starts all kicking in again, right?

Nick Hobbs:
It’s programming. All this old programming is just ready and waiting to go, and now I can see that you’re right. If I make space for things. If I just allow and have a bit more of a self validating response, then I just acknowledge that, yep. I notice there’s that thought again, or there’s that narrative, or there’s that story, or there’s those feelings. There are those sensations. If I were to probably just make some space for them, that would’ve been heading in a better direction, in a more fruitful direction than panicking about them. Because I think that’s one of the things that I learned coming out of this program was that, you say about focus on behavior because that’s what you can control.

Nick Hobbs:
And when you’re in that labyrinth of that sleep confusion and that sleeplessness, and when it’s really seems to be dragging you along, a lot of what motivates your behavior is fear, anxiety, and you’re right. We’re focused on the outcome, not so much the process. The way that we get from A to B. It just becomes all about, well, what if I don’t get to B? And so there’s a real imbalance there, and what I find you have on the one side, those fears and anxieties, that motivate behavior. But on the other side, I guess what this program that you deliver, what I participated in, really got me to understand that there is another motivation for behavior, and that’s values. That’s the things that we stand for.

Nick Hobbs:
Those are the things that are important to us. And at the end of the day, yet we do have the option of sitting there and giving up. But if we’re not going to just sit there and give up, and we can’t just sit there, and give up forever. We’re going to have to stand for something. Looking back, anyone who goes and seeks out information to try, and resolve their situation, make improve their sleep better. Anyone who decides to sign up to a course and a program, and see it through is really standing for something. Really, aren’t they? They’re making a statement around their values and what’s important to them. That their health and that their wellbeing is important to them, or that the impact of what this is doing to other people is important to them, or the sense of what they want to have in their lives is important to them.

Nick Hobbs:
And so in the Sleep Diary so to speak, you really talk about what have you done in the day? What is it that you valued about doing in the day? What did you enjoy about the day? Rate your day, the quality of your day, and what gave it that quality? That is about connecting with what’s important to you, and that’s a different motivation for behavior. That is qualitatively very different from the fight flight stuff that you seem to be talking about with the brain, the way the brain’s looking more skewed for danger, and keeping us safe, and alerting us, and remembering things that maybe you felt unpleasant, or uncomfortable that we don’t want to have to go through again, which is really important. But it seems to just take over. It just seems to have the line share of head space. And then quietly, right in the corner, this little values voice that’s being drowned out all the time by these sirens, and fire, and running in, and the whole bit.

Nick Hobbs:
And that was a significant moment of awareness for me and a relief, to be honest with you, because it’s pretty stressful having a brain that’s just always geared, and chattering, and anxious. Like the overbearing anxious friend who really wants the best for you, but boy, how annoying. I was like, “You just want a bit of a break.” So the Sleep Diary was fascinating because I thought the Sleep Diary was going to be a trigger for me, and make things worse for my sleep. And it did. It did. My brain initially… I just focused on the steps and the numbers, and whether or not, and was it going to be another crap reporting day of no sleep? And it was. I felt like the training wheels came off and boom. Bike crashed, and I crashed.

Nick Hobbs:
First couple of weeks was worse on the program than before. Oh my God, catastrophizing again. But surely, doing the Sleep Diary when I actually started to understand about focusing on what I can control in my behavior, and focusing on behavior that is directed towards doing things in the day that mean something, that are important, making space for that, making time for that. I didn’t see the link initially. I thought, “Well, what’s the connection?” I’m trying to sleep here, Martin. I’m trying to sleep and you are getting me to focus on what I’ve done in the day that I enjoyed. Great. Yeah. That’s excellent. All right.

Nick Hobbs:
But really, when I see it, it’s creating space in my mind for it. It’s about shifting the balance, isn’t it? It seems to me, anyway, about really balancing the scales again, and getting back in touch with that sense of personal direction. About what’s important and about, well… Sleep will just look after itself. I just focus on doing something with my life so not sitting there, and doing nothing, because that wasn’t helping. Understandable. You can feel absolutely lost in it, and it’s really understandable to just give up for periods of time. But it’s just not a sustainable long term option.

Nick Hobbs:
So that was very, very helpful making that little connection that you’re talking about. Focus on your behaviors, make space for the feelings, and thoughts as they come, and go. Allow them to. Don’t try and control them but focus on something that’s that’s worth your time, worth your effort. And so I found the Sleep Diary structure really helpful for that. I’m not sure if that’s what the intention was with that Sleep Diary. Maybe it was also to help you get a sense of what was going on for me, but that was certainly one very beneficial strategy.

Martin Reed:
I love how you talk about values just because, really, they’re the key to the life we live. That we can still move towards our values even when we are really caught up in a lot of struggle. And the interesting thing or the important thing I think to emphasize with values is we never accomplish them. They’re just a journey that we always move towards. And on that journey, there are going to be ups and downs. Sometimes, we’ll move towards that value.

Martin Reed:
Sometimes, we might move away from that value. Sometimes, we might focus on a different value. We never accomplish our values. We can only ever just keep moving toward them. Sometimes it requires a lot of effort but as long as we do keep moving towards those values, we’re always going to be moving toward the life we want to live. And I think that’s really all that we can do as human beings. That’s the only thing we can control is our actions that move us toward. We can never get to that destination. We can only move toward it.

Nick Hobbs:
And listening to you say that reminds me that we don’t always spend a lot of time in our daily lives consciously reflecting on our values. And we, well, at times, especially, probably, I would say, times when my sleeps not so great, it would be more characterized by being really focused on tasks, or being overwhelmed by demand, or the struggles and the problems that go on in life, and even seeking pleasure, and enjoying things. And what you say makes complete sense, but not necessarily something that I would’ve carried around consciously prior. And I think that’s something that the Sleep Diary is helpful for because it’s a concrete thing. It’s there in front of you. It’s kind of evidence in a way, and that this is what’s actually happening for you, which is different for what your mind might be constantly telling you about your sleep. Amplifies it, and it really does tend to…

Nick Hobbs:
When I don’t sleep well, I tend to exaggerate a lot, and everything becomes really much more over the top. And I speak in much more categorical terms about how bad everything is, and it overshadows things. And so when you’ve got this structure there, when you’ve got this Sleep Diary there, it’s really just there quietly sitting there pointing things out to you. So there are potentials there for reflecting around values, because you’ve asked me to rate the quality of my day, and you’ve asked me to note down the things that I did that were important to me, or that felt good, or that were memorable in a positive way. That’s a point of reflection.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, and I think it also can… I like how you touched upon… This just shows you what the situation is and it might be difficult. You might have had some difficult nights and you’ve maybe written that down on your Sleep Diary. We’re not trying to get away from that. You’ve had some difficult nights. What we’re really trying to do is recognize that’s happening. Not trying to sugarcoat it. If you had a difficult night, you had a difficult night, but is it still possible to do things during the day that don’t have to be huge monumental things? But is it possible to just do some things that are aligned with your values that do help you live the life you want to live independently of how you slept, and independently of all the stuff that might be going on in your brain after those difficult nights too?

Nick Hobbs:
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? I guess there’s an encouragement implicit in the program that it is possible to do that. It is possible to actually not have slept, but still do things that you enjoy, or still at least savor one, or two of those moments in the day. Even if it is just when you’re doing your Sleep Diary and you’re going, “Oh yeah, well, I did that, and that was… Actually, didn’t mind riding my bike into work. That was the sun.” So there is a sense that you can savor something implicit in a way.

Martin Reed:
I love that word savor because so much of our lives, whether we’ve got insomnia or not. So much of our lives are on autopilot and we just miss so much of everything that’s going on around us. If we just can slow some of these things down a little bit and just, if we can notice when we are on autopilot, and just bring ourselves back a little bit more to the present moment, it’s amazing all the stuff we miss out on. And it sounds really minor, but even just something like making a cup of tea, or washing the dishes. It’s like, “Oh, I got to wash these dishes now,” and you’re just lathering up the sponge, scraping off all the plates, and stuff. And if you just bring yourself back, you’re thinking of all the other things you got to do, but if you just bring yourself to the present, it’s actually pretty cool.

Martin Reed:
We turn on a tap, this hot water comes out on demand. We’ve got all these different sensations coming off of our skin. There’s all these different light patterns reflecting off the plate. There’s all these bubbles just floating all over the place. And it’s not life changing to wash the dishes. I’m not trying to say it is, but we miss out on so much when we are just not present on all the stuff we’re doing during the day. Our mind just wanders. We just do things on autopilot. We miss out on so much. So sometimes, just telling ourselves, “I’m going to savor more.” Do some more savoring during the day. It can really just open us up to more of the good stuff that’s around us. More of the stuff that we can be appreciative of too. I think.

Nick Hobbs:
Yeah, absolutely. All those things are there. One of the memorable feelings you asked me about, how is it? When your day and you haven’t slept. And it definitely comes to mind that the difference is, it is just hard to feel sometimes. You just don’t feel. You’re doing the dishes and it’s a savior in a way to have those little moments, and to focus on that. I think that, so often, when we are having troubles sleeping, when I’ve had trouble sleeping, there is a sense I want to fix it, that I want to solve it, that I can do something, and take a pill, or drink alcohol, or go Shiatsu acupuncture, put a hot water bottle on my head, hide up in a little hole. So many things I try and do to fix sleep as a problem.

Nick Hobbs:
Whereas your example, I guess it connects to something that I’ve learned, which was that, actually, it’s reframing. It’s not so much a fix as it’s a noticing. It’s as much about just becoming aware of other things other than your preoccupations. It’s about being connected to the present as opposed to being always preoccupied with the past, or the future, which is where the sleep problems sit. They’re always in the past or they’re always in the future, and we are living it out in the present, but our minds are somewhere other than here. And we are not taking in what you were just talking about around that example of a household task.

Nick Hobbs:
So the power of the program is partly about trying to get us to reframe, and the very counterintuitive response that we have to actually, where we want to fix a problem, to actually not be so focused on fixing a problem, but become aware of noticing things. Noticing what’s going on with your mind and learning about you teach about sleep, and the cycles of sleep, and you teach about what we know about sleep, and you also teach us structure, and strategies, and teach us to focus on being aware, noticing. And that is, again, like values, it’s a different way of responding, isn’t it? It feels more relaxing. It feels much more relaxing to be noticing and paying attention.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I think it’s definitely more relaxing than being engaged in that battle. Donning the suit of armor and just trying to fight everything that’s going on inside of us.

Nick Hobbs:
It takes away your confidence and it’s just so debilitating on so many levels when you’re trying to battle with the way your mind, the way my mind behaves. So hearing your validations when you go through each week and you give a introduction to each week, and really validate the struggle, but at the same time, invite us to do something different about it.

Nick Hobbs:
That’s that is really helpful actually, because it does just, “Ugh, trying to relax.” It’s ironic, isn’t it? That you’d need to relax to get out of the situation, when you feel like you really need to fix it and battle with it. But ultimately, it doesn’t help. It’s never helped me really, not when it comes to my emotional life anyway. You’re very right. Values don’t ever arrive. There’s really nothing there to fix, is there? It’s just more about taking steps.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. So we’ve talked a lot about exploring our relationship with all the stuff that goes on inside our minds, when we’re struggling with stuff. You’ve touched upon the actions we can take during the day that just help us live a life that’s aligned with our values, or just keep us on that toward side of the road, rather than the away side of the road. So we move toward the life we want to live, even when we’re struggling. One thing we haven’t really touched upon was the things we can do at night. Any changes we can make there that can’t make sleep happen because we just can’t control sleep, but that can just help prevent us from training our brain that wakefulness is this big physical threat that we have to be protected from.

Martin Reed:
Because then the brain has to be alert to try and protect us from. So typically we’ll do things like spend less time in bed at night. If we’re spending a lot of time awake at night, so we give ourselves an earliest possible bedtime. Final out of bedtime in the morning. And it also helps prevent us from that temptation of trying to chase sleep. So if we have a difficult night, we won’t then go to bed a lot earlier the next night, or stay in bed a lot later the next morning, and perpetuate this ongoing sleep disruption, and doing things like just doing something more enjoyable, if being awake at night doesn’t feel good.

Martin Reed:
Why endure that? Let’s just do something else that makes wakefulness more pleasant. And I think trying to recall when we were working together, those were the two main changes that you were implementing when we were working together. That sleep window routine there and doing something more enjoyable when wakefulness didn’t feel good. Looking back on that, can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to make those changes? Any struggles or difficulties you had, and how you feel they might have been helpful now that you can look back in, and reflect back on this?

Nick Hobbs:
Well, the sleep window it was very helpful because it really focused me on trying to stay awake as opposed to trying to get to sleep. Hard to explain that reframing, that shifting, but I found that structure… It was a structure and all I had to do was just live by it. I didn’t have to think it.

Nick Hobbs:
I didn’t have to calculate anything. Oh, it’s just an action. I just had to stay awake. So that was helpful. It was really, really helpful, and slowly that widened. And then the nighttime, the time that I went to bed became more flexible just around not looking at the clock, but just gauging my sleep levels. Maybe I felt sleepy, tired, only going to bed if I felt sleepy. It just took a lot of pressure away.

Nick Hobbs:
The thing that really builds up before bed is pressure, expectations, weight of pressure. About performance. Your performance anxiety, isn’t it? Really in a way. So the sleep window was a really, really valuable thing. And of course, the thing that I chose to do in that period before bed was to read a book which made me feel even sleepier, and to do it on the couch. And then I found myself no, I’ve got to sit up and read. No, no, no. I think I’ll just lie down. I think I’ll just lie down and read. And of course, inevitably, I fall asleep and my brain was finding all these ways to trick me, to get me to lay down, all of a sudden, it became, no, I’m going to find ways to make you sleep.

Nick Hobbs:
And it became another struggle for me in a way. The same struggle mentality was there. And initially, really worried. Oh my God, but I fell asleep at 9:30, but I was got to stay up midnight. So then it would arc up. My thoughts would up again, but over time. And that’s the thing, it’s about patience in a way, isn’t it? Just allowing the program. Just work along the program. So I found not looking at the clock, watching TV, or doing things that were enjoyable in the night, and just going, “Okay. That’s okay. I can do that, and I can be okay with that, and I can try, and encourage myself to enjoy it, and not be too worried about the fact that I’m up, and it’s midnight, or it’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’m watching something on TV that I just wouldn’t be normally…” Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it. Just try and go along with it and just see where it goes.

Nick Hobbs:
Take the pressure. So that was very, very helpful those two things definitely. Yeah, and they maybe see that I do try and fall asleep. I was really actively trying to force sleep to happen, and earplugs in. Try and block out all the noise because I can’t sleep if there’s going to be noise. But I can’t control the external environment, but focusing on that, and I realized, at some point, that that’s all pretty futile.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. And it does come down to that sense of control. It makes sense that we want to control sleep or avoid, be able to avoid wakefulness, because it doesn’t feel good. But unfortunately, we can’t, but what we can control are our actions. And it’s our actions that can create good conditions for sleep or that can make conditions less favorable for sleep. And it’s always our actions that determine the life we want to live. And it’s always funny that when we change, maybe how much time we allot for sleep from night to night, it becomes this thing where, instead of really trying to sleep, all of a sudden, we find ourselves really trying to stay awake.

Martin Reed:
And just that shift can be really interesting, because then, a lot of clients I work with, suddenly, they start to feel that strong sense of sleepiness again, rather than fatigue. And often what else happens is when we find that we’re trying to stay awake, we start to feel really sleepy because we’re not trying. We get that realization that, “Oh, maybe it’s because I’ve been trying so hard to make sleep happen. That’s been the obstacle there.” So sometimes, that recognition can make it a little bit easier for us to move away from the stuff that we can’t control, and just onto the stuff we can control.

Nick Hobbs:
Yeah. That’s right. It becomes a slightly different preoccupation for a while there, trying to stay awake. And it does, it takes off some of that emphasis on trying to get to sleep, which I can see now is yeah, it’s really… It’s pretty deeply, why? It’s still there for me. That urge to want to force sleep and make it happen. But you said, I think just then before, it’s about the relationship you have with the way you feel and your behaviors. And so I guess it’s just a different way of allowing for that. Understanding that, of course, sleep is wired into us and the desire to sleep is wired into us. So therefore, of course, I’m going to be focused a little bit on times when I am sleep deprived or haven’t had enough sleep at least, under slept.

Nick Hobbs:
So yeah, I thought the window was just a stroke of genius. It was really, really helpful. And I still have a… I get up at 5:00 every morning and I get up, and that was the other thing you said. Get up at the same time and get outside, do some exercise. Wake your body up and get into your body, become aware of your body. And that’s what I did. And still to this day, I get up at 5:00. What I do in the morning is different changes over time. But the moment I get up, I go to the gym, what time I go to bed, doesn’t really matter to me so much anymore, but I’m always up at that 5:00 in the morning. I’m always out the door, down to the gym, being active and then going to work, whether I get the sleep or not. And so that was also a part of it. It’s just that commitment to just doing those things, holding that line regardless of what happens.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I just love that word that you use, commitment, because it is a commitment, because it’s difficult. Especially at first, especially in the short time, it is really difficult to do things that are important to us when we’re really struggling. And we’ve had really difficult nights, when we’ve got a lot of anxiety, or stress, or worry. It can feel very overwhelming and it is difficult to commit to doing things that are still important to us, even with all that struggle going on, and to commit to behaviors that can help. They can’t help make sleep happen, but they can help create better conditions for sleep. Like getting out of bed a reasonably consistent time in the mornings can be so helpful. If nothing else, it just prevents us from chasing sleep and just reinforcing to the brain, that wakefulness is this physical threat that must be avoided at all costs.

Martin Reed:
You must be alert against wakefulness, to protect me from wakefulness. And like you touched upon really early on in this conversation, it’s not unusual for things to feel worse, to feel more difficult when you step out of that comfort zone, and make these changes. For your sleep to get worse in the short term and that’s often a time when everything’s screaming at you, so just go back into your safety zone, to go back to the way things were. But the way things weren’t really helpful either. We really do have to put in a lot of commitment to make some changes and to be open, and curious to exploring new ways of thinking really to put this behind us. I think that’s what it comes down to.

Nick Hobbs:
And it does feel like breaking into a new space. Sleep Diaries and sleep windows, and I knew about sleep hygiene, and I went and read books, but I didn’t really have anyone like you. I’d never come across a course where you could just like engage with someone about it. Send off the diaries, get some feedback, have a discussion, and have these messages, and this education reiterated, and learn to apply something. So it did feel like a new space and in a way, a new space is a chance to reset, isn’t it? Not that I would’ve necessarily seen it like that at the time. I was just more probably just desperate. And my commitment came from just not having alternative, not really having another option, having nothing to lose really, and having everything to gain, and wanting so much to be well, and feel good.

Nick Hobbs:
And that was enough to start, but having someone there, having a certain level of accountability like committing, but also, right, I’m going to see this through, and yeah, I’ve got to fill out these diaries, and I’m going to send these in, and I’ve got to read the email feedback, and implement that. And that level of buy in, so to speak. Having that level of accountability, someone there, you, Martin, waiting to receive those Sleep Diaries, going through the content each week. It was just helpful as well to have that weekly structure to keep me committed, to keep me accountable to on some level to myself, that I’m doing it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. It does often get more difficult in the short term, before it gets better, and often progress isn’t linear. It’s not every week, it gets better and better and better, although that can happen for most people. There’s ups and downs along the way as well. Again, so we’ll stuff this out of our control. We can only control our actions. We can control our actions on the journey to the outcome. We can’t control the outcome itself. What would you say an average night is like for you these days, Nick?

Nick Hobbs:
Good enough. I always generally get a pretty adequate sleep, but not always, not always. But it doesn’t really loom. It’s not the specter. Sleep’s not the specter that it was. It’s just something that I need. It’s a part of my day. It’s a part of my wellbeing, and if I get five, six hours like last night, yeah, I’ll probably go about six hours sleep. Feel good. It’s fine. It’s not something I have to really spend too much mental energy on anymore. But I do at times, for sure. Still have all of those kinds of thought patterns and conversations.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I guess the changes, just your relationship with them. Sometimes we refer to it as psychological flexibility. We just become more flexible in how we choose to respond to them when we’re really trapped in the struggle. Our response is try and push them away, try to fight them, avoid them, and they can really influence our behaviors. Whereas when we get to that stage, talking to you, insomnia is just in the background now. It’s in our past. We still struggle every now and then because we’re human beings, but what’s really changed is our relationship with the sleep. With wakefulness and with thoughts, feelings, emotions.

Nick Hobbs:
And I think your message in the course is always to normalize, isn’t it? To normalize sleep as not necessarily being something that we all experience the same way, the same time, in the same periods of our lives, and in comparison to each other. We all have some sense of an ideal, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s an ideal. And there are things that we can do that are either going to support sleep or not help. And so it’s about learning about what’s supportive and putting your energy into that, because that’s the things that you can do. So I like it. It’s a simple message, and in a way, it’s a very simple thing to understand. Not so easy to put it into practice, but that’s the art of it, isn’t it? That’s why we do the programs, that’s why we learn, and we figure it out.

Nick Hobbs:
So, I found it really good. And I guess that’s what I would say to people really. It’s just to stay connected to what’s important to you and persist. That’s one of the values really that keeps us going, doesn’t it? Through all of this. It’s that capacity to persist and to hold onto that is important. Because it’s hard to trust. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to trust. You can say all the things under the sun, Martin, but you have to go through the program, and you have to commit, and you have to try it, and you have to apply it, and you have to do it for yourself, and you have to find it.

Nick Hobbs:
That’s where the confidence comes. So the confidence is built upon that effort and it’s there. So I guess looking back now, I don’t know how long it’s been since I finished the program. I’m really not aware, but it’s been some months now, hasn’t it? Maybe a year even, and looking back, I could really just encourage people use that word, curiosity. Be curious about it, give it a go. If you can’t trust it, you don’t need to. You just need to go through the program and be open to learning, and just trying things out, and experimenting. It’s that mindset, isn’t it? Really, that you can bring in to the program.

Martin Reed:
Thanks again, Nick, for all the time you’ve taken to come onto the episode and just talk about your experience. I know that a lot of people are going to be finding this really helpful to hear your story in your own words. And I think they’re going to really identify with a lot of what you’ve said as well, but I got just one last question for you that I think would be just the icing on the cake for everyone listening, and it’s this. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and feels as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help, that they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Nick Hobbs:
You see, the dilemma it is, isn’t it? That you’re faced with something that is inside of you and there’s no real easy escape, because you keep coming back to yourself at the end of the day. And what does it mean to give up and not do anything? And you can do that, but we can’t really leave the situation. So at the end of the day, we still have to keep taking those steps. And I would just encourage people just to keep that in mind that even though we can’t trust necessarily that by doing the program, we’re going to get to what we ideally want for ourselves. Like you say, values are never something that you necessarily ever reach the end of, but we can always be taking steps towards that.

Nick Hobbs:
And I think there’s nothing in this program that takes me away from what’s important for me. Everything in the program really emphasizes and puts me in touch with what’s important to me. So therefore, I’m never going to be harmed by this. So I would suggest to people to please just give things a try, stay open, stay curious, and find what it is that will enable you to commit to this next six, eight weeks, and then see where one gets to. It’s a bit of an unknown process, isn’t it? It is about accepting to some degree that, that’s just the nature of where we are, and that’s just what we found ourselves doing. So I would just encourage people not to give up and I would encourage people to stay in touch with what’s important to them. And hopefully, that this program is one of those steps for them because there’ll be other steps to take too. How’s that?

Martin Reed:
That’s great. That’s perfect, Nick. I think that’s a great note to end on. So thank you again so much for taking the time to go onto the podcast. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

Nick Hobbs:
You’re welcome, 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 techniques, click here to get my online insomnia coaching course. We can get started right now.

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