How Summer let go of trying to control her sleep, her thoughts, and her feelings — and regained control over her life (#58)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

When Summer experienced consecutive nights of insomnia, sleep started to consume her life. She started taking time off work and she began endlessly researching sleep. Summer felt that if she could get rid of anxiety and stress things would improve — but this led to even more of a struggle as Summer went to war with her mind.

Sleep became an obsession. It was all she could think about. Summer felt as though she was losing control. She felt helpless. She started to blame herself. It was becoming increasingly difficult for her to live the life she wanted to live.

The more Summer tried to fix her sleep, the more she seemed to struggle. Sleep-related rules and rituals didn’t work. Changing her diet didn’t work. Changing the temperature in her room didn’t work. Trying to eliminate blue light didn’t work.

Ultimately, what worked for Summer was not trying. She realized that she couldn’t control sleep. And, by no longer trying to make sleep happen, she started to struggle less with sleep and she had more energy to live the life she wanted to live.

Summer also started to be kinder to herself. She stopped trying to fight or avoid the thoughts her mind would generate as it did its job of looking out for her. She acknowledged her thoughts and feelings and allowed them to come and go. She expanded the focus of her attention. She spent more time with friends. She lived by her values.

Summer stopped trying to control sleep and she stopped trying to control her thoughts and feelings. As a result, sleep no longer controls Summer’s life. Thoughts and feelings no longer control Summer’s life. Summer controls her own 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, Summer, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Summer: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Martin: Let’s start as always right at the very beginning. Um, can you tell us a little bit more about when your sleep problems first began and what you think might have caused those initial issues with sleep?

Summer: They started in February of 2017. So I have a very specific date in mind for when I noticed that I had sleep problems. these types of problems with sleep. Um, I think I probably had sleep issues long before then, but it wasn’t something that I thought about or gave any attention to. Second week of February 2017, I, um, experienced, I want to say four, but it might’ve been five nights of no sleep, not even an hour.

Summer: For four or five consecutive nights, I didn’t know it was possible to go without sleep for that long. So I, for the first time, had to go into the hospital. And I saw a doctor as well who prescribed a low dose of Valium I’ve never taken. that in my life. Um, and that got me sleeping again for a while. I didn’t even take the entire amount.

Summer: I think I took two or three tablets and, uh, the sleep issues just continued. They persisted. Um, I haven’t had a week where I’ve gone four consecutive nights or five consecutive with no sleep since that particular incident. But, um, It, that was the start. And it’s, I have a very palpable memory of that. It was a extremely busy time for me work wise.

Summer: Um, I think I was working. About nine hours a day with a, I want to say between 10 and 15 minute break. Um, and barely got to take that break. I was teaching and, uh, just was very inundated with, with responsibilities during the day. And then I was driving between 90 minutes to two hours. Um, in rush hour traffic, both ways, morning and evening.

Summer: Um, and it just, I remember feeling so much dread. I loved my job. I do love to work and teach, and I love being in the class and being with students that work in the university. Um, it’s not like I’m working with Children who are exhausting me. And that particular month, February 2017, um, and that second week of the month.

Summer: Just hit me really hard and, uh, it was the first time I think ever in that job that I have called in sick and then not been able to come into work, which caused me even more stress, which I think continued. I was thinking I would just take one day off. That also caused me to start, Investing a lot of time into researching online and it just, it really turned very quickly into an obsession.

Summer: Um, it was, I mean that this, and I thought that I would get over it maybe in, you know, six months or so. I just kept thinking if I could get past the next hurdle, whatever it was that was causing me to be anxious or stressed in that moment, I thought if I could get past it, the sleep would return and I continued to just be up and down, but I think it was more the obsession.

Summer: It was more than the time and focus and attention I was giving it. Um, obviously I. was still working and functioning and driving a car. And but my life really, um, took a turn for the worse that just the quality of life drastically reduced after that incident because of the fear. And then my obsession with trying to figure out how I could control sleep to prevent that from ever happening again.

Martin: Yeah, which I think is completely understandable just based on your description of everything that you went through.

Summer: I’ve been busy before. Um, I’ve flown across the international date line. Used to live in Australia and I, I’ve been over the ocean. Uh, six times, I guess, back and forth. Yeah, so I lived, I lived there and I would go back and forth between the U. S. and Australia. That’s about as far away as you can go without coming back. I know what jet lag and sleep deprivation feel like, and I didn’t die. I didn’t become obsessed. Um, I’ve been exhausted in other situations and circumstances as well. And this I think was the only thing that I can think of was that I felt like I didn’t have time to even eat or go to the bathroom in the day.

Summer: Um, the work load for that month, that month of February was so intense. And then the driving to and from. And just the expectations that I felt were on me, which I think in all fairness, I was putting the expectations on myself. I took more, took on more work than I, than I could have or should have taken on.

Summer: And, um, it just turned into a serious issue. And, uh, Each night that I would lay awake, I would think I, I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow. And what’s going to happen? Am I, you know, what’s going to happen to my job? How are my students going to react? How will my, my supervisors react? What if I get into an accident on the way to or from work?

Summer: It just, it was this This onslaught of negative what if, what if, what if, what if, and this just continued, and continued, and continued, and it was just one night after another, and I don’t really see that as being so extreme. Having a long workday where you have few breaks, lots of people. work like that.

Summer: I’m sure I’ve worked like that in the past. Um, but I want to say it was the second night. So I went through the first night of no sleep and I remember waking up and thinking, well, this isn’t good. Um, but I’ll be so tired. I’ll fall asleep tonight. Well, the next night. I didn’t. And it was that morning when I tried to stand up and realize that I had lost, kind of lost control of my equilibrium, that I couldn’t get behind the wheel and drive.

Summer: And that was the first time that I felt like the lack of sleep, and it had been at that point two consecutive nights with nothing, just lying there thinking, why is this happening? Um, and I took some over the counter. pills. I think I took some different hydramine, which is the ingredient in Benadryl. I just tried, didn’t work at all.

Summer: And I think that was it. It was, it was the second morning after having no sleep. So, um, and realizing that I had to drive and I had to go and work and that I still had, you know, three more days of the week to get through and then after that another two weeks to work this type of schedule. Um, and for me, it’s, I think, really comes down to control.

Summer: I had lost the ability to control anything. Um, and I felt like this, this sleep issue had just taken complete control of me, and the more I thought about it and fed those, those fears, the worse it got, um, and it just, that’s what it turned into, um. It, it was, it was just my, my inability to control what was going on, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt that out of control.

Summer: I felt somehow responsible for what was going on and it was my fault that it happened and it was my responsibility to fix it. And the more I tried to fix it, the more it would not be fixed. Uh, it just, it was, I mean, I don’t want to over exaggerate this. I, this happens to people everywhere in, in so many different types of circumstances, I wasn’t in a traumatic situation, nothing had had occurred.

Summer: Um, that would really. Well, it’s not right to say that, that nothing happened that justified me having this, this fear, anxiety and fear and stress and frustration is always valid when, when it comes, regardless of what’s triggered it. But there was nothing going on at the time in my mind that justified this other than feeling like I just was working.

Summer: Too much and not in the day. I literally just did not have time to get a drink of water. Go to the bathroom. There was just there wasn’t time. And, um, I was, I was hungry, you know, there was no time to eat if I couldn’t go to the bathroom, of course, there was no time for me to eat. It was, it was bad and it was, it was my own fault.

Summer: No one was forcing me to work like this. I had had taken on extra classes because I wanted extra income at that time. Love the job. But I, I just, I felt as though I’d put myself in that situation. And then I thought, this is my fault. I’ve got to fix it. Oh my goodness, I can’t. Now what? And that, I think, really is what started it.

Martin: And I think that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck, right, when these issues turn up. Um, because, like you described, we can be really hard on ourselves, which rarely makes things easier. Um, and we can then start engaging in, you know, actions that involve, with the intent of trying to control sleep.

Martin: And sleep, I think everyone listening to this, if we’re being honest with ourselves and reflecting on our own experience, we can probably tell that the more we try to control sleep, the more difficult it often becomes. And similarly, the more we try to control our thoughts and our feelings, the more we try and get rid of anxiety or worry, for example, the more they kind of push back and the more power and influence they get and So, all of these are natural responses, and I think that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck, um, and to then feel really confused and feel really concerned or worried that something uniquely wrong is, there’s something uniquely wrong with us, that maybe we’re broken, there’s some, some biological problem, but so often it is down to that change in approach, the change in the way we approach sleep, or the change in our relationship with sleep, um, that gets us tangled up in this struggle. And that’s what it sounds like you’re describing, just hearing you describe your own experience.

Summer: I never imagined that what was happening would turn into a five year battle with insomnia that would span two continents at the time I was living in the United States. Um, I brought this with me here to Europe and suffered, um, probably suffered more here than I did even back in the U. S. So it, uh, you know, even in my, my worst thoughts back when this happened.

Summer: First started, it, it was never, it just did not cross my mind that I was going to struggle with it for five years. Um, and, and just continue to have this horribly unhealthy. relationship with sleep, but I did.

Martin: What, what happened next? Like how did, how did things continue from that point onwards?

Summer: I, um, again, I had, I loved my job.

Summer: I had a great job and, and my colleagues and supervisor were very understanding and supportive. Um, I was extremely proud. When I was able to discard the Valium, I’m not a medicine person at all. Taking over the counter pills was, was something I didn’t want to do, but I’d been doing it. But when I got a prescription, I researched side effects and I just, I don’t, I thought I don’t want anything to do with this.

Summer: So I was very, very happy to, I think, take only three of those and then just, Get rid of the rest of them. Um, and I, I was sleeping on and off, but I was, I was having a hard time because there were other nights where I would lay awake. I never really had a problem again where I went day after day after day or night after night after night with zero sleep.

Summer: But because that had happened, every night that I struggled became a potential disaster to me. And like I’ve heard so many of your guests say, and so many participants on the forum have written about this, lying awake thinking every possible bad thing that can happen to me tomorrow will now happen because I’m not sleeping tonight.

Summer: Um, it’s such a, it’s such a typical story, but, but like you just said, back then when I was kind of new to this, this experience, I thought it was just me. I thought this is, you know, the, and, and my way of trying to deal with it was to look up, um, information on the internet about what was going to happen to me if I didn’t get there.

Summer: Control of the sleep problem. So I was changing my diet. I was trying to figure out I at the time I used to swim pretty consistently. Um, and I was trying to figure out if there was a certain time of the day, maybe relating to atmosphere. It was just ridiculous, the things that went through my head. Was there a better time that I should be swimming?

Summer: Um, I remember talking to a student, um, of mine. He was a, he was an associate professor that had come to our, our program. program to do some kind of research or something and I was, was working with him in, um, presentation skills in the English language and he specialized in Alzheimer’s and I remember him mentioning that if you exercise at night, the oxygen is less.

Summer: So you’re, you’re doing damage to yourself if you go out jogging at night or have, you know, brisk walking in the evenings. It’s better to do it in the morning when the quality of the air is better. So I would internalize all of these things and think I’m causing myself to, um, you know, be more at risk for all of these, these conditions and these disorders.

Summer: And if I don’t get control of them, And I don’t get control of the sleep problem. I’m going to end up, you know, having Alzheimer’s disease or having some other kind of, as if I have any control at all over that. And it, it really just. It turned into this, this obsession and the need to consume as much information as possible.

Summer: I would read studies that I didn’t understand at all. Things that, that I don’t have the, the depth of knowledge or understanding in. This isn’t my background, but I would read them as if I could understand. And then try to diagnose myself and figure out a treatment plan. It was just ludicrous. And this just went on and on.

Summer: Um, I changed my diet. I did all these funny things with light in my, my space. Um, I tried to get rid of all blue light after 6 p. m. Um, it just, I played around with the temperature. I did everything I could think of. Anything that I would find online that someone was suggesting might work. I would try it short of buying magic pajamas and wearing those, everything else I did and it didn’t work.

Summer: Um, there was a bit of a breakthrough, uh, in the summer of 2018. So this started in February of 2017 and then in 2018 I switched my diet pretty drastically to a plant based diet, whole food plant based diet, thinking I have nothing left to lose. I’ll just give up meats and dairy and all animal products and all preservatives and all of these things and I’ll just really try to go pure clean eating and within just a matter of days I noticed a drastic improvement in my sleep.

Summer: And I attributed that to the diet, and the improvement continued through, I’d say about six to eight months, where I felt like I had gotten the control back, and I was thrilled. And then I lost it. So, it just, you know, I had this period where I thought I was victorious and I had somehow managed to conquer this thing and all my work and research and my trying different things had finally paid off and I’d figured out what to do and then I became very, um, sort of zealous about plant based eating and trying to tell people to stop eating meat unless they wanted to have bad sleep, just ridiculous things, and it was working for me until it wasn’t.

Summer: So It just, it turned into the most unhealthy obsession that impacted every area of my life. Not just sleep, eating, relationships, exercise, um, where to sit in the house, what kind of music to play at what time of the day, um, you know, what kind of, of colors to have around me, so many things. And it was a very, very unhealthy obsession that I developed.

Martin: Just hearing you talk, we can see how easy this can consume our lives really because we engage in all these experiments, implement new rules, um, regulations and restrictions and rituals that then become the focus of our life rather than Living our life. Yeah.

Martin: And every time we engage in a role or a ritual or an experiment and it doesn’t seem to work, then we can put more pressure on ourselves. We spend more time trying to figure out the next thing to try. Um, and it just becomes. We just get pulled away from the life we want to live and we put more pressure on ourselves to sleep, all completely understandable.

Martin: I remember you posted in the Insomnia Coach forum and you shared that, reading forum posts from other people, um, and listening to other podcast episodes started to change your perspective. And that change in perspective was something that proved to be helpful for you.

Summer: Yes.

Martin: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Summer: It was like a switch flipped. It was this thing that the switch had been stuck for years. I was convinced that, um, this is really silly, but I, I believed, I convinced myself that if I Left the USA at the time. This is I don’t want to go too far off on a tangent with this, but I wanted to leave. Um, I wanted to I’ve lived overseas most of my adult life, and I’ve really been happiest when I’m from the U. S. But I’ve been happiest and most at peace when I’ve been outside the U. S. For various reasons that I won’t go into. Um, and. I wanted out and, uh, I had planned on leaving. Um, I was in a graduate program, um, which I started after I’d had that horrible traumatizing incident with the sleep and whatever, and I was still kind of up and down and I think it’s important to, to point out that when I changed my diet, um, that coincided with the start of this new academic program I’d gotten involved in that was going to be demanding more of my time and giving me less.

Summer: Free time in the day and whatnot and forcing me to do more work and be on my laptop more and all of these things and I Decided to change the diet and lifestyle at the same time that I started that program and for the first six to seven months I was doing so well, and I really did congratulate myself, and I said, that was it.

Summer: That was the trick. But you said something just now. That made me realize that the trap with this is in the trying, and I think I was sleeping well during that six to seven month period because I stopped trying. I didn’t have to anymore. It was just happening the way it was supposed to. And, um, then I got back into this, this situation where I wasn’t sleeping as well, and when the pandemic came and I felt as if I were stuck and wasn’t going to be able to move out of the country, like I had been planning, um, That’s when it hit me again really hard.

Summer: And I started having trouble sleeping. It’s just it’s it’s control. So fast forward from 2020 to when I started to really understand that this was not something I had any control over. I moved to Germany to start a PhD. Very fortunate to be able to do that while The pandemic was happening. I think it was the first way.

Summer: This might have been the second. I don’t even remember now, but I got here and within something like four to six weeks, the country Germany went on lockdown. It was supposed to be two weeks, and it turned into six months. This is the second lockdown. And here I was in a foreign country, um, with no community, no Um, really no language skills at that time, um, supposed to be doing this research project and I didn’t have colleagues, I didn’t have really anyone to talk to, um, and I was sitting in an apartment day after day in lockdown.

Summer: So there’s plenty of time to sleep, but I wasn’t sleeping. And it’s important, uh, I think to, to mention that when I started reading the forum, the insomnia coach forum, I found it by happenstance. I think it was around the spring of 2022, and I’ve been suffering since I got to Germany. I did go through spurts where I had maybe four or five weeks of okay sleep, and I thought, Oh, good.

Summer: Okay. But I, I would be scared to celebrate it too much because always when I had done well in the past, I would regress. Um, I was so upset because I really thought that the solution to my problem was going to be moving here. Um, I had, I blamed my sleep issues on the country and the situation that I was in because I had never had insomnia in any of, I would say I’ve now lived in six countries, Germany is the sixth and I had never had insomnia issues or at least I’d never had this extreme obsession or focus on sleep anywhere else.

Summer: So I just thought this is because of where I am when I get out of this. I’ll be fine. And that didn’t happen, which upset me because that was my last effort to try and control, you know, what was going on. And in 2022, um, around March or April, I want to say, I just remember it was spring because we don’t get a lot of sun here in Germany and, and the sun had started coming out.

Summer: More days were getting a little bit longer and that helped. Um, restrictions had lifted, completely lifted in this country, and people were out and about. There were no mandates to show vaccine certificates. It just felt freer. And I started socializing because there wasn’t this fear of, you know, getting kicked out of some place because I didn’t have a booster vaccine or all these different things.

Summer: And, um, I started practicing my German. I’d been studying German, um, remotely through an online program and I started practicing speaking and just being out and about. And I’d been getting therapy. I started seeing a psychologist, I think in February or maybe early March of 2022. Um, and then within just a couple of weeks of seeing her, I found you, I found your, your, um, your podcast.

Summer: And I think you had a two week email. Um, I don’t remember what this was. You could sign up for a two week. Uh, email something or other where every morning you would get these emails with provoking questions and a little video or something like that. I started reading those and really just engaging with other people, um, who were going through this or had gone through it.

Summer: And realizing that there was nothing at all special or unique about me or my situation at all. Um, which was really comforting, learning that I wasn’t special in this way. Um, and those, those things kind of just came together and helped that, that switch release. It literally was like a light switch had been stuck down and could not be moved.

Summer: Um, I don’t need to worry about this. This is really, this is, this is crazy that I’m trying so hard and putting so much in my mental and even physical effort into trying to fix this problem. This was never a problem before when I wasn’t thinking about it. And now I’ve had this problem for more than five years.

Summer: And all I do is obsess over how not to have this issue. Um, and now we have freedom, and I’m in this, this country, and meeting these people, and learning a new language, and having this amazing experience. And, I’m missing out. You know, I’ve heard other guests talk about feeling like a spectator in their own life.

Summer: And I didn’t want that to happen to me here. Um, it just, it switched when I let go of control. When I just said, this is not, there are things I can control, but this is not one of them. And I’ve just gotta let it go. And I, I mean, I did have a, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, um, meeting with me. And, and she’s a, a cognitive behavioral therapist.

Summer: talking me through some of these things and As I think back on our first session, or maybe it was our second session, I remember her just saying to me, Summer what do you want? What what is it that you want out of these sessions, and I had this whole list of things But at the top of my list was like I want seven hours of the week Sleep.

Summer: And I don’t want to be awake more than 30 minutes at a time. I just, everything was just very itemized. And I remember watching her through the, we were doing remote sessions at the time. And I remember watching her through the camera. And if I go back now and think, I wonder what was going through her mind.

Summer: I’m pretty sure she was just thinking, right, that’s exactly how this works sarcastically. And she was very patient about it. Um, but After a couple of sessions with her and recognizing that she wasn’t actually going to follow up and ask me if I was getting seven hours or if I was, you know, falling back to sleep after 30 minutes, she didn’t validate any of that.

Summer: She said, Okay, I understand this is what you want. Let’s talk about how you feel when you don’t get these things that you think you have to have. Let’s talk about how you react to not getting them. And then what does that reaction then do to you? And yeah, she, she did a great job. But it helped so much to hear these stories.

Summer: Um, just individuals from all over the world who some of them maybe hadn’t had as, as frightening a circumstance as I had, but a lot of them, I, I remember one lady, I can’t remember where she was from. It was shortly after I first started listening to insomnia coach. Um, I think she said she’d been dealing with it for over 20 years.

Summer: Um, I’ve also heard other guests say that they’ve had it their whole life, which to me indicates that they’re aware that there was some kind of extreme disordered sleep for as long as they could remember. And I thought, my goodness, you know, to, to have that history, that must be excruciating. Um, it was just really good for me to hear these stories.

Summer: and recognize that none of us have control, none of us at all. There was something that you said, and I think you repeat this, I like this, this phrase about, um, giving attention and then taking away the attention. I’m pretty sure it was you. You say we, we starve it of the oxygen it needs when we just let go.

Summer: Um, sleep is going to happen when it’s going to happen, whether you want it to or not, whether you. try to make it happen or not, it’s going to happen when it, when it’s going to. And I heard it, and I heard it, and I heard it, and it finally sunk in. Um, and it just, I think there were a lot of factors that kind of came together at that time last year.

Summer: Um, I also am, I mentioned, I think, um, in our correspondence, I’m not a religious person. I grew up religious, but I’m, I’m not religious now, but I am a person of faith and I prayed and I, you know, I never lost that faith and I believe that that played a role as well. Um, feeling like there is someone much bigger who’s in control of this, who cares.

Summer: And, um, you just have to, to let that go. The end. You know, I went through that very scary experience of not having sleep for four to five nights in a row, and I, I didn’t get into a car accident. I didn’t get hurt or injured at all. I didn’t get extremely sick. I was scared and upset, but nothing terrible happened to me even after going through such a long stretch of, of zero sleep.

Summer: And I learned that the human body is actually capable of doing some pretty incredible things in extraordinary circumstances. But that wasn’t my focus back then. I wasn’t able to think about it in, in that way when it was happening or even after. So yeah, it was, um, it was a very freeing thing to just finally be able to say, you know what, if this isn’t my fault, it’s not my problem.

Summer: I don’t have control over it. Um, these bad nights are going to come and trying to stop them is, is really not a good use of my time and energy. Um, when they come, they’re going to come and I have to deal with them as they come. Um, and then just learning strategies for how to engage with those negative thoughts.

Martin: So just to summarize what I took from your description there, um, sounds like some things that you found useful, um, or that helped change your perspective was realizing that you weren’t alone. There were lots of other people going through a similar situation, like, you know, that struggle, but some details can be a little bit different.

Martin: Um, but the struggle is generally quite similar from person to person. Um, and, uh, you found it helpful to start to, Move away from that kind of control agenda. A little bit less trying. And as you did that, maybe you also freed up some time, some energy and attention to reengage in life in things that were important to you.

Martin: Yeah. Um, and so there may have still been difficult nights and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it. But even in their presence, you were still doing some things that mattered to you. Um, things that were important, things that you enjoyed, rather than 100 percent of your actions were focused on trying to fix, fix the problem.

Martin: And then you touched upon, how helpful it can be to drop the control agenda. Um, but as no doubt you’ve experienced, it’s very hard to do that, right? Because, um, we want to fix this problem and often this idea of not trying to control it anymore is kind of scary in itself because then we’re, we might be being hard on ourselves and we might suspect, well, this sounds a little bit like giving up. Um, I’m not going to try anymore. What does, well, I can’t, I can’t just give up. This is, this can’t be my life forever. Um, but you know, moving away from trying to control what our own experience tells us can’t be controlled can be really helpful.

Martin: But it’s one of those things that can be so much easier said than done. Then done. So I’m curious to hear, you know, how you approach that you were obviously reading, you’re working with a therapist, you’re also reading forum posts, listening to the podcast, and it sounds like you identified this common theme about moving away from trying moving away from trying to control sleep and what’s going on inside you.

Martin: But how did you how does that translate to action? Like, how did you actually go about doing that?

Summer: I had to let go of the guilty thought. Um, that I was having for not being able to fix myself. Um, I had to stop, uh, sort of excoriating myself for eating sugar at a certain time of the day. Um, or watching a movie until a certain hour and thus, you know, exposing myself to screens.

Summer: I just, I had to, I had to, um, forgive myself for breaking the rules. Before I could let go of the rules altogether and recognize I didn’t need those rules at all. I recognized that, okay, I am someone that needs to control. So let’s just redirect that control to something different. Channel it into something else and stop trying to control the sleep.

Summer: And in letting go, I started sleeping and I remember sending messages to some of my friends who’d kind of been praying for me over the course of several years, including my, my family back in the States as well. And it was, I think sometime in April, the month of April, 2022, I said, it’s gone. The insomnia is gone.

Summer: Um, I may still have some rough nights, but, but I’m not in, I’m not suffering from insomnia. And, um, some people kind of questioned it. Well, how can you just know? How can you know that it’s gone when you’ve had good, you know, good spurts or good periods of time before? How do you know? And I said, I just, I know because I’m not even going to attempt to control.

Summer: I’m not going to engage with these thoughts anymore.

Martin: One of the things that really stood out for me is your emphasis that there’s that desire for control. Um, which I think is probably universal. Um, especially when there’s difficult stuff present, we want to control it in the sense that we want to get rid of it.

Martin: And that’s completely understandable. Um, but what I love is how you kind of redirected that. You know, you reflected, yeah, I’m going to always have this desire for control. I’m going to want to control things. But in that context, you are then kind of brainstorming. Well, what can I control though? From my experience, my experience is suggesting that I can’t control sleep.

Martin: So I will satisfy my desire to want to control something. But instead of trying to control sleep, I’ll try and control something else. So for example, I don’t know. I’m just going to throw this one out there. I don’t know if this was relevant to you or not, but I might control my actions by, for example, going out for lunch today instead of trying to control sleep.

Martin: I’m going to control an action that might Just kind of push me along the path towards the life I want to live that’s more aligned with the life I want to live even when sleep might still be being difficult. And it sounds as though you also found it helpful to be kinder to yourself when things were difficult rather than being harder on yourself, putting more pressure on yourself to fix or control what your own experience was telling you can’t be fixed or controlled through effort.

Martin: Um, and I think that’s really important. And you’re kind of refocusing on things that mattered to you. Now, you know, we might be, people might be listening to this and saying, well, sleep matters to me. Well, yeah, absolutely. But you’re probably already focused on that. How about we refocus or expand focus onto other things that matter, um, other than sleep or in addition to sleep.

Martin: Um, and you kind of also, you said you identified rules and rituals that you were engaging in. Maybe as part of that control agenda to control sleep, and if they weren’t enjoyable, or you weren’t finding them useful, you started to kind of untangle yourself from them and allow yourself to be a little bit more flexible in the way you approached sleep, or the way you responded to difficult nights, and probably the big one is letting go of the difficult thoughts, the difficult feelings, um, not engaging with all those thoughts quite so much. I’m curious to know if you’re able to expand on that a little bit. If someone is listening to this and thinks, that sounds great. I would love to be able to let go of all these difficult thoughts, the feelings, the stories that my mind is coming up with. I would love to be able to not engage with them.

Martin: Um, how can we do that on a practical level? How can we practice that approach?

Summer: I made a decision that I was going to spend every single day thinking about the things that I was grateful for that I took for granted all the time. I focused on relationships because in that, um, I was able to listen to others and really absorb what was going on in their life.

Summer: And think about someone besides myself. And that self became less important. Finding this Insomnia Coach Podcast and really just taking the time to listen to these people. It’s the stories that you would feature on the podcast. And you’re right when you say basically it’s the same struggle, different things that precipitate this, but it’s the same struggle.

Summer: And um, it helped so much to, to hear that. I think his name was Eric. He said something that I really resonated with and that was that he would look at the bed and hate it and just not even want to see it. I went through that for years. I hated beds. Whether it was in my apartment, in a hotel, at a friend’s place, the sight of a bed was awful.

Summer: And I would look at it just with scorn and total contempt and think, You are the reason that I’m suffering, that I don’t feel well. And now, you know, I can’t wait to go to bed. I used to fear it. And now I just, you know, so I made a decision to just practice, um, gratitude. Um, and one of the, and it’s hard to do that when you’re hurting, when you feel dizzy or you feel nauseous, or you’ve got all this work to do, and you’ve got that sort of pressure in your head from not having slept.

Summer: And I, I know, um, It’s, it’s very difficult to be grateful for anything when you feel that way, so the only thing that really helped me was to just prioritize relationships and, and think about other people and try and take the focus off myself and put it on, on others. And that made a difference. Yeah.

Martin: That process of letting go of the difficult thoughts, of maybe engaging in them with them a little bit less, struggling with them a little bit less, was about maybe just diluting them. Um, not diluting them in terms of, I’m going to try and delete certain thoughts and feelings from my mind, but adding more stuff to them.

Martin: So if we imagine your life is a circle, and inside that circle you’ve got the insomnia. You’ve got the fear of the bed, you’ve got the anxiety, maybe the depression, um, the stress, the worry, all the difficult stuff. Um, and that can easily become our focus and that’s all we see inside that circle, right?

Martin: It’s all that difficult stuff. So naturally, we’re going to want to try and push it all out of that circle, get rid of it. Um, but what if we take a different approach where we just add some more stuff to that circle that’s a little bit more pleasant, or a little bit more enriching, or a little bit more rewarding.

Martin: And it sounds like you did things like gratitude practice as a way of identifying stuff that you might otherwise have missed. So you’re making a conscious effort now to actually look for some good stuff, which can be really hard to do when we’re really struggling, right? But if we look, we tend to find, even if it’s just one thing, there’s We tend to find something.

Martin: Maybe we heard the birds chirping. Something, it could be something small like that. You know, maybe we saw a leaf fall down in a really cool spiral pattern. Just something like that. You know, just something good that we can then put in that circle. And you said you focus more on relationships. What are other people going through?

Martin: How can I be there for them? You know, um, Especially if that’s something that’s aligned with your values, you know, being, being someone that can be there for someone else. That’s some more stuff that you’re adding to that circle, you know. So the difficult stuff might still be there, but now it’s not all that’s there.

Martin: You’re adding on all of this other stuff and kind of diluting it down a little bit. So maybe then Let me know if this was your experience. Maybe then you’re less inclined, perhaps, to focus quite so much on all that difficult stuff and really get tangled up in a struggle with it, because now your focus is kind of adding more of the good stuff and noticing more of the good stuff.

Summer: Yeah, when I started openly talking about it as well, um, not just posting on the, on the forum and listening to podcasts and talking to a, I mean, talking to a psychologist isn’t the same as talking to friends. When I started talking to people, in person. That was another thing. Instead of talking on the phone or, or, you know, sending messages and what’s up, but actually going to a coffee shop or going for a walk somewhere and, and talking with new friends that I was making here in Germany and saying, I’ve been struggling with this.

Summer: And, um, one, one couple that I met, one young couple that lived in my building, um, uh, the husband recalled a story of having some pretty serious sleep issues when he’d been on some sort of a work trip to Japan. And I remember just thinking as I was listening to him. Rehash the story and how it had concerned him, but he didn’t end up developing this obsession with sleep He just remembers that he had a hard time for a while.

Summer: He couldn’t sleep when he was there He had a hard time sleeping when he got back to Germany and I thought you know, this just this happens to everybody this happens all the time and It’s good people get scared people get upset. They might get sick but You know, they maybe they don’t need to spend five years fighting this and trying to to control it the way that I have and just having these these open conversations about it also made a difference, but definitely getting that focus less on on or if I’m going to think about myself, I wanted to think about the things that I was fortunate or blessed to have rather than how much I was suffering.

Summer: And I went from being resentful towards the people around me who I knew and didn’t know to being grateful for these people. I remember I would walk through my apartment and get very annoyed if, if a car drove by because the lights would shine through the little opening. Um, between the blinds where the blinds met the window and I would think because it’s after a certain time and I’ve got lights shining into my apartment, now I’m done.

Summer: I won’t sleep. And I was so mad at whoever was driving that car and I would go from that type of ridiculous, just completely illogical thought to I’m so glad that I’m not out there driving. I’m so glad that I live in a country that I don’t need to have a car anymore, so I don’t have to drive. Driving used to cause me a lot of stress as well when I was living in the U. S. because I was just always sitting in traffic. I don’t have to do that here, and so I literally just flipped. Everything changed. The resentment, the frustration, all of these things were replaced by gratitude, and I would just look for things, any small thing to be thankful for, and then. Like you mentioned, just try and find out what’s happening in other people’s lives, um, and think about that, and how can I, and even in some small measurement, how can I help if, if there’s a need for help?

Summer: And eventually, my issues just became less important, and eventually the sleep just came.

Martin: Did your approach in the evenings change at all? You touched upon, you started off having all these different rules and rituals. It sounds like you started to dismantle them. How did you start to respond to being awake at night in a different way that you found helpful?

Summer: That’s a really good question that I think about a lot. Um, I do have one rule that I should It’s not a rule per se, it’s a strong word. It’s something that I am, for the most part, pretty consistent in and disciplined in. And that is no clocks. Um, I stop watching the clock. And I don’t count sleep. Other things that, that changed I used to be really fussy about food.

Summer: And I would, I would have certain things that I would eat between 8 o’clock and 8. 30. Okay. I just stopped that. When you get up for some reason, hunger, going to the bathroom, whatever, a noise wakes you up, and then you can’t fall back to sleep, that is stressful. It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating. I sometimes feel resentful toward whatever it is that woke me up.

Summer: Um, I think the difference now is, is that I don’t get too upset about having those thoughts. I don’t punish myself. For having the thoughts, I just decide if I’m not going to sleep because I’ve been woken up or something, um, I might not have a very pleasant morning or day. but the day will go on and it will pass.

Summer: Um, and I’ve been through this before, just like so many other people have. And I’ll just get through it. Even if I have to get through it one hour at a time. And I don’t go through these motions anymore of, okay, I’ll do this. If this, and in case of this, I’ll do this. And I used to have plan B, C, D, X, Y, Z.

Summer: And I don’t do that anymore, but I do, I do lay awake sometimes irritated. That I’m not asleep. And it’s usually on the nights when I don’t have a lot of time, or I feel like I don’t have a lot of time. And I’m not looking at the clock, so I don’t know what time it is. But I know that I have to be up for something important the next day.

Summer: And I’m not happy about the situation, so I let myself be angry, and I’m okay with it. I didn’t ask to feel that way, um, so anyone who is waking up in the middle of the night and being frustrated that they are not able to fall back to sleep. has the right to feel frustrated and doesn’t need to feel like they somehow have to dismiss that thought quickly, right?

Summer: It’s, there’s nothing wrong with feeling what we feel over the these types of issues. But I think recognizing that’s what it is. It’s a feeling. It doesn’t mean that the day is going to be horrible. It probably is an indication if the sleep never does come or if it’s really poor sleep, the next day may not be great.

Summer: But that also doesn’t mean that everything is just going to fall apart. Um, it’s, it’s really helpful to just. deal with these thoughts when they come by saying, okay, I’m, I’m really, really angry right now. I’m really annoyed. I’m really frustrated with this person across the street who can’t keep their dog quiet, which I love dogs.

Summer: I have no problem with them barking all night, but I can see how that would bother some people, whatever it is, that’s causing that negative feeling. Uh, just feel it. It’s, it’s fine to have those, those, those thoughts and feelings. Um, you can’t. make them go away because you don’t want to have them. And night is a perfect time because we’re just lying there and mind wanders.

Summer: And it is, it’s really almost impossible to dismiss those thoughts. So bring it on. Um, but, but when the morning comes and you’ve got to get up, let it go. That’s, that’s all. And yeah, it’s, um, I feel like I’ve gotten control of my life by letting go of control of this. And in that, now I’m, I’m satisfying that need for control.

Summer: You know, I don’t let these negative thoughts control me. I don’t get scared of them when they come. I don’t enjoy them. I don’t mean to say that I like it. But I, they come, I deal with them. And, and they come again and again. Um, and I deal with them again and again. But then I, I have to let them go. Because I have things to do.

Summer: Like we all do.

Martin: I think it’s really important that you mentioned you still experience human thoughts, feelings, and emotions like anger, irritation, anxiety, frustration, because it’s really important. It can be so easy to fall in. It’s another one of these potential traps, right? Well, we might say, well, I’ll know things are better when I don’t, when I’m not anxious anymore, you know?

Martin: And I think of them as dead people goals, you know, well, we’re not anxious when we’re dead. Otherwise we’re always going to have anxiety pop up from time to time. Um, And so I love the fact that first, you just mentioned that, yes, I’m, I don’t consider myself an insomniac anymore. I’m not tangled up in that really big struggle, but I still have anxiety from time to time.

Martin: I still feel irritated or angry from time to time. But the difference now, and especially when that stuff shows up at night, is you’re acknowledging it now and allowing it to be present rather than putting on the boxing gloves and going unlimited rounds with this invisible opponent, which tends to just make things more difficult.

Martin: Now you’re naming it, you’re saying, okay, I’m feeling anxious and you’re just allowing it to be present for as long as it chooses. And then in the morning, your focus is shifting now onto action. Now I’m going to, even though. That anxiety might still be here, just using that as an example. Now I’m going to get out of bed and I’m going to do either what I had planned or do something that matters to me.

Martin: Um, so all that stuff starts to lose its power and influence because we’re less engaged with it. We’re like tug of war only works when each side are tugging on that rope, right?

Martin: When one person drops the rope, there’s no more tug of war going on. Um, and these thoughts can still be difficult. We’d still probably rather have that magic switch where we could permanently delete them.

Martin: But since it doesn’t exist, I think that this is a more workable approach.

Summer: Well, it’s the same thing in life, whether it’s sleep related or not. Negative thoughts. Regardless of what triggers them. Whether you’re, you know, in the middle of the night trying to fall asleep and stressed out about something related to work or family or relationship or anything, or it’s the middle of the day and you’re at work and you’re busy and you’re trying to focus on something and get something done, whether you’re tired or not.

Summer: And you have these negative thoughts. So I don’t really think there’s anything unique. And maybe I don’t know this would help. It does help me. But recognizing that those negative thoughts I have at night are no different from the negative thoughts I have in the day, when I’m in traffic, not that I’m in traffic anymore, when I’m frustrated, you know, Germany is a difficult country to live in, um, for foreigners.

Summer: It’s difficult for Germans, I think, but for foreigners, it can be really tricky. So every day is something it feels like here. And these negative thoughts are just present, ever present all the time. And for me, there’s no real distinction between the thoughts that come at night when I’m laying there, if I’m awake, and the thoughts that I’m having on a train or at work or sitting in my room trying to do something or whatever it is.

Summer: Um, they come when they come, they stay and their thoughts and their feelings and that’s what they are. That’s all they are. Um, and they’re always going to come, but, and I’m not going to be, I’ve just not bothered to try and control them. Um, maybe I’ll engage in why am I feeling this way. Let’s, let’s think about this.

Summer: Is this a rational? response, but even that sometimes gets a little too much. Just let them come.

Martin: I think sometimes there’s important information in these difficult thoughts, right? Sometimes they can be reminders of things that are important to us, things that matter to us. And it’s one of those reasons why I like to just think, I don’t even label thoughts and when I’m working with clients, I’m just, if, well, if we have to label them, how about we just call them natural?

Martin: Because they are natural, you know, joy, it feels good. Anxiety tends not to feel good. But they’re natural and normal. human feelings and emotions. Um, sometimes I think just when we put some certain thoughts and feelings in a kind of positive category and some in a negative category, we almost can set ourselves up for struggle because we associate negative as stuff we have to get rid of.

Martin: Um, but if we never experienced anxiety or fear, for example, we wouldn’t be alive today, would we? So how negative are they truly? Maybe it’s just the way they make us feel can be negative, right? But they can sometimes. Be really useful and really valuable. Um, and it’s that struggle with them that makes tends to make things difficult In in terms of that struggle like that process of moving away from it.

Martin: How long would you say that? Once you had this new perspective and you started to change your approach, how long would you say it took for you to get to the point where it felt that you were no longer entangled up in that constant struggle with sleep, when it felt as though insomnia and all the stuff that comes with it was starting to lose its power and influence over your life?

Summer: For me, this is, I think this is not typical, um, from, from what I’ve heard from listening to other guests. But for me, it was fairly instantaneous. Um, and this is where, you know, I’ve not, I’m not right about this, but I would attribute it to prayer. Um, I really do believe that that I believe that I gave away the control to someone who.

Summer: really can control it. Someone who cares about me can call, call it whatever you want. I call it God. Others might call it the universe or the cosmos. I’m fine with that. Whatever. I’m fine with it. But something or someone that I consider a benevolent force that actually cares for me and cares for what I’m going through here.

Summer: Um, and, um, Once I was willing to say, I give this to you, I’m done, I am finished trying to control this, this sleep, um, issue, take it, it was taken away, and it was instantaneous, and that tends to be very, I wouldn’t, I mean, it’s not magical thinking, I, I can understand how it sounds that way, but I’ve, I’ve heard so many stories of people that have sort of similar experiences where they have that switch flip.

Summer: Um, and I, you know, I think an easier way for people who aren’t interested in the spiritual or faith based side of this is just to think about the power of positive thinking. If you want to disassociate it with faith, um, it, it can happen, um, quickly. Um, I’m not going to say, when I say that it was instantaneous again, I’m not saying that I suddenly went from this sick, tired, worn out, stressed person to this happy, joyful person that was swimming every day and having all this fun, um, and I still struggle.

Summer: I still have bad days and bad nights, but it was instantaneous. Um, the insomnia was gone when I realized I would, I would say probably within a week or maybe two, um, listening to the podcast, talking to people about it in person, being on that forum, having a therapist who knew what she was doing. I stopped reading, you know, papers on, on all of these different horrible disorders that can come later in life from, from not having enough sleep. Uh, I enjoyed listening to podcasts about sleep prior to overcoming it because I thought like I was feeding myself important information, but I stopped listening to sleep experts other than the insomnia coach, insomnia coach podcast. I did not. Insomnia wasn’t a part of my vocabulary anymore. Um, it was very quick.

Summer: It was quick. It was an attitude adjustment. I prayed. I really prayed for that adjustment and I got it. And I’m not, again, trying to say that things are perfect. But I do not suffer from that. I let it go. I gave it away. It’s not something, it’s not something I have to bear anymore. But yes, I recognize I’ll still have tough nights.

Summer: I accept that, and that’s fine.

Martin: If someone with chronic insomnia is listening, and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, That they’re beyond help, that they’ll never be able to stop struggling with insomnia.

Martin: What would you say to them?

Summer: I think what you said earlier is be kind to yourself. There’s nothing, um, I, I feel like the person that is listening, that is having this, these feelings, I’ve had them, most of us have, that are, that are involved in this, this kind of a discussion, um, you’re doing everything you can do.

Summer: Um, so. What more can you do? I mean, I think really just, uh, forgive yourself for having these, these feelings of inadequacy or not being able to control it or not being able to get better. For me, I really believed I was at fault and I held myself responsible for what was happening. I really did. I would, I would sometimes, I would internalize this feeling of responsibility and I might blame someone else like on the outside.

Summer: Oh, this happened and this is why, or I, you know, I said earlier, I thought it was the country that I was in and the circumstance I was in. I thought if I left and moved somewhere else. So I was trying to pass blame when I really knew deep down that I was blaming myself. For not being able to figure out a way out of this.

Summer: So that’s what I would say to anyone else. Don’t do that. Don’t take it upon yourself to solve the problem. Um, It’s, It doesn’t go away just because we want it to. And we try 5, 000 different things that we might hear on a podcast or read on the internet. Um, so, When, when that hopelessness comes, recognize that it’s still, it’s a feeling, um, the insomnia is there, the sleep issues are there, the bad thoughts are there, but I don’t think that, that we have to be responsible personally for those thoughts and, and it can sometimes be hard to let go of that responsibility too, so.

Summer: Yeah, I would also say as much as possible, try and, and focus thoughts on others as much as possible. It is so hard to do, especially when people are talking about their own issues and, and whatnot. It can be very difficult when you’re suffering yourself. Um, but that is something that I think is really important.

Summer: We all get very wrapped up in our own head and what’s going on. And it. It makes a huge difference when we can just look outwardly and recognize there are other people out there that we could actually maybe be serving in some way, even if it’s really small.

Martin: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for coming on to the podcast and sharing your experience.

Martin: I just know it’s going to be so helpful for so many people, so I’m very appreciative. Thank you.

Summer: Thanks for your time.

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.

Mentioned in this episode: From the Insomnia Coach Podcast: How Eric got his life back from insomnia by focusing on what he can control (#53)

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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