How Vicky changed her approach to insomnia when sleeping pills stopped working after 20 years (#43)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Vicky dealt with her insomnia by taking sleeping pills and this seemed to work well until one night, after 20 years of regular use, the medication didn’t help her sleep.

This led Vicky to think that something was wrong with her. She felt alone. She felt that without getting the amount of sleep she wanted to get, she would be unable to take care of her children and she wouldn’t be able to be the person she wanted to be or live the life she wanted to live.

She started to experience a lot of anxiety and would wake up in the middle of the night and have panic attacks.

This all led Vicky to explore a new approach to insomnia that involved letting go of the struggle. She began to recognize that difficult thoughts and feelings, although very unpleasant, didn’t need to prevent her from doing things that mattered — so she didn’t need to engage in a battle with them.

Vicky started to allow her mind to think what it wanted to think and to generate the full range of human feelings and emotions. She started to acknowledge and make space for thoughts and feelings — even though she often wished they weren’t showing up — instead of going to war with them.

She committed to doing things that were important and meaningful even after difficult nights and even in the presence of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Today, Vicky still experiences some difficult nights from time to time but she is no longer engaged in an exhausting and distracting battle with her mind throughout the day and throughout the night.

She is living the kind of life she wants to live even when difficult nights happen and even when uncomfortable thoughts and feelings show up. In fact, Vicky now thinks of her insomnia as a gift — as something that has helped her become more resilient and better able to react in a more workable way to the difficulties we all experience as human beings.

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

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

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

Martin Reed:
Okay. So Vicky, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come onto the podcast.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, absolutely. I’m really grateful to be here. Thank you.

Martin Reed:
I’m really looking forward to everything that we are hoping to cover today, so let’s just dive right in. Let’s start, if you could just tell us when your sleep problems first began and what you think caused those initial issues with sleep.

Vicky Chiu:
I’ll start right from the very beginning where it all started in my teens and I think it’s about when I was 17. I got my very first early morning job, and of course, that got my nerves going before when I go to bed, and actually I didn’t sleep well. But then going on forward with that job, I had hung on to that problem and stress, but not being able to sleep. I also have a background where my father has insomnia too, so being around a house of not good sleep was normal. And I went to him because he had the same kind of problems so obviously he was probably a good person to go to at that time. And so he’s commonly on Zopiclone, the blue pill is what people commonly know it as. But yeah, he gave me one of those and it worked fine and from then I just started taking a little bit of it, maybe a quarter, not even the full thing, but that just began the habit of relying on sleeping pills whenever I had an early morning.

So then fast forward into my twenties, it would be every day before I go to bed for work, very manageable. And then on the weekends I would be totally off of it. So really it was psychological if you think about it. And then fast forward again until my late thirties now, I have three kids and the first two were fine with sleep and everything. The third one, I’m not sure what changed, but I think it was because of my third. It was all these little pieces of puzzles that came into place then it fit really well to create this big monster of insomnia, anxiety and stress. It was my third one and it was going to be our last one, so I was very cherishing that moment. And then when the infant stage moved on, I was grieving that stage and she just grew up so fast and I think I was sad that way.
And then at the same time I just cut off nursing, right off, and that was hard too. And I think because of that there was also a lot of hormones related to not breastfeeding anymore, and so I had a very hard time letting go of that. Plus then going to sleep, I was thinking about that and there was one night that just triggered everything where I couldn’t sleep so I was like, oh, I’m just going to take this sleeping pill. I took half, didn’t work, I took another half and it didn’t work. And I was like, okay, I don’t want to overdose on this so I’m like, the sleeping pills not working, so this is a problem. And then that ignited a lot of stuff like anxiety and then panic attacks in the middle of the night. I would wake up in the middle of the night and have a panic attack and then not be able to fall asleep. So it really spiraled downwards in 2021 of September.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I hear that quite a lot. I’m thinking just to myself that I think a lot of people are going to identify with that process where you have the sleeping pill or the supplement or whatever that external thing is that we rely on as a crutch to get us through difficult nights. And those things tend to be fine for as long as they have an effect. But then the downside is that when that experience happens where we use that crutch and it doesn’t seem to have an effect, then we can just become so much more worried than perhaps we would’ve done if that crutch wasn’t even available to us. Because now we’re taking that thing that we’ve always believed will generate sleep for us and even that’s not working now and that can really be quite scary. Was that the case for you when you found that wasn’t helping anymore?

Vicky Chiu:
Yes. So once the sleeping pill didn’t work, it was very scary because it’s worked for me for the last 20 years, and I’m taking one and a half of the amount that I used to take at least. And so I’m like, yeah, there’s something wrong with me. The feelings of, there’s something wrong and I’m the only one because sleeping pills should be working for everyone, especially the prescription ones. So yeah, it caused a lot of anxiety and stress. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, it’s really interesting. This whole relationship we can have with just sleeping pills, it really doesn’t matter, it’s just whatever that external thing is that we rely on or we see is a safety net. I think what happens is, it’s a comfort. So we take that pill, we’ve known from experience that now sleep is going to happen. So all that worry, that pressure we might be putting on ourselves to sleep, that effort we might be putting into sleep, we just drop all that struggle.
And I think that might be one of the real mechanisms behind how they actually work. It’s less to do with whatever’s in what we are taking and more to do with just, I’ve taken that thing, now I can relax, I don’t have to worry, I don’t have to fight with my mind, I don’t have to try anymore. And it’s that abandonment of the trying that tends to generate that good sleep. And so then going back to your experience, okay I’ve taken this pill, but if there’s still that big underlying anxiety or worry or stress going on, the mind is still going to be churning over that. So then we find, oh, now this pill isn’t working. And I hate using the air quotes, but it’s not working, it’s not getting the desired result. And just like you said, then you just start to get really worried because now it’s like, well this isn’t even working now. What’s going on?

I must be unique, but it’s not. It’s just down to the fact that at the end of the day we haven’t got to the root cause, that root problem of what’s creating this long term sleep disruption. And I’m sure we’ll get to talk some more about that. But really it just comes down to our relationship with all those thoughts and feelings that are going on in our mind and often a change in our behaviors as we try to protect our sleep, try and make more sleep happen and just fix the problem that we’re dealing with, right?

Vicky Chiu:
And actually that’s how I found out about your podcast actually was, I felt alone, but I was like, realistically I can’t be alone. So I just searched up insomnia and just anything to help me during the day to listen to other people’s stories. And I did listen to one of your podcasts with a lady, I think she was a mother too, and somehow she went on the sleeping pill and it didn’t work for her. It didn’t solve my problem, but it was very comforting to know that and hear a real true story that it wasn’t working for someone else. And so that’s when I really started to do my research and start doing more digging.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And this is exactly why I’m so grateful for guests like yourself coming on and just talking about this because it can be so helpful, so comforting, just to know that you’re not alone, that what you’re going through isn’t unique or unusual. That in itself can just be so reassuring. And like you said, it’s not going to necessarily fix everything, just knowing that isn’t going to fix everything. But it’s just so reassuring. So yeah, I’m really grateful for you coming on just to talk about this in your own words because it is really helpful for so many people.

So let’s just rewind a little bit. So you had that really difficult night when the medication just didn’t seem to work. How do you think that then progressed onto subsequent nights of sleep disruption? Because you’ve got this long history of sleep disruption before ups and downs. What was it, do you think this time around after that really difficult night when the medication didn’t seem to work that… why do you feel like things didn’t bounce back and recover? Why did things progress and stick around do you think?

Vicky Chiu:
I think just because the realization that the sleeping pill can not work was a big one and I didn’t have that crutch anymore. And then it just, I didn’t even think that the sleeping pill wouldn’t work. I never had that thought before. So then since then that it didn’t work, it was in my head, then your brain’s like, it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work. What if it doesn’t work? You’re going to be up all night and then your entire day, the next day’s going to be screwed and you’re not going to be able to take care of your children properly. You’re going to be short tempered, impatient, you’re going to be a bad mother.

All those stuff start to creep in and yeah, that’s just very stressful and lots of anxiety around that. Especially when you’re alone at night, it gets really lonely because there’s really no one to talk to at that point. And when you’re feeling like that, you really want someone to be with you. I think like that for me at least. And so it’s a very stressful and also very scary time because the night can be so long if you’re not sleeping and then at that time you’re just all by yourself too. And you’re like, what do I do? I tried all sorts of stuff and it just didn’t work.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. What were the nights like at that time? Was it just really, you were just finding it hard to first fall asleep at the start of the night or was it to do with waking and finding it hard to fall back to sleep? Or was it just all of the above?

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. My whole entire insomnia experience always started with just falling asleep, and then after that it’d be fine. I could wake up, go to the washroom, whatever, it’s fine, I could go back to sleep. But after that big night of the sleepy pill not working, then even when I fall asleep I would be woken up by, I don’t know, I have children, they would wake us up sometimes or my partner snoring, that would wake me up. And that would be like, oh my God, now what if I can’t fall asleep? So I’ll hold onto that, which obviously is not the way to fall back asleep, but a lot of people out there they probably don’t know the best is just to let go, which is also the hardest thing to do.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, right. Yeah. It’s so easy to say that, isn’t it? Oh just let go. Just don’t think of anything, think positive. But yeah, actually doing it is very difficult. So you touched on this before that when we have a problem we try and fix it. So you obviously tried some different things before finding this collection of tools, which we’ll definitely discuss that you did find helpful. But before you got to that point where you were actually doing stuff that looking back, this was what was really truly the good stuff, the goal that was really helpful. What kind of things had you tried to try and turn things around that on reflection perhaps one that helpful, maybe even ended up being a bit of a distraction?

Vicky Chiu:
Ooh, there’s probably many. I would say it was just more a stress around preparing for sleep. So I would do a lot of yin yoga or yoga nidra, but it was a way to relax, but then I got stressed out like, oh, I need to set aside at least half an hour before going to sleep so I can do my yoga and stretches or meditation. And I think that was a bit of a distraction because I’m already creating that worry pre-bedtime. And then if let’s say I can’t get that in because the night was just so crazy, then the level of stress would be kicked up a notch, right? So, those things are good, but then I don’t know, for someone who has trouble sleeping might not be. At least for me, it was more of a distraction, like you said. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, yeah. I think it just comes down to intent, right? Because like you said, all these things, they’re not necessarily harmful, but anything that we do with the goal of generating sleep, we are just putting more pressure on ourselves and it takes away the whole purpose of whatever we’re doing. So many of my clients, they talk about meditation, relaxation techniques and stuff like that. And certainly I’m never going to say, don’t do that. It’s a bad thing. How can that be a bad thing? But if we are doing it, we’ve got this really set rituals, like half an hour before bed, I have to do this meditation routine or this breathing exercise, we’ve got to do it in order to make sleep happen or to help me feel more relaxed for sleep to happen.

We just immediately making ourselves less relaxed because we’re putting all this pressure on ourselves to first of all do this routine or ritual. If we don’t, like you said, then we become really worried. Now I missed that opportunity. And second of all, the whole time we are doing it that we’re trying to let go, we’re trying to relax, we’re trying to be more present, we’re doing it with the goal of influencing something that’s going to happen in the future that we have no control over. So it really becomes self-defeating. And I think that’s where we can really get tripped up with all this sleep hygiene stuff that is so prevalent out there. I think it can be helpful as a preventative thing, maybe if we’re burning the candle at both ends, but other than that we sleep great then yeah, sure, let’s do an unwinding time.

Let’s just make sure the temperature of our bedroom is optimal, for example. But if we are dealing with chronic insomnia, no amount of sleep hygiene is going to help. And it can actually be more of a hindrance because we end up just adding more of these rituals and more of these sleep efforts to our lives and when they don’t work, which is actually to be expected, then we can more worries. It’s like when that pill doesn’t work, right? Oh, this sleep hygiene everyone’s telling me about, even that’s not working. I must be truly unique and truly broken. But it’s normal and it’s to be expected. We just want to get to that point where we are not engaged in all those efforts or we just drop that struggle.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. Honestly, I’ve used everything and all of the tools around better sleep, relaxing, just does not work for me, at least within insomnia. The blue light cancellation glasses, all the different supplements you can think of. Vitamins, magnesium, melatonin. Yeah, there’s lots of supplements. And that was in itself stressful. Like, oh, I’ve got to take this 30 minutes before bedtime and sometimes I would forget. I’m like, oh no, then get out of bed and go get those supplements and eat that and then it doesn’t work. And so it creates a whole level of anxiety again, which it’s just the effort that you put into it that you’re not supposed to. But yeah, you just don’t realize that you’re doing all of that stuff.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, and it’s understandable why we would do that, right? Because when we have a problem, we want to put effort into the solution. But unfortunately sleep is this unique thing where it doesn’t respond well to effort. So the more we try, the more we struggle. That’s really what it comes down to. So when we think about it, what’s our brain’s number one job? It’s to look out for us, it’s to protect us. So it’s going to generate all these difficult thoughts, these difficult feelings and emotions, not to make us feel bad, but to actually look out for us to try to help us, to help us look for a solution, to help us live the life we want to live, to be aware of threats and risks. None of us would be alive today if our brain didn’t do that. But when we’re really struggling, the brain goes into overdrive.

It tries so hard to help us that it actually ends up getting in the way. And I think the more we engage in those efforts to change how we feel, sometimes then the brain thinks, you’re not listening to me. Why are you not listening to me? This is serious. And so it screams even louder at us. It generates even more intense and difficult thoughts and feelings. And the more we try to make sleep happen, the more we reinforce to the brain that, wow, this wakefulness is serious. It’s a real threat. Maybe it’s a danger. You’ve got to be alert during the night to protect me from being awake. And then as soon as we’re telling the brain to be alert for wakefulness, it’s going to make it difficult because we all recognize that an alert brain probably isn’t going to be helpful if our goal is to sleep.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. So true. Yeah. Then your bed and your pillow turns into something that’s an alert for your brain instead of, it’s time to relax. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, exactly. As far as your brain’s concerned, there’s this imaginary 600 pound gorilla just sitting on your bed waiting to maul you, as soon as you climb in. The brain just can’t tell the difference between a real physical threat like that gorilla on the bed and this perceived threat, which is wakefulness.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. It’s funny because I had no problem if we’re on the couch watching a movie and I’d doze off, that’d be okay. Or sometimes when I meditate I can easily fall asleep. But when it comes to real bedtime and then putting your head on that pillow, it’s like your heart starts to pump and then your brain just starts going. So that’s so true. It’s interesting how that all works. But yeah.

Martin Reed:
It really is interesting. I agree with you. And again, it just comes down to that, the brain looking out for us really. So before, to use your example, let’s say you’re watching TV earlier in the evening, you know it’s not time to go to bed. So you’re not trying to make sleep happen. You’re not trying to avoid being awake at night. There’s no effort, there’s no pressure. So you really feel that sense of sleepiness when it’s time to go to bed. It’s okay, you flipped that switch. Now you’re donning that suit of armor. It’s battle time. I’ve got to avoid being awake. I’ve got to make sure I fall asleep in a certain amount of time. I’ve got to make sure I don’t wake up. All this pressure that we are putting on ourselves and the brain’s trying its hardest to protect us.

We’re probably not going to feel sleepy. It’s like anytime we’re going into battle, we’re not going to feel sleepy. It’s really, we want to get to a point where we’re just dropping that battle, which is hard to do. Because all of our instincts are telling us, avoid this wakefulness, we need sleep to happen. It feels so good to get that sleep. It feels so good to have those thoughts that you can sleep and not to deal with all these thoughts that it’s going to be another one of those nights. But the more we struggle with sleep and those thoughts and feelings, unfortunately the more we get tangled up in that struggle and that battle.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
So let’s talk about some of the stuff that you did and was the reason why we’re talking today. I don’t have a set list or anything. I’d love to just hear your thoughts on things that you did find helpful, that helped you over the longer term. Maybe were really difficult in the short term, but actually proved to be helpful over the longer term.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, like I said before, I found your podcast and started listening to that one lady and then that led me to listening to the other ones too. And in general I found a common pattern and it’s like I wasn’t the only one and it’s everyone out there and most of these people are chronic insomniacs, right? So then I went into more research around your podcast and the stuff that you do, the work that you did. And then I signed up for your emails, which then you started sending me the day one to day seven daily emails, which were really good, helpful tips. So that combined with the podcast, I started to realize some more things and then I had a really good psychologist that I go to. So I started talking to her.

And then she also had some live, in-person workshops, not around insomnia but just around anxiety and worry, which is closely related. And just really getting out there to talk to someone really helped. And a group of people too that she hosted was really helpful. Just to have people that are in the same path and in the same boat really helps just to even talk about it. And then you also mentioned a lot about CBT-I, which is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. And I got help with that too. But yeah, just really at the end of the day, you can get all these tools, but you just have to work on it yourself too. When it comes to nighttime, that’s the hardest part. It was difficult, not going to lie, but it’s short-term pain, long-term gain. The idea of, or the thought of not being able to sleep still, I still think about it every night just because it’s just been this ingrained neural path in my brain that’s stayed with me or been with me for maybe 25 years now.

But the key is you just relearn that if I actually let go, I can fall asleep. And if I don’t, I’m still going to function and I’m still going to be that mother that can take care of my kids. It’s not going to be the end of the world. I’m not going to accidentally kill them. Your brain is really good at thinking catastrophically. You just make it so bad or seem like it’s going to be so bad. But really when you’re actually doing it the next day, it’s like, yeah, you’re going to feel drowsy and maybe not at your best, but you’re not just going to be at your worst. So those tips really helped a lot.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And that catastrophizing, what’s the brain doing there is just trying to look out for you, always wants to present the worst case scenario just to make sure that you listen and that we take steps to avoid that from happening. And sometimes, well probably most of the time, that’s really helpful. We’re going to cross the street, make sure you look both ways. What if you get mowed down, your family’s all going to starve, then you’re not going to be there for them, et cetera, et cetera. And it makes us look both ways. Great. Thanks brain. But when it comes to stuff like sleep that we have no control over, those thoughts can be really difficult and we can easily get really tangled up in them and believe that they’re 100% true. Think of them as facts, think of them as a reflection of who we are. Think of them as an obstacle to the kind of person we want to be.

But the truth is, it’s just the brain looking out for us. And sometimes just acknowledging that, sometimes just really simply just being like, okay, thanks brain. Thanks for looking out for me. And just letting that sit, not trying to push it away, not trying to tell the brain, don’t try and protect me, don’t try and look out for me, but just let that thought just sit next to you. Just redirect your focus and your attention elsewhere. And you said letting go, just to clarify, by letting go, do you just mean dropping that struggle, trying to push or avoid certain thoughts or feelings or? I’d just like to hear your thoughts more on what you mean by that, and if someone’s listening that’s like, yeah, I’d love to let go. How do I do that?

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, no, that’s a great question actually. For me, when I start to feel that anxiety, which I still do on some days, there’s just one of those days, maybe once a week I’ll get that, I can’t sleep, I have a big day tomorrow. So when I start to feel that during bedtime, I would just let it in. I would try to feel it. Be like, okay, like talking to your brain, but okay, anxiety, thank you for warning me, thank you for coming in and dropping in.

And before when I felt so anxious, it was that right away feeling like, oh my God, I need this to go, right? But now it’s like, you still want to do that, but instead you just invite it and just be like, okay, let me feel all the anxiety right now, just to accept it. And then when you do, it feels heard or seen or something. And then it’s like, oh, okay, well she’s listening to me and now I can let go. So for me, that’s how the process works, is just to feel it and stop pushing it away because the more you resist, the harder it comes through. So yeah, just to accept it and then it just eases out and that’s when you can let it go.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So, let me ask this. Do you find that when you’re really caught up in really anxious thoughts and feelings, you mentioned that in the past you even experienced panic attacks. Do you find that when we’re really experiencing a lot of anxiety, it feels like it’s just going to get more and more intense, right? It’s just going to keep ratcheting up and getting worse and worse and worse until something awful happens. But in reality, and sometimes it can be helpful to just recognize this, that it does eventually reach a plateau. It’s like a wave in the ocean. That wave can grow and grow and grow and it looks like it’s just going to wash over you and take you down. But eventually it does recede a little bit.

This wave can’t grow indefinitely. It does get really high and then fall again. And then sure it might come back and get a little bit higher or get almost as high, but then it goes down again. But do you think it’s helpful just recognizing and acknowledging that this is starting to feel really unpleasant, but maybe I can just ride it out. As long as I can try and let go and just drop that struggle, sooner or later that wave is going to reach its maximum height and it will start to fall back down again?

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s exactly what I do by accepting it and riding the wave. It’s just the more you just let it do its thing, it will come down eventually. And for me, it’s always came down. It’s like this too shall pass like everyone says. So yeah, and I do now for sure get out of bed when I do feel anxious. So my brain does not relate my bed as a place of anxiety. So I’ll just get out of bed and go to my little meditation place and just sit there for a little bit and just ride that out. But once I’m out of that bed and I let myself feel all the emotions or anxiety, things tend to calm down and sometimes it may not. I’ll try that whole cycle maybe 2, 3, 4 or five times a night. But I’ll just repeat that whole cycle again and again and just get out of bed, ride it out, get out of bed, ride it out, go back to bed kind of thing. So that’s the technique now.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. And I think if nothing else, the reason why I like this idea of just getting out of bed when it doesn’t feel good to be in bed is it just gives us the opportunity to make being awake, we’re awake anyway, it just gives you that opportunity to make being awake a bit more pleasant. So instead of just being engaged in that battle of trying to make sleep happen, tossing and turning all that unpleasantness, how about we just do something that makes being awake more pleasant. That not only makes being awake a little bit more tolerable, but again, it comes back to training the brain that, oh, maybe being awake isn’t a danger. Maybe it’s not this physical threat that it might be because you’re actually enjoying this wakefulness. So maybe I don’t have to be quite so alert to protect you from being awake at night. And that in turn, obviously creates better conditions for sleep to happen.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. So I love that we’ve talked a lot about this letting go and dealing with that anxiety. Again, I think people listening to this are going to be, yeah that makes total sense. Maybe they’ve tried this, I’ve tried allowing this worry, this anxiety to happen, but still struggling with it, still finding sleep difficult. I think it’s helpful to emphasize that this is a whole new way of developing a relationship with our thoughts and our feelings and our emotions. And so I think it takes time. It’s not just going to be, all right, I’m really struggling tonight. Okay, I’m going to allow these thoughts, these feelings, and then suddenly we feel better or suddenly we fall asleep. I’d just like to hear your experience a little bit more on that process. Was there a lot of practice? Was it really challenging? How long was it taking you to notice a change in the effect of difficult thoughts on how you felt and how you slept?

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. On my end with my experience, it took a longer time just because I had also goals of tapering off the pill. And so it started in September. I went to seek help around November and then I didn’t actually get medical help until December-ish, and it was just the slow process of trying to accept each idea one at a time. So it would be like letting go would be a big one. But then that aside, I was always taking the pill too just to… So the sleep doctor that I was talking to was like, don’t try to just do everything all at once because that might be a huge stress on you just to sleep and that’s not what we want. So we did little baby steps at a time and the longest one was just trying to taper off the sleeping pill, which it was a good technique but it took long. It would be like, find one night in this whole week that you think or you just try without the sleeping pill.

So it’d be maybe more a weekend where I can have a really bad night of sleep or no sleep at all, and then I’ll be okay because I’ve got my partner around to take care of the kids or whatever. And then if I’m confident for one night a week, then I would move on to the next week, which would be two nights in the week where I’m going to try no sleeping pill. But it’s not every week I would jump or go to three and four or five nights. If I’m only confident at two, I would stick to two nights every week until I built that confidence and then I’ll go to three nights. So that dragged for a long time until, I don’t know, it suddenly happened that there was one night I forgot even to take it when I was supposed to because they make you track stuff on a worksheet and I didn’t really track it anymore and then I forgot about it and then I woke up the next morning, I was very happy that I was able to just even forget.

And now I’ve developed this thought that, or realization maybe, we should call that, is when I do take the pill it will take the worries in whatever away and the trying and the anxiety. But when I wake up in the morning, I feel just as crappy as maybe having no sleep. I was like, it’s not worth it. It’s kind of the same, if I’m not going to sleep good tonight or take it, I’m going to feel the same the next day. So I just decided not to. Sometimes you even feel better if you have a poor nights sleep without the pill I realized.

Martin Reed:
I love how we’ve talked about all these thought processes and that it’s difficult and that it takes time and that we’ve talked about when you come from a place where you’ve been taking medication for a long time, that there’s also another journey. It’s another challenge to move away from that. You touched upon the behavioral side of things in terms of getting out of bed to do something more appealing if being in bed doesn’t feel good. Something that a lot of people with chronic insomnia can do in a bid to chase sleep or make sleep happen is just spending a lot more time in bed than maybe they ever did in the past. So we might go to bed earlier because we just feel really fatigued and we want more sleep to happen. So we might go to bed earlier or stay in bed later in the morning and often that’s one of these things that can actually perpetuate the sleep disruption because we end up going to bed before we’re sleepy enough for sleep.

We can stay in bed in the morning all different times, which can be disruptive to our body clock. And if we get out late in the morning, get out of bed late in the morning, we’re going to be awake for less time during the day to build up that sleep drive to help us sleep the following night. So we see often it’s suggested to a lot, a little bit less time for sleep, spend an amount of time in bed that’s a bit closer to what your current circumstances are, the amount of sleep you’re currently averaging. Was this something that was relevant to you in your experience or was it a change that you made? I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experience with that.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, it was very relevant. I was told the same thing is to sleep around the time you are sleepy, because everyone has their natural biological clock for sleeping and waking up. And we had to figure out when my sleep time was and when my awake time was. And it was a bit more of a strict plan at first because it’s trying to train the brain, do some new things and to adapt. So it was for me, sleep around 11 and then would wake up at around 6:30.

And I say strict because I would do that on the weekends as well for a little bit, I don’t know, until I was just used to it. But yeah, the sleep doctors also told me, you still have to live your life and you’re going to have those weekends where people are coming over or you’re going over to a friend’s house or we have parties and weddings and all that stuff.

So those things need to be okay too in your life. Because if you stick with this strict plan, then that’s going to start to stress you out if you have other things in life that come in. And that is exactly what I was thinking and I had that question on my mind too. Like, well if this is my life, then it would suck, right? I’m going to be missing out on stuff. But at first it’ll be a little bit strict or at least it was for me. And then after it’s like, once that confidence came in and the routine was like, I can actually do this then it really worked.

Martin Reed:
What you said there is really helpful because it can be helpful or useful at first to have a more strict routine. I’m not going to allow myself to go to bed for example before 11 o’clock. So I want to make sure that I’m really sufficiently sleepy enough for sleep to happen and I want to try and make sure that I’m always out of bed around the same time every day in the morning to help anchor my biological body clock and to make sure that I’m giving my body enough time awake during the day to help build that sleepiness for the next night. But at the same time, we don’t want it to interfere with our life because ultimately what we do with our life, our actions are way more influential over the kind of life we live than how we sleep. It’s really what we do. So we don’t want to be like, oh I can’t go out with friends tonight because I’m not going to be able to go to bed at a certain time.
I’m not going to be able to do all this stuff that makes my life meaningful and rich because it might interfere with the plan or with the schedule. So I think it can be helpful in the short term, maybe be a little bit stricter just to get those early results, to start feeling that really strong sense of sleepiness, which can actually be really reassuring when that returns because we can just be so used to that feeling of fatigue, just grogginess and feeling worn down, which isn’t the same as sleepiness. When that sense of sleepiness comes back, it can be really reassuring. And when we notice all the improvements, then we can be a little bit less strict with ourselves and just be like, I’ll aim to make sure I’m not going to bed before a certain time, but if I feel really sleepy before then, I’ll allow myself to go to bed then. If it’s the weekend, maybe I’ll allow myself to sleep in for half an hour or an hour. I think that’s a good process to follow. And it sounds like that’s what you found to be helpful for yourself.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, I’ve just been a lot more lenient in, especially weekends, be like I can sleep in a bit more. It would be the one hour sleep in more. And again, it’s that confidence. I can sleep tonight and if I don’t, everyone has a bad night of sleep. Even the sleepers or people that are good sleepers, everyone has bad… That’s just natural. There’s nothing wrong with that and you just have to learn to accept that. And if you do have a bad night of sleep, you’re not going to not function. You can still function. So yeah, that’s reassuring.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Even when it feels like we just can’t function, even the most basic level, we can still breathe, we can still drink water, we can still eat. So it just comes down to, it’s that brain again, right? It’s just trying so hard to look out for us. It’s like, look, you got to make this, this has got to be fixed. We’re not going to be able to do anything. But the truth of the matter is, the brain tells us one thing, but we can still do other things. Our brain could tell us, don’t lift up your right hand, but we can still lift up our right hand. We still get to choose how we respond to all that stuff the brain is generating, but it takes practice. It’s really hard to separate ourselves from those thought processes because they can feel they are just so intense and they just feel so genuine and it’s so easy to just have that wave crash over us and just sweep us away. It really does take a lot of practice to change that relationship I think.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s not an easy fix, but it is fixable.

Martin Reed:
Are you telling me that you never have any difficult nights anymore?

Vicky Chiu:
No, I’m not saying that. For sure not. Even just last night it was difficult. I think at least there’s still one night out of the week where it’s not very bad, but I won’t get the ideal amount of sleep that I wanted, and it happens.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, I think it’s so important to just recognize that we all have difficult nights from time to time. So it’s a loaded question because I was secretly hoping that you were going to be honest and say that, yeah, I do still difficult nights from time to time because everyone does. I think what the change is, what the difference is, is your reaction to it. So instead of it being the default reaction, which is trying to battle with all those stressful thoughts and the anxiety that the brain is generating to try and help you out, changing our behaviors during the day, maybe canceling plans as a result and really getting caught up, tangled up in the struggle, what’s tonight going to bring? All that stuff.

The transformation happens when you realize that okay, I’ve had this difficult night or I’m having this difficult night. There are things I can do in response. So during the night I can do something a bit more appealing. If it doesn’t feel good to be in bed during the day, I don’t have to use all of my energy trying to push all these thoughts and emotions away. I can just let them sit and hang out for as long as they want whilst I still engage in doing stuff that helps me just live the kind of life I want to live. I think when we get to that point, that’s when we’ve truly put everything behind us and are whole. I just don’t think chronic insomnia can just no longer exist once we get to that point.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. And that’s a good point too about the schedule and stuff the next day. Something that was very important to me was not to do that, like not to cancel anything. If you had no sleep at all, say the night before and you had a whole calendar of stuff to do, just don’t cancel it. It’s still going to happen. I can still push through this. Makes a huge difference, because if you start canceling stuff, then that creates another load of anxiety at nighttime, then your brain associates, oh I have a big thing tomorrow, I must sleep. But then you’re not going to because you have a big thing tomorrow. So it’s like that spiral again. So I’ve learned to like, okay, I’m just going to deal with whatever I need to do the next day and it’s going to be hard, but whatever. And so now it’s all good again.

Martin Reed:
That’s one of those big changes that we can get to is just recognizing that, this week I would much rather be asleep. Nobody wants to be awake during the night. But just recognizing that that is out of our control. What do we still have control over? We still have control over our actions. So we can still do that stuff during the day. No doubt it’s probably going to be more difficult, it’s going to require more energy, but we can still do those things. When we’re faced with a struggle, we really only have two choices that we can make.

We can give up, withdraw from life, move away from the kind of life we want to live, or we can recognize what we don’t have control over, focus on what we do have control over and still commit. I think it does take a commitment to doing those things that are important to us, that help us move toward the kind of life we want to live. They might not feel as good. They might be more difficult because we’re not feeling as good as we otherwise might. But the most important thing is just that we are doing them. And I think that really is just so important.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah, absolutely. And just a little side note that I’ve… from this whole insomnia experience and being alone by myself at night really brought me to my spiritual side. So now I’m more like, well what is this? Why is this problem laid on me? What am I learning from this? And instead of why is this happening to me, it’s not fair being the victim, it’s like, well what is the gift on the other side? And I truly think a gift is just to share it and have someone listen to my story and be able to relate to it. So yeah, that was another big, aha moment I had at nighttime.

Martin Reed:
I’ve heard similar things like that before where people just feel once they’ve made this transformation that we’ve been talking about, where they actually can reflect back and think, I don’t necessarily think this had a 100% negative impact on my life. I think there might have actually been some good to it. This is probably sounding crazy to many people listening, how can any of this be good or have a positive side? But once we get to that point, we’re able to reflect back. I think the experience can change us perhaps in a way that can be really life enhancing for the future.

Vicky Chiu:
Yeah. For me at least, it definitely made me stronger mentally and definitely made me see the gift that was hidden. It was hard. I was the victim. I had all of that and I was depressed and it was hard, but at the end, I truly received it as a gift.

Martin Reed:
All right. Well Vicky, I’m really grateful for the time that you’ve spent with us today. I know that lots of people are going to find this discussion really helpful, but I do have one last question for you. It’s the same question I ask everyone at the end of these discussions, and it’s this, if someone with chronic insomnia is listening and they feel as though they’ve tried everything, they’re beyond help and they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Vicky Chiu:
I would have to say that I’ve definitely been there and I thought that there was no help for me and I felt lonely. But I would say and tell them that they’re definitely not alone because the theory that was taught by you, Martin, the Insomnia Coach, is something that really works. The cognitive and the brain and all of that stuff is that’s the key. And there’s plenty of help out there. And talk about it. Talk about your problems. Sometimes, like for me, I felt shameful at times, or everyone has good sleep. I’m the only one out there, so I shouldn’t really burden them with my problems. So the key is to seek help, I think. And I took from this experience as a lesson, again, I was destined to learn something about me. And yeah, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.

Martin Reed:
That’s great. I think that’s a positive note to end on. So thanks again for taking the time out your day to come onto the podcast, Vicky.

Vicky Chiu:
Thanks, and you’re doing wonderful work. You’re sharing other people’s story, which is amazing and I’m very grateful for you for that.

Martin Reed:
Thank you so much.

Vicky Chiu:
Thanks Martin.

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

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

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

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

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2 thoughts on “How Vicky changed her approach to insomnia when sleeping pills stopped working after 20 years (#43)”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been feeling so alone and depressed with this lately with my insomnia and sleeping pill addiction. So grateful to you both.

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