How Rachel got out of the insomnia struggle by being more flexible, more accepting, and more present (#55)

Rachel’s struggle with insomnia started in grad school. She tried everything from sleep aids to strict bedtime rules and routines to improve her sleep, but nothing worked. The harder she tried to fix her sleep and get rid of sleep-related anxiety, the more difficult things became.

The turning point came when Rachel changed her approach. She stopped focusing on trying to create the perfect conditions for sleep and she stopped trying to control her thoughts and feelings.

She started being kinder to herself. She practiced making space for difficult thoughts and feelings and she practiced building skill in bringing herself back to the present moment and being more aware of the present whenever her mind started to time travel.

Rachel’s story is a powerful example of how changing our approach to sleep and our response to insomnia can lead not only to significant improvements in our sleep, but also our overall quality of life.

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.


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

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

Martin: Okay. Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time to come onto the podcast.

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Martin.

Martin: It’s great to have you on. Let’s just start right at the beginning without any further ado. Um, can you tell us a little bit about when your sleep problems first began and if there are any clues as to what may have caused those initial issues with sleep.

Rachel: Yeah, um, well, my first like where my mind first goes is. To my back to my first year of grad school, um, where like, at least one night a week, I felt it felt like I wasn’t sleeping at all. Um, and I would get really anxious about sleep, but I think that that was partly like being in grad school and feeling stressed about grad school.

Rachel: Um, and also, like, I had a shift shift. That ended late and so like the process of of unwinding and then having to be at work early the next day. Um, and the feeling would be anxiety about sleeping like, yes, there were things in my life that were stressing me out, but I think it was like the anxiety would be I’m anxious that I won’t be able to sleep.

Rachel: Um, and that that was well, that was long before. Before I reached out to you. But that, I think, is like the, I’m sure the sleep difficulties go back further than that, but that was like the first moment I can sort of remember.

Martin: Yeah, and roughly how long ago was that when you, uh, that kind of grad school period of your life?

Rachel: That was almost ten years ago.

Martin: And so what was your sleep like at that time? You mentioned there was a lot of anxiety about, is sleep going to happen? What’s sleep going to be like? What’s that going to mean if I have difficult nights or all those kind of thoughts? I think lots of people listening to this are going to identify with.

Martin: Um, how did that reflect in your sleep? Was it difficulty just falling asleep or was it just really interrupted sleep? What was there? Was there kind of like an average night? What was it like? Yeah,

Rachel: um, I, I think it was mostly getting to sleep, like, it would be from the very, like, I would feel really hopeful about the night, about like whatever, new homeopathic thing I had taken on or tried and then, like, thank you.

Rachel: Just the torture of being in bed and not falling asleep. And then periodically it would be like I would wake up in the middle of the night and like feel sleepy and groggy and then like not be able to get back to sleep. Hmm.

Martin: Yeah. And, and how about your days? Were you finding the, all this difficult stuff that you were experiencing at night?

Martin: Was, were you finding the days more difficult too?

Rachel: Oh, yeah. I, I mean. I’m sure we’ll get into it like around the time I reached out to you, but I can just like feel in my eyes, like, cause I would take, a sleep aid of some kind, either like something prescribed or something natural and like, I wouldn’t have slept through that.

Rachel: So then I felt groggy and just like almost that the ways your eyes can feel so tired that they hurt. Um, yeah, and just like down.

Martin: Yeah, absolutely. And so you mentioned the medication, whether it was homeopathic or over the counter or anything like that. Um, will you find in the They were proving to be helpful at night time, but then maybe giving you those some side effects during the day, or were you finding that they probably weren’t even really helping at night and they were giving you the side effects?

Martin: Like, what was that experience like?

Rachel: Yeah. Well, I remember in grad school, I like tried all these like natural things like magnesium, like whatever that calm stuff is. Um. And like, sleepy time tea, and, uh, lavender on my feet, um, or like Tylenol PM, um, and then around the time I reached out to you, then I was trying, like, Ativan,

Rachel: uh, Trazodone, marijuana, um, and what I found was that especially Around the time I reached out to you, those things would work the first time I used them, and I’d be like, great, I found a nice thing to use as needed. But then the second time I used them, my anxiety would keep me up through them. So It would be either like I had taken it and it worked, and then I was feeling groggy the next day, but then what really what it became was I would take it and my anxiety would keep me up through it, and then I would be like, have that hangover from whatever I had taken, plus not having slept.

Martin: Yeah, I think a lot of people listening to this are gonna really identify with that, um, that kind of process of trying different things. Um, and. Sometimes they, they work like straight away, you can find the, Oh, this is it. I found it. I found it. Everything is now fixed. I’m back on track. Um, and then a difficult night shows up, whether it’s the next night or in a few weeks or a few months, and then it.

Martin: It brings back all of those kind of anxieties show up again, right? Because it’s now it’s like, ah, now this doesn’t work. So something must be wrong. There must be something unique, uniquely broken or got something’s gone wayward here. I’m a unique case because none of this stuff is working. Now I have to try this new search and then it, the cycle just kind of repeats and repeats, right?

Martin: It was, it sounds like that was, that was your experience.

Rachel: Oh, yeah, it really was. And my friends, like, anyone, any roommates I’ve had, like, know that, like, I was so rigid about my bedtime. Like, we’d be in the middle of a conversation and I would, like, just abruptly leave because it’s like, well, I have to, like, start getting ready to bed in order to, like, attempt to control for this night.

Rachel: Um, so yeah, it was just, like, lots of, like, stress and anxiety about, like, Wanting to control my sleep.

Martin: Yeah, and like, like I always try and say, it’s completely understandable why we go that route. Because when, when something’s broken or when we identify a problem, we want to fix it. Right? And so many of the problems or obstacles in our lives.

Martin: So if we want a new career, then we might retrain and that takes a lot of effort, but we go through it and then we have that opportunity. Right? But sleep is one of these sleep and what we think and feel. I think of these outliers, the stuff that happens. Inside us, like under our skin, inside our bodies that we can’t directly or permanently control.

Martin: Um, and there, there are some things that we can do that probably can be helpful temporarily. Like if we drink, I don’t know, like a bottle of vodka, for example, before we go to bed, yeah, we’re going to probably be unconscious after that. Um, the, the argument is, is that sleep or is it something else?

Martin: But that’s, that’s probably a discussion for, for another day. Um, what happens is all of these things are temporary, right? They just they’re not really. Dealing with the root cause of the issue, so when it comes back, when all this stuff that we can’t directly control comes back, then we’re, we’re just repeating that process.

Martin: It’s almost like being stuck in the quicksand that we’re just struggling and struggling and struggling and just, maybe, maybe we’re either not moving or we’re just slowly sinking. We can feel really stuck and that’s when it can be a good opportunity to explore a new option or a new approach.

Rachel: Yes. No, that definitely resonates.

Martin: And I think, I think something that you touched upon as well, um, which is really, really common when we’re trying to fix, fix this problem is, Implementing those kind of rules and rituals around sleep in an attempt to control it, or to protect it, or to create the most perfect conditions possible for sleep to happen, is, they can come with some costs, right, in terms of not Like you said that you might be hanging out with friends, socializing with friends, but then, you’re checking the time.

Martin: Oh, I need to be back. I need to be back to prepare for sleep, make sure that all the conditions are good. So we end up getting pulled away from the life we want to live, which in itself can make things more difficult. And then we’re doing that in the pursuit of something that we can’t really directly or permanently control.

Martin: And the more we try, the more we can struggle. So then we’ve got the struggle, the difficulty with sleep, the struggle, the difficulty with anxiety, and we’ve also got the struggle and difficulty that comes with doing less of the stuff that matters to us. And that’s where it can just become so, so, so difficult.

Rachel: Yes. This is sort of tangentially related, but I was just remembering, um, from like this time in grad school up until us working together. So it was like five to seven years. Every night I would listen to this podcast called Sleep by Mary Phelan. It was like a seven to ten minute sleep podcast, but I would have to start it over like four to seven times.

Rachel: Like compulsively, um, not like just because I would get so anxious that like to make things just right to be able to fall asleep.

Martin: Yeah, and it’s, I mean, you’ve been in this experience yourself, so it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on this. But I think what we can have This source of anxiety, right?

Martin: So let’s say sleep. So I’m, I’m naturally worried about, am I going to sleep tonight? Is tonight going to be really difficult? And that generates some anxiety, which is completely normal, completely natural. And sometimes I think what can happen is we can, because that anxiety doesn’t feel good, because we recognize it, we, we see it as an obstacle, as a barrier.

Martin: Whenever that anxiety is there, I’m not going to be able to sleep. So I have to get rid of the anxiety. Then we can develop anxiety about anxiety. So now we’re not just dealing with anxiety about sleep, but we’re also dealing with anxiety about anxiety itself. Was, was that, does that kind of relate to your own experience?

Rachel: Oh yes. Yeah. Like, I mean, this feels related, but Again, when I reached out to you, I had entered a new relationship and my poor sleep was, in my mind at the time, only when I was sharing a bed. But then what was happening was, it wasn’t just when I was sharing a bed, it was like bleeding into like, More and more nights of the week, but like the anxiety, like I, especially in on the nights or the days that I knew I’d be sharing a bed with my partner, I would just start, like, that would, sleeping would be on my mind from the time I woke up, like, of like, well, what will later look like?

Rachel: What can I do to make later right? Like, just already feeling Anticipating the night time and like attempting, working really hard to be present, not thinking about my anxiety.

Martin: Yeah. And how successful do you, now you’re able to look back, how successful do you feel that you were on being able to not think about certain things or not experience certain thoughts and feelings?

Rachel: Uh, not successful!

Martin: It’s really difficult, isn’t it? And I think there are some things we can do, maybe like going back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier, that can help temporarily. Maybe we can distract ourselves and that might work. Maybe for a few minutes or maybe a little bit longer.

Martin: But when it comes to thoughts and feelings, that’s what the brain does, right? There would be no brain without thoughts and feelings. That’s what the brain does. It’s just generating them all the time. And if we try to fight that or try to avoid it, Um, it takes, it takes a lot of effort, I think, first and foremost, takes a lot of mental energy, which can in itself be exhausting and create so much fatigue and what often happens because our brain’s number one job is to look out for us when it’s generating difficult thoughts and feelings.

Martin: It’s because it’s trying to tell us something and when we try and fight or avoid that. Then the brain can get really concerned that it’s giving us these really important messages. But instead of listening, we’re trying to get rid of them. Then the brain can panic a little bit, freak out, and generate even more intense thoughts and feelings.

Martin: And then we’re trying to push back again, and then it’s freaking out more and generating really intense thoughts and feelings to try and get us to listen. And it can just, we just get caught in that battle, right? Bit of China. Trying to control our minds or trying to control our thoughts and feelings and over the long term, it just again, where are we?

Martin: We’re back in that quicksand.

Rachel: Right.

Rachel: I think for so long I had existed with like these very rigid sleep preparation, like rituals. And, and if I didn’t get to do that, then I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep in my mind.

Rachel: And I think I like started to loosen the grip on that of like, okay, if I don’t have like the exact. 45 to 60 minutes I want. That doesn’t mean I won’t fall asleep. It just means I don’t have that time right now.

Martin: Yeah, it’s, it’s really interesting with those rules and rituals. We can implement the really rigid rules and regulations that we can implement because we We can be struggling, right, with sleep, and so we implement all these rituals or rules to protect sleep, to create the most perfect conditions possible for sleep, and yet we still find ourselves struggling, so I think there’s this little voice in the back of our minds that Might every now and then be saying to us is, is this really helpful?

Martin: Is this really proving to be effective and useful? But at the same time, there’s probably another little voice that’s saying, well, yeah, we’re still really struggling. But what if we didn’t have these rules and regulations? Then things might be even more difficult. Um, how do you, how do you reconcile those two voices and take that leap into Moving away from all that pressure you might be putting on yourself with these strict rules and regulations, all the ways they might be pulling you away from the kind of life you want to live, and take that leap into Moving away from them being a little bit more flexible, living life a little bit more independently of sleep.

Martin: Is it just a case of just going for it? Is it a case of thinking of it as an experiment? Like, how do you make that leap almost into the unknown, which can be quite scary?

Rachel: Yeah, well, I, I, it was so helpful to have you as a coach and resource like because I think You know, I had tried consuming, like, my own self education and I was just too anxious to take it in because of exactly what you’re saying of like, intellectually, I understand that this works.

Rachel: But it doesn’t make sense to me. And what if it’s wrong? Like, just like giving up my way of doing things that clearly hadn’t been working, but I just felt really scared. And so I think it felt so helpful, like, as I was going along, to be able to take my worries to you and, like, help debunk them.

Rachel: Or like take the, what, because if you’re struggling with insomnia, like all these small things feel like, they start to become so big of like, what if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Like, should I just ignore that? Or should I, like, should I push through and just try and fall back to sleep?

Rachel: Or should I get up? Like, that, like, question that feels so small, as it pertains to, like, sleeping, would, like, cause me so much anxiety and being able to, like, take that to you and Have you be like, no, like just, it’s okay, like, like the soothing presence really helped me, I think, like release the rules I had or like the myths I had about sleep.

Martin: I think an important point you made there or a useful point that people will probably identify with is We can, we can have this idea in place that there’s maybe what I’m doing isn’t proven to be workable or effective or helpful. We might discover that there’s a different way to do this stuff.

Martin: And when we read about it, for example, it can sound pretty straightforward. Let’s say, for example, let’s try going to bed later at night instead of earlier at night. Which. Can sound a little bit confusing, a little bit scary, but at the same time when it’s explained, it can also sound quite logical because the later we stay up at night, the more sleep drive we can build.

Martin: So the more likely, the better conditions are for sleep to happen. But I think it’s another thing to Take that and convert into action because it can be quite scary to take on this whole new approach. Um, because we might deal with thoughts like, well, what if this doesn’t work? Um, what if it makes things more difficult?

Martin: What if this is the last option available to me? It doesn’t work. And then I’ve got nothing else left to try. The brain can come up with all these different scary thoughts and feelings. So having that support, whether it’s from a coach or maybe a partner or a friend, um, can be, can be so helpful because this is really difficult and it’s hard to do difficult things alone as an individual.

Rachel: It really is. Yeah, I, like, I couldn’t get over just how. Much peace of mind it gave me to be able to get your feedback, to send you my questions, like, yeah, like, I think having some kind of buddy to do this hard thing with, I mean, for me, felt really essential because, like, the, because, I had bought books or was, like, starting to, like, like, look for things on the internet, but, yeah, the anxiety was too high just by myself.

Martin: Do you feel that you maybe got a little bit more comfortable with the idea of night time wakefulness either happening or being a possibility?

Martin: So instead of all your actions being centered around trying to avoid nighttime wakefulness or trying to get rid of it when it showed up, you started to feel a little bit more comfortable with the appearance of wakefulness or the possibility that it could exist. And that in turn maybe in itself created better conditions for sleep to happen.

Rachel: Definitely. Yeah. Like I think I, I remember, um, I remember it was falling asleep. If there was any interruption in my insomnia days to my falling asleep, I thought I was Screwed for the night of like, oh, I was like being low to sleep. I was just about to fall asleep. And then something startled me awake or I started myself awake.

Rachel: Um, and then felt like the night was lost. And then like, in the middle of the night feeling like if I woke up, that was a symbol of, something bad having happened in terms of like, in terms of sleep. Um, but I think in like, with the education you provided of like that, those are normal things. Like those happen to people that’s, that is within normal limits that does not preclude you from sleep.

Martin: Something a little bit related to what you just said, um, about, something might wake you, suddenly wake you up, or you might jerk awake, um, and then you feel like the night was lost, um, was related to nighttime noise, when we started working together, you mentioned that, There was maybe this kind of fixation, maybe bordering on an obsession with trying to eliminate all potential noises that might happen through the night, and if any noises did show up, that was it, the night was a disaster.

Martin: How, how, how did you end up dealing with that issue? Was it a similar kind of process or did that, was there a kind of different approach there?

Rachel: Yeah, that’s so interesting, because, yeah, I just imagine like any roommate I’ve ever had listening to this and being like, yeah, she’s like, such a stickler about noise and like all these things, but like, it’s become so much less of an issue.

Rachel: I think, um, I think in like both like in the understanding I was developing about how sleep worked, I think I developed like was also developing new ways of focusing my attention and like I’ll still do this as a way to relax of like going in between like an unpleasant stimuli and a more neutral stimuli.

Rachel: So like if there’s noise and it’s Disruptive or unpleasant like I’ll alternate between that and like maybe like the sensation of my hands like it just it doesn’t feel as much of an emergency, like maybe it’s still something I would prefer wasn’t there is unpleasant, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to ruin my night.

Martin: That’s that’s really interesting. It sounds. It sounds a little bit like. You found a way to experience a noise, the appearance of a noise, maybe with a little bit less resistance, so you’re exposing yourself to maybe, Being more of an observer of that noise for a little while and bringing your attention back into your body, then observing the noise for a little bit and bringing your attention back to your body compared to all those thoughts and feelings are turning up about the noise and then you’re trying to suppress those thoughts and feelings, getting really mad about the fact there’s noise there and engaging in that battle in the middle of the night with all of this stuff that you can’t directly control.

Rachel: Exactly. Yeah, like, oh, I remember just feeling so much resentment and like, like quicksand, that quicksand feeling whenever there was noise out of my control. And of course, not that that doesn’t still sometimes come up, but it’s just. It’s just not what takes up as much of attention, or as much of my attention.

Martin: Yeah, I think that’s the key word, is how much of your attention it can consume. Because I’m trying to think of an analogy here. It would probably be something like, let’s say you’re lying on the beach, um, you’re listening to the waves and the birds and all that good stuff and then this family next to you pitches up a tent and they’ve got a Boombox, and then they start putting on the worst music imaginable.

Martin: Um, then what’s going to naturally happen is all your attention is going to gravitate towards that really annoying, horrendous music and how you wish you couldn’t hear it, how you wish it would just go away. Um, And when, when that is the focus of our attention, so now we’re just intently listening to this music, even though we hate it, we miss out on everything else, right?

Martin: Now we can no longer hear the, hear the, hear the birds. We can no longer hear the ocean. We’re no longer aware of the fact that it’s a beautiful day, that the sun is beating down on our bodies, that we’ve got a nice cold drink in our hands. 100 percent of our attention is this music. is really annoying.

Martin: And I think it’s a process, right? It’s a process of bringing our attention back. Like you just touched upon when you heard noises at night, you’d listen to it, accept its presence, even though you wish it wasn’t there and refocus your attention. And then you’d probably find that your mind drifted back to that noise again, or your attention will go back to the noise and you would just gently bring it back.

Martin: And it is a process because the mind is always going to want to focus on Obstacles, discomfort, um, problems, and it’s just a case of when that’s not helpful and that’s not useful, just refocusing our attention. Um, how was that for an analogy? I just made it from the top of my head. Do you feel like that’s what it’s like?

Rachel: A hundred percent. Yeah. Like, I often have that thought of like, maybe I’m sitting next to a trash can and the sight of it is unpleasant, but if I just, like, shift my posture to look the other way, it’s like there’s a beautiful tree. It’s like, it’s not that it’s not there, it’s just that, like, I can, I can know it’s there and, like, look elsewhere.

Martin: Yeah, exactly. So that’s a really important point too, because we’re not trying to trick ourselves that this stuff isn’t here because it is here and it does exist, but it’s just a case of kind of opening ourselves up to everything else that’s present other than that thing, other than the trash can, other than the boom box, other than all that unpleasant disruptive noise.

Martin: And when something becomes less of a focus of our attention, obviously it consumes less of our attention, um, and it can feel like it’s less of a problem, because it’s not consuming 100 percent of our attention anymore, so therefore it doesn’t feel like it’s 100 percent of the problem.

Rachel: Exactly, yeah, and it’s even, it’s just helped, because I even just like last week had One night where I didn’t sleep so well because I have a new roommate and I’m just like adjusting to her rhythms and I, I think it, I like was able to offer some soothing of like, your attention is here because this is new.

Rachel: Like, like this isn’t necessarily like a permanent state.

Martin: I think that’s a, that’s a really big insight too because whenever there is anything new. Um, the mind is going to be more aware of it, maybe focus on it a little bit more, monitor it a little bit more. And I think that also connects into these, these changes that we can make to. move away from really rigid rules and rituals and stuff like that when we do make a change, it’s going to be natural that at first the mind is going to be more focused on that, more aware of it, monitoring for the outcome, is this change instead of going to bed, for example, at nine o’clock at night and going to bed at midnight, the brain’s going to be more alert, right?

Martin: Is this helping? Is this going to do the trick? Um, what’s what’s going on here? Should we really do this? No, let’s go back. Let’s go to bed early. Let’s go to bed now. No, let’s go bed later. That’s all natural and normal, right? And that’s when we can also, maybe we’re more likely to get. Pulled back into the struggle again, trying to either get rid of those thoughts or going back to old behaviors that we know from experience aren’t workable, aren’t helpful, aren’t effective.

Martin: Um, and so I think it’s just something to be mindful of that anytime we do make a change or experience something new, there’s going to be more attention put on that. Right. And I think maybe what can be helpful is Trying to approach that from the mindset of being like a curious observer, like maybe being like a little bit of this kind of crazy scientist while I’m trying this new thing, or this new thing is showing up.

Martin: Let’s just see how that pans out. So instead of just having that initial resistance to it, because we wish it wasn’t there or it’s difficult, maybe we can become more of an observer of it. Um, and when we become more of an observer, I think that we naturally become a little bit less inclined to struggle with it.

Martin: To start battling with all that difficult stuff.

Rachel: Right. Right. Exactly.

Martin: So I think maybe something that’s a little bit related to this, is that when we have that kind of anxiety around sleep, um, It’s not only something that affects the nights, like you touched on earlier, it also affects the days, we find ourselves thinking a lot about sleep.

Martin: Maybe that anxiety about sleep shows up during the daytime as well, and we can develop this preoccupation, right? It’s almost like we’re trying to focus on something. Um, but our mind keeps pulling us away and time traveling off into the future, what’s tonight going to bring, or maybe it time travels off into the past, what was last night like, it was really difficult, I feel really bad today, lots of difficult stuff like that, and I think one, another one of your goals was to explore, is there a way of moving away from this preoccupation with sleep so that maybe it consumes less of my attention, um, so I can do more of the stuff that matters to me without it getting in the way?

Martin: How do you feel that you were able to move away from that preoccupation with sleep?

Rachel: I think a big thing I remember when I was like, my sleep was really bad, right before I reached out to you, or in the midst of, like, our work, is that I could have good days, even when I hadn’t slept.

Rachel: And I could have bad days even when I had slept that like feeling like there was so much anxiety like if I don’t sleep, then I’m gonna have a bad day. And it’s like, well, maybe, um, but also I’ve had plenty of bad days when I have slept and like have had low energy when I’ve slept it like you know it’s just like your energy is, it’s not so much something I think I’ve seen for myself that it’s like I can control.

Rachel: That those, like, energy, my energy levels will just fluctuate no matter what, and so I think, like, Loosening the grip of, like, uh, if I don’t sleep tonight, tomorrow will be, like, I’ll be so tired, or it’ll be a bad day. Like, just being able to reality test that a little bit, and, like, I, uh, yeah, like, helping, with the idea that, like, um, like, a bad night’s sleep didn’t mean, like, That everything had gone to hell, and if I did have a bad night of sleep, like I would get myself a nice coffee in the morning just like to cheer myself up. Um, I think all of that helped to, to not feel like, like sleep was. Directing the outcome of my day.

Martin: Yeah. Absolutely. And so I think that it’s really helpful to emphasize that really difficult nights can definitely make the days a lot more difficult, right?

Martin: We probably would never have worked together if there was no kind of consequence to how you felt during the day. And at the same time, um, there’s also the fact remains that even after a great night of sleep, we can still have. difficult days. So there’s a relationship there for sure, but a difficult night doesn’t have to guarantee that every second of the following day is going to be truly awful.

Martin: Um, and I think going back to what you were saying earlier about when you were refocusing your attention. And why I think that can be so helpful is when our days are really difficult and the mind does start to think and become preoccupied with, the burning eyes, the fatigue, the difficulty concentrating, it consumes all of our attention and it becomes Even more difficult for us to notice anything else that might be going on or to recall anything else that might have happened to us.

Martin: Um, that was maybe a little bit more positive or a little bit more pleasant. So we, by refocusing our attention also during the day. It can also be helpful too, because it can just help us notice that even when things are really difficult, there maybe are a couple of glimpses of better stuff that are happening during the day.

Martin: And often when we’re really struggling, we can miss that stuff. And it can really make it feel as though every second of every day is just a living nightmare. Um, and it can be really difficult. But, and at the same time, there might be Those little glimpses of good stuff that might go, get missed if we’re not engaged in that process of refocusing our attention to.

Rachel: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Like that, like, a conversation with a close friend could like, and going to like my favorite yoga class, like all those things can, are still beautiful things that I like got to experience. In that day.

Martin: Yeah. And I think that’s somewhere where we can sometimes also get pulled back into that quicksand again, right?

Martin: Is when we’ve, we just feel truly awful. Especially when we first get out of bed in the morning, which is often the most difficult part of the day. Um, and that can just lead us to withdrawing from all of that stuff. Like stuff that would be important to us. Stuff that keeps us moving toward the kind of life we want to live.

Martin: So we do less of that stuff, which in itself, um, might make the day more difficult because we’re doing less of what matters to us. And it gives us less opportunity to refocus our attention. Because when we’re doing less, what’s the mind gonna do? The mind is a little bit more idle. So it’s just gonna internalize and just start time traveling again.

Martin: It’s going to start coming up with all those difficult thought, those difficult thoughts, those difficult stories, and it’s going to emphasize all that difficult stuff because it has nothing else to focus on.

Rachel: Right, right.

Martin: So something that you talked about I think when we, right at the start of this conversation was When we identify kind of anxiety as this kind of barrier to sleep, I need to get rid of anxiety.

Martin: Otherwise, sleep just isn’t going to happen. And I think A really big insight that you uncovered when we were working together was you found that there were nights when anxiety showed up and you were feeling really unconfident, you just did not have any confidence that sleep would happen.

Martin: There was the anxiety was present and then you still ended up actually having. A good night or a decent night of sleep. Yeah. What did you learn from that experience and how do you feel that might have helped you?

Rachel: Oh, yeah, I, that’s so interesting. Like, yeah, because I think it comes, it goes back to, for me, like, Formally having the feeling that the conditions had to be perfect to sleep. And so if I had anxiety then, That was like then the state I was going to be in, um, and, uh, yeah, I think, I think it was a lot of the education about sleep of like that, that the, the one thing, but especially if you’ve built up, um, your, your sleepiness, like if you’ve been awake throughout the day, that the, uh, That the only thing in between you and sleep was fear, like, anxiety.

Rachel: And I think, knowing that, I could sometimes, like, recount that to myself. And that would help me relax. Or, like, partly knowing that a bad night of sleep, especially with these, like, behavioral measures in place. wasn’t gonna then ruin me for the rest of the week. It would be a bad night.

Martin: Yeah. Yeah. I think sometimes it can also be helpful when, if we ever have an experience like that, it can maybe sometimes serve as a good reminder that Maybe in an ideal world, we could permanently delete anxiety from our brains before we go to bed.

Martin: But if it does show up, it doesn’t have to guarantee that the whole night is written off and it’s going to be absolutely terrible. That it is possible to still sleep when anxiety shows up. And maybe what makes Falling asleep or falling back to sleep more difficult is when we engage in a battle with that anxiety when we try and fight it and we try and push it away.

Martin: Maybe it’s that struggle that makes sleep more difficult compared to just the presence of anxiety alone. Do you feel that, do you feel like that was reflective of your own, your own experience?

Rachel: Yeah, and I was, I was just having a memory to like, I think in. Time after we, soon after we were done working together, like, because for me, I think as soon as I feel any constriction in my chest as a sign of anxiety, that makes me, that used to be like a symbol of like, oh, no, there’s like a really bad night ahead because like the constriction has entered my chest.

Rachel: There’s no making that go away. And I think it’s, it was a lot of, like, what we’re describing of my attention of, like, alternating between that and something more pleasant, that or something more neutral, and, like, being like, that’s there, but, like, yeah, like, refocusing my attention from it.

Martin: And I think something else that is useful to just consider or, even better if you can pick it up from your own experience is that thing about sleep confidence. It’s great. It’s a great thing to have, but it’s not needed for sleep to happen. We don’t have to have sleep confidence for sleep to happen.

Martin: Just like we don’t. need to have breathing confidence for breathing to happen, it’s, it’s great to have, but it’s, it’s not needed. And it’s another one of those things we can’t really control, and it tends to be quite fluid confidence in anything can come and go. We can feel really confident about something and then maybe we make a mistake or something happens and that confidence can be shot and we start to build it up again just through our own actions.

Martin: Um, it can just be another one of those things. That can almost serve as a distraction. I need to, I need to get rid of anxiety. I need to create confidence. All these things we can’t really control. Um, and that can end up distracting us and creating more of a struggle. Sending us back into that quicksand again.

Martin: And talking about things that ebb and flow, ups and downs. So when we were working together, I think it was after a couple of months, or maybe six to eight weeks, something like that. Um, you felt you were doing really well. And then all of a sudden, this difficult night showed up.

Martin: So you found that because you’re a human being with a human brain, you had all those things. difficult thoughts and feelings turning up, fear, confusion, anxiety felt really powerful. Um, and I think you, you said to me that you felt like you jinx yourself because you’d sent me an email just telling me how well you’d been doing.

Martin: And then all of a sudden that difficult night showed up and it’s so. It’s so easy, so tempting to then get pulled back into all of our old unworkable behaviors at that point, right? Because the brain kind of forgets that this is a process, that there’s ups and downs. Um, and it can want us to go back into all the old unworkable actions because they’re more familiar, regardless of whether they’re helpful or not.

Martin: Um, how, how did you end up responding to that setback so that you didn’t get pulled back into the quicksand? Hmm.

Rachel: Well, I think like, first it’s like getting, I think I remember that exchange and getting your response and feeling like, just confirming what I was like, trying to tell myself in my head of like, this is normal, this happens and like, you being so not anxious about it of like, of course, like that happens sometimes.

Rachel: And just like thinking recently, like there was a, a couple months ago, I like had a really, like the, the week was turning into a bad week of sleep because, but like, it felt so much easier to identify the contributions to it. Like, I was really sick and like that was impacting my sleep. And then I think, like, the, the, being sick, that like just like took over the whole week.

Rachel: But I, I remember having the thought of like, once I’m. Feeling a little better, I can like get myself back into these routines that are so helpful and that I know work, um. So yeah, just like normalizing that bad nights of sleep happen and also I have like tools so accessible to me that I have seen really work in like normalizing my sleep.

Martin: So just briefly, because I know that I’ve already taken off a big chunk of your time today, which I’m really appreciative for. Um, if you were to reflect on, maybe the two or three changes that you made when we were working together that you found most helpful, um, what would you say they were?

Rachel: I think the getting out of bed every day at the same time, which really sucked. Um, and, and I don’t necessarily do anymore. Um, and, uh, I think feeling, like, Less anxious about that time before sleep of like, still having routines that help me unwind and like relax, but not feeling so regimented about them and really not taking any sleep aids.

Rachel: Um, because I now only see that they make me feel worse.

Martin: So we were only working together for a couple of months, and that was about three years ago now. Mm-Hmm. . Um, how long would you say that it took for you to get to a point where, sleep wasn’t something you were just really struggling with? Um, maybe you felt like you’d emerged from the quicksand, um, and you just felt better able to live your life independently of sleep?

Rachel: I, I think. By the, well, at least by the end of our six to eight weeks, my sleep had normalized or like, I, I wasn’t having the same insomnia or like sleep related anxiety, um, just like in the time of your program. And then I, like, I maintained the, be like, uh, the, the behavior changes that we’re describing.

Rachel: Like. For a long time, um, and I, and I’ll still fall back on them, um, or use them when I’m, like, going through rough bouts of sleep, but actually regaining the, what felt like the ability to sleep happened within six to eight weeks, and I, I guess, like, really reducing my anxiety, I think my anxiety was reduced by the six to eight weeks just knowing I had these tools, and then feeling like, I didn’t have to like use the tools exactly as they had been prescribed.

Rachel: Maybe like a year.

Martin: Yeah. That’s, yeah, I think I, I, I like to ask that question in more recent episodes because for people listening to this, it can really sound like, which we are, we’re performing miracles here, right? That within a few weeks we can completely eliminate decades of insomnia and permanently delete anxiety and stuff like that, which.

Martin: We can’t do. This is a process. Um, it’s all about removing ourselves from the process as much as possible, refocusing our attention, um, not being ruled by insomnia and sleep, being able to live independently of it. And that does take time. Um, and so I think it’s more realistic to think of this in terms of not so much weeks, but maybe more to do with months.

Martin: It is a process that doesn’t mean we’re still going to be struggling for months, but it just means there’s going to be more, maybe more difficult setbacks. The brain’s still going to want to try pulling us back into that struggle again. And it’s going to take time to build skill in responding to this stuff in a different, in a different way.

Martin: Um, because that’s really what it is, right? Like you touched upon this, these tools are in my back pocket, their skills and all skills take time to learn and develop.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And I think, like, that feels, that just makes more sense to me and feels more realistic than, like, a pill that is claiming to, like, solve your sleep, that, like, of course this will be, like, a thing you have to, one has to dedicate themselves to.

Martin: Yeah. Exactly. Well, Rachel, I’m really grateful for the time you’ve taken out your day to come on and share your story. I do have one last question for you, um, which I try and ask every guest, and it’s this. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, they’re beyond help, that they’ll just never be able to stop struggling with insomnia.

Martin: They’ll never be able to get out of that quicksand. What would you say to them?

Rachel: Uh, I’m, I know that pain, like, and I can just, like, feel it viscerally, like, in my body, like, hearing that, and it’s just not true, like, of course, like, I don’t know any conditions a person might have, but, like, I, I really thought that I was just doomed and I, and I think, like, one has the ability to sleep.

Rachel: So there is hope I would want to share.

Martin: That’s great. Well, thanks again, Rachel. I think that’s a reassuring and comforting and positive note to end on. So thank you again for coming on to the podcast.

Rachel: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, Martin.

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

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

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

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