How Wayne improved his sleep by thinking of sleep as a friend that doesn’t need to be controlled (#36)

Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Wayne’s experience with insomnia began when he was preparing for his board exams. Because he needed to get up earlier than usual, he started going to bed earlier than usual. Unfortunately, this made it harder for Wayne to fall asleep — and, as a result, nights started to become stressful and he began to experience a lot of sleep-related anxiety.

In an effort to address this sleep disruption, Wayne started implementing a number of sleep hygiene rituals. He experimented with sleep supplements and started to record, analyze, and evaluate every aspect of his sleep. Unfortunately, these actions — although completely understandable — served only to perpetuate his insomnia.

Ultimately, Wayne got his sleep back on track by recognizing that sleep is a natural process that doesn’t require or respond well to effort. He started to go to bed later at night. He started to make some space for difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions rather than trying to fight them, and he reminded himself that sleep always happens in the end.

This process took time but today, Wayne thinks of sleep as a friend — not as an enemy or something to be feared. He no longer puts pressure on himself to sleep and he no longer puts any effort into sleep. As a result, he sleeps well and is living the kind of life he wants to live.

Click here for a full transcript of this episode.

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

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

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

Wayne Tan:
Thank you for having me.

Martin Reed:
I’m really excited to go through everything we’ve got planned to discuss, but we’re never going to get anywhere unless we start at the beginning, so let’s start there. If you could just give us an idea of when your sleep problems first began and what you think maybe caused those initial issues with sleep.

Wayne Tan:
Okay. Yeah. My sleep problems started back in March of 2020, right around the beginning of COVID. It all happened around the time when I was preparing for my board exams for optometry school. I remember at the time I had given myself a very strict bedtime that I wanted to meet in order to basically prepare myself, not only mentally and also academically for boards, but I wanted to have a good sleep schedule. Typically, I was a person who went to bed at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, a little bit later. You could consider me a night owl, but for this exam that I was preparing for, I had to get up basically around 6:30 or 7:00. To me, that was very daunting. I told myself I need to get the bed by 11:00 at the latest. I put this pressure on myself to really get to bed around that time. That was around March when the test was going to be. That’s when it all started.

Martin Reed:
Okay. What were those nights like when you started to experience those sleep disruption? Was it difficulty first falling asleep? Because I’m guessing that from what you said, you started to go bed a little bit earlier in order to try and make up for the fact that you’re going to be also waking up a bit earlier. Were you having issues falling asleep or was it more to do with waking during the night and then finding it hard to fall back to sleep? Or maybe it was the double whammy and a little bit of both.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah, it was a little bit of both, but mainly, for me, personally, it was falling asleep. If I fell asleep, most of the time, I could get through the night. Those nights were very stress driven and there was just a lot of anxiety that surrounded the nights. I can still specifically remember the night when it all started was about a week before the exam. I started taking sleep supplements to try to get to bed and even took NyQuil to try to get to bed.

Wayne Tan:
One night, I remember just taking some NyQuil and not being able to fall asleep. This panic kind of set in, thinking to myself, “What if this was exam night? I would not be able to sleep and I’m tired. I’m on beds and I’m not falling asleep.” I think my sleep… My relationship and my thought about sleep kind of broke down there, but most of my nights, to answer your question, were just difficulty falling asleep when I would spend upwards of two, three hours to fall asleep. Some days I couldn’t fall asleep until like 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning.

Martin Reed:
Wow. Yeah. I think one of the big challenges with insomnia is not only does it affect us at night, but it really can affect us during the day too. It’s like this thing that’s seems to be with us 24 hours a day. How were you finding it… If anything, were you finding that it was affecting your days as well? What were your days like when you were going through this struggle with sleep?

Wayne Tan:
I think in the beginning, before I went through all of my treatment, my thought about how my day was was very much to how I slept that night. If I’d only slept two or three hours, it just kind of… I just got this idea in my head that my day was going to be terrible, was going to be tiring. The days were just harder because I think I had put that impression on myself and that’s how it was. It was difficult, the days that I didn’t get sleep. You kind of spend your day kind of thinking about it, and it was quite consuming to go through it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You kind of touched upon it already in terms of the supplements and the over-the-counter stuff. Were there any other kind of things that you tried to get your sleep back on track or to fix this issue before you started implementing these behavior-change techniques, which we’ll talk about in a moment, that on reflection, you now think those probably weren’t that helpful, “All these things that I did”. Can you think of anything else that you’ve tried?

Wayne Tan:
Yeah, I spent a lot of time researching the internet and there were a lot of sleep hygiene things that were recommended. One of the biggest ones was just kind of removing yourself from any screen time before bed. I even got one of those lights that mimicked UV rays that I would kind of just shine at myself during the day to I guess, try to build my circadian rhythm, but all along, I wanted… I was always afraid of getting into a habit of depending on any substance in order to fall asleep. I actually, for the most part, stayed away from the supplements after I’ve developed this chronic insomnia.

Wayne Tan:
Then in the beginning, I was relying on it, but I think I grew fairly afraid of taking anything internally. I even saw a sleep specialist and they recommended me to have a sleep study and she prescribed, I believe it was Tramadol for me for the nights that I can’t sleep to fall asleep. I remember filling the prescription and to this day, I’ve only ever had half of a pill and never touched that stuff.

Wayne Tan:
I tried to stay away from it, but aside from that, I tried a lot of different things, trying to meditate before bed. I just felt like I was creating a lot of ritual around bed. It became almost like a obsessive worship of it. I think after going through the treatment with you, I’ve kind of… You helped me discover that although those things are good on their own that my obsessiveness with it actually made it counterintuitive and didn’t help me as it should. Another thing that I would do was I would have these “down times” right before bed. For a while, I thought there were working for me, so there were nights when I didn’t get to have my ritualistic downtime. I always thought to myself, “Uh-oh, this is the night that I won’t be falling asleep.”

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I remember when we were working together, this was one of the things we discussed, how your insomnia followed this really predictable path. You know how we have this actual model for the development of insomnia, the 3P model, where the first P is predisposition. Some of us are just predisposed not necessarily to chronic insomnia, but just to temporary sleep disruption from time to time. In your case, for example, recognizing that you’re a strong night owl and then knowing that you’re going to have to change your routine, that can trigger some temporary sleep disruption, which is the second P the precipitating event, whatever it is that triggers the sleep disruption. Again, really clear for you. You’re like this model textbook case, right?

Wayne Tan:
Yeah.

Martin Reed:
You were doing your studying, you had the exams, you had to get up earlier, a whole different schedule to what your body was used to. Normally, probably more than nine times out of 10, when whatever that trigger is is no longer relevant or we’ve adapted to it, our sleep just gets back on track. But if it doesn’t, that’s where that third P comes into play. It’s all these perpetuating factors.

Martin Reed:
This is just a symptom of being a human being that wants to fix problems. We do things like going to bed earlier, maybe even staying in bed later on the weekends to try and catch up on sleep on napping during the day, doing all that research, rituals, experiments, all that stuff that is done with the best of intentions and seems quite logical when we’re doing them, but they kind of backfire on us and they can end up making sleep more difficult. They perpetuate the problem.

Martin Reed:
I’d like to just talk about that. I like to just mention that model because it helps us recognize that what we’re experiencing isn’t unique and that there are those perpetuating factors that we can influence and we can control. Although we can’t control sleep itself, we can definitely control our behaviors in a way that helps create better conditions for sleep, removes any of those behaviors that might be perpetuating sleep disruption. We can also do things that explore our relationship with our sleep-related thoughts and just sleep itself that can help tackle those perpetuating factors too.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. It’s funny, you mentioned that. People are typically problem solvers, so when you have a problem, you try to solve it. That really speaks to my character. I’m always a person when I see a problem, there’s got to be a solution. You got to go and figure out the solution. I’m in medicine, so that is even ingrained in me and trained since I was a student to kind of look at it that way. I think for me hat was really the perpetuating factor.

Wayne Tan:
I guess I just spent so much time thinking about how to fix the problem when in fact the solution is to really forget about it. Even though that was told to me, it was such a hard thing for me to let go, to actually let go of the problem and just trust that it’s kind of a thing that you can’t try to put effort into sleep. That really speaks to me. Sorry, could you repeat the last question that you asked?

Martin Reed:
Yeah. I was just summarizing how in cases of insomnia, they’re pretty much identical from person to person. Although our individual circumstances can be unique, the insomnia itself usually isn’t and how your experience was almost like this textbook example. You’ve got these clear predisposing factor, this clear precipitating factor and then all these clear perpetuating factors, so this desire to fix a problem, which is this human trait. Especially when we have kind of a very analytical mind or a very scientific mind.

Martin Reed:
We can get tripped up here because everything in life responds well to effort. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t usually respond well to effort apart from sleep. Our brain is naturally telling us you’ve got to put effort into sleep here. You’ve got to try to sleep. You’ve got to make sleep happen. You’ve got to control sleep. You’ve got to get a certain amount of sleep, a certain type of sleep. Do it, make it happen. As soon as we put that effort in, that’s when we tend to get caught up in the struggle because sleep doesn’t respond her to effort or to pressure.

Martin Reed:
The only thing that can make sleep happen is being awake for long enough. That really is all we can do, but that’s not to say… Just like you touched upon, it’s hard to say, “Okay, I just need to stop trying. I need to stop putting effort into it,” because we naturally want to fix a problem. This is why I think these behavioral change techniques can be helpful because they still give us an outlet for that effort. We’ve still got tasks that we can do that help create better conditions for sleep. We’re kind of redirecting our efforts in a more constructive and positive way on setting the stage for sleep rather than trying to make sleep happen.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. That reminds me of something that we were working on. For me, thinking about sleep during the day was a really big problem for me. Something you told me to do was kind of limit yourself, kind of allow yourself to still think about it, but set a window for yourself to… I don’t remember how much time you allotted me, but it was like 15 minutes or 20 minutes a day where I’m allowed to think and research sleep as much as I want. But after that point you, you just got to let it go.

Wayne Tan:
I think that was also really, really helpful. Another thing that I was obsessively doing was kind of keep focusing on the numbers during the nights and tracking the sleep efficiency and how much sleep I was getting per night. I think there came a point when you were like, “Just forget about keeping track of the numbers and just let it happen.” I think that was a really big turning point for me was just learning to let all of it go.

Martin Reed:
The tracking can really be like this double edged sword because when I’m working with clients, many clients find it helpful to just start filling out some sleep journals just with best guesses, which is what I always encourage. If someone’s going to start filling out a sleep diary of when they went to bed, how much time they think they spent awake, for example, things like this, I always encourage them to just use your best guess because we don’t want you to be checking the time throughout the whole night getting, “I was awake for 17 and a half minutes at 3:07 AM.” Things like that, not helpful because we have to be alert to be able to record all those things.

Martin Reed:
If we’re giving the brain all those tasks, we’re not creating good conditions for sleep. Some clients just don’t find it helpful at all. They really benefit from just not even keeping any kind of sleep log and every week or two, just thinking, “How do I feel I did over the past couple of weeks? That’s just fine too because sleep is so subjective anyway. One person would feel great after five hours of sleep. One person would feel terrible after five hours of sleep. The numbers themselves don’t really matter. All that really matters is how we feel about our sleep. We really don’t have to be that analytical about tracking it and it just…

Martin Reed:
It’s one of those things that can just draw more attention to sleep, especially if we get hooked into using all those activity tracking devices with the apps and stuff. First thing, we do in the morning is check all the data. Another reason why they sometimes can trip us up is there’s not really anything we can do with that information anyway. If you learn that you’ve got X amount of a certain sleep stage, for example, well, there’s nothing you can do to change your sleep architecture. If it tells you you’ve been awake for a certain amount of time during the night, there’s not really anything you can do in response to actually cut that down. We can influence things, but we can’t actually directly control any of that information. Really it’s just extra external noise that we have to deal with.

Wayne Tan:
I’m glad that you said that sleep is subjective from person to person. Going back to what I said earlier, in the beginning, when I would get like two hours of sleep, I would just say to myself, “Today is going to be a terrible day. I will say one benefit that I got from going through all of the chronic insomnia was I’ve learned to live life normally with just a few hours of sleep. These days I don’t really let myself get influenced by that.

Wayne Tan:
For the most part, I get really good sleep, but there occasionally comes a day or two when not even that I can’t fall asleep, but there are just… I’m busy with work or whatever the circumstances, and then I’m not getting as much sleep as I like. Those days really don’t influence me the way they used to because I realized that I can function really well even if it’s just a few hours of sleep. The people who learn to live… Insomniacs are people who are really good at going through their day with minimal sleep.

Wayne Tan:
That is something that… It’s how you kind of view your sleep, your relationship about sleep. I think this program really did teach me to kind of really view your sleep. It’s something that you… Sometimes you can do it on your own, but I felt like I was one of those people who needed a guidance in kind of changing my mindset about how I viewed it.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Let’s talk about that a little bit more because I remember when we first started working together. It was over a year ago now. I think it was like a year and three months or something like that. When you first came to me, you said that you had been implementing CBT-I techniques, but you felt a little bit frustrated or you weren’t getting the result you were hoping for. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What kind of techniques, first and foremost, were you implementing and for how long? What was it about the process that you felt unhappy or uncomfortable with?

Wayne Tan:
I initially was doing sleep journaling and just keeping really, really good records about how I slept, how much I slept, what time I went to bed, my sleep efficiency. It was all color coded. It was something like a person’s who’s problem solving would do. Limiting my sleep was kind of also part of it. I have to say that it was helpful and that there were days when I would get my seven, eight hours of sleep. I think that became my issue. My biggest issue that I ran into was not getting very consistent results. I think I was the person to blame for that because I would get good stretches of sleep, maybe three or four days where I would fall asleep within 15, 20 minutes.

Wayne Tan:
Then I would kind of relax on my restrictions a bit thinking, “You know what? I think I’m good. I think I’ve reached that point.” Sometimes just getting out of that too early became my issue. Not only that, but there was still a lot of, I guess, bad views that I had of sleep that still lingered in my mind about it. I think ultimately for insomnia to finally go away, it really was changing your mindset about how you viewed sleep. I think that that was some… I needed you to help me with that.

Martin Reed:
Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Because everyone listening to this is going to be like, “I recognize that I probably do need to change my mindset about sleep and my relationship with sleep, but how do we do that?” Do you have any tips for people listening to this? How were you able to do that?

Wayne Tan:
It’s such a simple phrase that you said to me, but, but it really stuck to me. It was like sleep is always going to win in the end. You’re going to fall asleep. It’s harder to try to stay awake for an extended amount of time than it is to sleep. You are naturally going to sleep. That’s something you can’t fight. It will happen. Maybe it doesn’t happen tonight, but it’s sure going to happen eventually. I guess that confidence that you have that sleep will come is what you really need because a person who’s not suffering from insomnia, they have a ton of confidence that sleep is going to come every night they lay down, maybe not instantly, but it’s going to come.

Wayne Tan:
People going through insomnia, what they lose is that confidence that sleep is going to come. Like I said, it’s a such a simple phrase that you said, but the nights when I lay there on, when my mind is racing and I’m wondering, “Am I going to sleep tonight? How is my day going to be if I don’t sleep?” That phrase pops up again and I remind myself sleep is going to come. You can try to fight it, but it will always win in the end.

Martin Reed:
That’s just something we cannot deny. It’s just a fact. No matter how entrenched our insomnia is we can always remember times when we have got some sleep, even if it’s just a couple of hours, because our body will always generate sleep, but yet when we’re really in the throes of insomnia, really struggling, our brains like to tell us, “Oh, you’ve had a difficult… You had no sleep last night. That means you’re going to have no sleep tonight and then no sleep the next night and no sleep the next night, but from a biological perspective, that cannot be true.

Martin Reed:
But it’s just our brain looking out for us. Our brain is there to protect us and do good for us, help us live the best life we can. It’s kind of like this really overly enthusiastic friend. It’s like, “Do this. You’re going to do great. How are you doing? Let’s do this. Let’s do that. How’s it going now?” It’s just trying so hard to help us out that it can kind of get in the way, but the truth is even when our brain is looking out for us and warning us that you had no sleep last night. “What if that happens again tonight? What if that happens the night after?”, the truth of the matter is that sleep always happens in the end. When we’ve been awake for long enough, we will always sleep. And that the body is always going to generate, at the very least, the minimum amount of sleep we need. It will always generate that.

Martin Reed:
Where we struggle to get more than the bare minimum is often down to those efforts. That human desire to get more sleep or to get better quality of sleep. When we get involved in that process, once the body has kind of generated that bare minimum, as soon as we then get involved, that’s when we can start disrupting that natural process because we’ve already got that bare minimum so the body can actually be awake now. When we get more than the bare minimum, it’s when we can take that step of removing ourselves from that process.

Wayne Tan:
I think there’s just pressure that you put on yourself. I think for me personally, that’s how it all started. Then that pressure turned into just my… The way I viewed sleep just morphed. Sleep is our friend and not something to be afraid of, but it became something that I was afraid of. I dread going to bed at night and laying there with the possibility of not falling asleep. I think what ultimately has to take place is you have to not be afraid of it anymore and see it as a friend that it’s always been in your life and that there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just your perception of sleep has changed.

Martin Reed:
A lot of clients that I work with find it helpful to just reframe the process of going to bed instead of this being now it’s time for sleep. It can just be now it’s time to just relax and rest, just changing the goal because as soon as you make sleep the goal, we’re more likely to put pressure on ourselves. We’re more likely to put effort into the process, these things aren’t helpful, but if we just make… I’m just going to go to bed, rest, relax, see what happens, sometimes that can create those better conditions for sleep because we’re helping to remove our goals and our expectations from that process.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. I remember even reading research papers on how there were studies where people were told to try to sleep as quickly as they can, and in the control group, they were just told to sleep. The people who were told simply to sleep slept quicker, whereas the people who were told to actively try to sleep ended up spending more time than they would normally average would spend trying to get to sleep. Sleep, it’s just one of those things just really cannot require effort.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really interesting study, that one, and I like to refer to that one with a lot of the clients that I work with. As soon as we do try, that’s when we struggle the most. In that study you mentioned, I think it was maybe even like college students that slept great. They chose the healthiest people they could find, the people that generally set the best, but as soon as they said, “Right, we’ll give you like $100 or whatever to whoever falls asleep the fastest,” oh man, there was no sleep happening in that group anymore because of that effort.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
We’ve talked a lot about the cognitive side, the mind side of things. That’s definitely a big part of the puzzle. We also touched upon a couple of those behavioral changes like you started to allot a little bit less time for sleep. Instead of starting to go to bed really early, maybe start going to bed a little bit later, just to reduce that opportunity for long periods of wakefulness and to build up that biological sleep drive, that natural urge, that pressure to sleep because you’re going to be a wait for longer. Were there any other techniques on the behavioral side that you found to be particularly helpful?

Wayne Tan:
The idea of going to bed later and spending less time in bed, that definitely does work. I was kind of a skeptic at first. It just seemed so counterintuitive, but it really works there. I don’t remember there was much… I feel like now that so much time has passed since my initial struggle with it, it seems like such a distant past, but I don’t really recall… Aside from just kind of having all these different rituals, which really wasn’t helpful for me, sometimes I like to drink tea at night. I cut that out of my life after I think 5:00. That was something I did, but now that everything’s gone back to normal, I realized that it doesn’t really help no matter how much tea I drink. I can still go to bed because that’s normal for me. I can sleep just fine. That is more of a hygiene than anything.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Exactly. I think everyone listening to this is going to identify with those rituals that we try, especially all this sleep hygiene stuff, which isn’t usually helpful once we are at that stage, where we’ve got the chronic insomnia because this is now… We’re in the stage where it’s all those perpetuating factors that are at play. Often those perpetuating factors include all the rituals, “I’m going to try and meditate my way to sleep. I’m going to try this supplement. I’m going to try this tea,” or, “I’m going to take stuff away. I’m going to stop drinking coffee in the morning. I’m going to stop eating a certain food that I really enjoy just in case that could be influencing things.”

Martin Reed:
Just being able to abandon all those rituals, even if it doesn’t seem to have a direct change or influence on your sleep, first and foremost, in the short term, I have clients that tell me, “Wow, it just fell so liberating just to be able to remove all of that stuff and just make the approach of bedtime less this list of chores that I have to do, that I have to implement. I’ve kind of got that time back now.”

Wayne Tan:
Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, it’s liberating. It also kind of frees you in a way that you’re not really dependent on it. You really aren’t. You don’t need to do all of those things in order to fall asleep. When I was going through it, like I kind of briefly mentioned earlier I would, if didn’t get this ritual done, at the back of my mind, it just crept up as this question of, “Did I screw it up tonight?” It’s liberating to not have to think about those things and put all these restrictions on yourself. I think certainly there’s a place for them. You shouldn’t drink a giant cup of coffee before you go to bed. It’s certainly not going to be fuel for you to sleep, but it is very much of a behavioral, psychological battle that happens.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, definitely. You touched upon a good point there. Not only if we miss one of those rituals, that can in turn kind of lead to more worry. That, in effect, can make it more difficult, but even if we try implementing this new ritual or doing something new and then we feel like, “Oh yeah, this is working,” or, “I’m sleeping better now.” If we have a difficult night, then we start to worry that that new thing isn’t working anymore. We get caught up going down the rabbit hole of then looking for an alternative or looking for modifications. It can just be like this endless struggle and this… It can be this real distraction for a lot of people.

Wayne Tan:
And I absolutely did do that. I absolutely did that.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. You touched upon this earlier. You said that you found it helpful to just kind of ring fence some time during the day to just… Permission to worry or to freak out or to think about sleep as much as you wanted, just so that instead of it being just spread out across the entire day or trying to battle with those thoughts throughout the day… It can be helpful to set aside a little bit of time. Whenever these thoughts or worries crop up, you just be like, “Okay, I’ve noticed these thoughts or these worries cropping up. I’ll address that let’s say 3:00 this afternoon. I’ll give myself 15 minutes to just worry and think about sleep as much as I can.”

Martin Reed:
I think it can be helpful, like you touched upon, because it can help shift or just condense the amount of time we’re going to spend worrying down. But I think where it can also be really helpful… I don’t know if this was true for you or not in your experience, but I think it can be helpful as a way to recognize that although thoughts and worries can be difficult and uncomfortable, we don’t necessarily have to fear them or be afraid of them because they’re thought processes that the brain generating.

Martin Reed:
I think when we specifically allot time to worry, human nature is to try and push those thoughts and those emotions away. But when we are kind of giving our mind permission to generate those thoughts and worries for this set time during the day, I think that can be quite powerful as a way of helping us recognize that these are thoughts. They’re nothing more than that. They’re nothing less than that. They’re just thoughts that the brain wants to generate.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah, it is. Ironically, I’ve also applied that to my day-to-day life now when I have worries. There are some things that pop up in your personal life and you find yourself spending a lot of time thinking about. This is one thing that I’ve learned to just kind of give myself space to think about it. It’s okay, but not to really obsess. I think that is the key, not to spend your whole day thinking about it. Having that safe time set aside for yourself is important, not to shove it down because ultimately it’s difficult to tell somebody to just forget about your worries and it’ll go away. It’s difficult and you will learn that with time, but kind of being gentle and nice to yourself, I think, is really important to get through it. You have to be nice to yourself and taking away any opportunity to worry is not very nice.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. What I think would be helpful too is just recognizing… I touched one earlier that all these thoughts and worries are… It’s just your brain trying to look out for you, trying to take care of you. It’s not your brain trying to make you feel awful or miserable, although that can certainly be feelings that these thoughts can generate. I think just recognizing that the brain is looking out for us when it’s generating these thoughts and these feelings, they can definitely feel really uncomfortable.

Martin Reed:
But at the end of the day, we always get to choose our actions in response to them. We can choose to respond in a way that kind of leads to behaviors that we know, from our own experience, don’t usually make us feel better, don’t really help or we can try something new whereby we recognize, we acknowledge that, “Okay, my brain’s looking out for me, generating all these really difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions, but let’s see if I can take some actions that still help me move toward the kind of life I want to live, to implementing behaviors that might be different, might be helpful. Even though all these thoughts and feelings and emotions are present, even though they are difficult, let’s see if we can control our actions in a different way.”

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. Yeah. It is difficult. It was difficult living with insomnia. It felt like you were held down by weight. Changing your perspective on life really. It’s such a relief to be able to put down that weight.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, definitely. One thing that I know that you were keen to talk about, and I’d love to hear a little bit from you about it as well, was… Really what our conversation here has been out is how insomnia follows this common path. It’s pretty typical from person to person. The way we look to address those perpetuating factors is usually pretty similar from person to person. We look to change our behaviors in a way that create better conditions for sleep. We help to explore our relationship with all those thoughts and feelings and emotions that our brain is generating in an attempt to look out for us.

Martin Reed:
Insomnia is pretty much identical from person to person. The way we tackle it is usually pretty much identical from person to person. I believe that you used your experience dealing with chronic insomnia and changing behaviors and your relationship with thoughts to actually help someone else who was going through something similar. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Wayne Tan:
Yeah, yeah. I think ever since I’ve gone through this experience and I’m just… I spent a lot of time and also just kind of looking out to make sure that there are people who aren’t also suffering with this. I know it can be fixed and it’s a terrible thing to just kind of hold onto. Anytime I hear people talk about, “Oh, I’m not sleeping well,” I kind of pursue that and ask them about it, but there was a lady who was kind of going through something very similar to what I was going through at my church.

Wayne Tan:
The circumstances of how this started may be different, but our experiences are relatively similar and you could probably attest to that. But I just kind of spent what I knew about sleep. I think kind of going through and being done with insomnia has taught me how to communicate that with somebody who’s going through that. I think everybody knows and understands this relationship they have with sleep, but it’s only people who suffered through it who can communicate that.

Wayne Tan:
This is why I think these podcasts that you host are very important not just for people to understand that there’s people out there who are suffering like they are, but also to allow people like me, who’ve gone through it, to be able to express it in words. I think it’s very difficult sometimes to put into words, but this lady who was spending on the orders of three to four hours of just laying in bed tossing and turning, trying to get to bed. The way she was describing it to me still sounded really like really early stages where she’s really anxious about it.

Wayne Tan:
That anxiety around sleep was starting to build up. I knew it was a something close and dear to her heart because she brought it up in a prayer group. It was something that was concerning her and something that she wanted to get rid of. I taught her what I knew about sleep and trying to restrict her sleep, kind of the regimen that I went through, but then more importantly, it was kind of communicating with her about this relationship that we have with sleep and how really it’s her perception of it has changed. Ultimately, that’s what she has to kind of undo in order to get rid of it. I’m happy to say she’s gone through it and she’s done with it and now she’s sleeping as she normally does in seven, eight hours of sleep.

Martin Reed:
Wow.

Wayne Tan:
I think for people who are going through it, I want to say to them you can get through this. Not only that, this is something you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. There are days that I still worry about it, but then all of that relationship that I… And thoughts about sleep that I learned through it helps me get through those nights. It’ll not only help you, but also you can use that to help others get through these difficult times.

Martin Reed:
The reason why I love all these techniques is because they’re skills based really. We’re learning new skills and once we learn new skills, they’re with us forever. We can always just bring them back out anytime we find ourselves struggling again in the future, but I think you’re the first person I had on who’s told me that not only do you feel good because you’ve got all those techniques in your back pocket, but you’ve also been using them to help other people as well. I think that’s really powerful. That’s really interesting and exciting to hear.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. I work with patients and sometimes they’ll talk about their sleep. If I think that it’s something chronic, I always kind of mentioned cognitive behavioral therapy as a potential thing that they could look up and pursue because I really do believe in it. I will have to say in the beginning I was a bit of a skeptic because it’s like, “Well, how much can I really change just because of how I think about something or my behavior towards something?” But the mind is a very, very powerful thing.

Martin Reed:
Yeah, it really is. Well, one thing I’m curious about, so I’m guessing that some other people listening to this would be curious about too, is how you slept in the end on the night before all those exams. How was your sleep? I’m guessing that your performance was good enough. How did that all go in the end?

Wayne Tan:
I managed to pass boards. Board certified now, practicing in Philly, doing my residency in Philadelphia. My sleep, it did take a while, I would say, before I’ve finally kind of gone back to what I would say baseline to where I was getting my seven, eight hours of sleep. Maybe sometimes even nine if it’s a lazy day. These days, I am waking up earlier, like around 7:00, and going to bed around 11:00 or 12:00 just because your circadian rhythm is also very, very powerful. Ultimately, these days I can’t help but fall asleep when the certain time comes.

Wayne Tan:
I think that is something going through it you have to rebuild is your circadian rhythm and resetting it in a way that it works for you and not against you. But I can confidently say that I’m getting all the sleep that I’m satisfied with. I don’t need… I think for maybe about six months I was getting six and a half, six, occasionally seven, but I learned to be satisfied with whatever came. I think that’s very important. Then ultimately when that happens, it all kind of sheds and you get to just go back to being normal once you’re satisfied with what you got.

Martin Reed:
If you can just clarify the timeline for me, when did you end up taking the board exams? Was it before we were together, when we were working together or was that after we were we were done working together? I’m just trying to remember.

Wayne Tan:
I started working with you. Then maybe about a month or two, then I took boards. It was a very strange time. My board certification was actually due March of 2020. COVID happened, so all of that got delayed. I had that like four-month period where I really didn’t have anything that I had to do because everything was closed and that probably didn’t help my insomnia because it just allowed me to do nothing, but think about it, think about my insomnia. But yeah, during that time I was getting three or four hours of sleep and some nights not even any sleep. I think by the time I was ready to do boards, I was pretty much at that point where I was comfortable getting six hours of sleep.

Martin Reed:
Specifically, what was… If you remember, how did you sleep the night before it was exam time? Did you have the best night sleep you’ve ever had? Was it like a miracle or was there a little bit of struggle there?

Wayne Tan:
It’s not a perfect story. Life events can still affect you.

Martin Reed:
Absolutely.

Wayne Tan:
You have to tell yourself that it’s okay that you get a bad night of sleep if you’re going through a something really important and stressful, and that’s okay. It’s absolutely okay for yourself to go through that. That happens. Boards came and I did struggle a little bit, but I used what I knew about sleep and calmed myself down and just reminded myself of all of those sayings about sleep. Ultimately, I was able to fall asleep. I think I fell asleep around 1:30 or 2:00. I was happy and I had no issue with that because I knew I can function with even like three or four hours of sleep because I’ve done that before. I function fine with four or five hours of sleep.

Wayne Tan:
I learned that only because I went through it. I think if I had taken the same boards without going through all of that, I probably would have still struggled to sleep at night. My mindset with four hours of sleep, probably would’ve been very different than after going through insomnia and going through the whole program.

Martin Reed:
Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s two really big, important points… Well, maybe even more… that you’ve made there, first and foremost being that we’re always going to have difficult nights from time to time. If you’re looking for the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had every single night of your life, that’s something you’re never going to achieve. We’re human beings. When there’s good stuff about to happen or when there’s difficult stuff about to happen, it’s normal for us to experience sleep disruption.

Martin Reed:
Second of all, we can still do things even after difficult nights. Even after no sleep whatsoever, we can still actually function. It can feel like we can’t function, we’ve lost all ability to function, but if you are still able to breathe and see and hear, then you are functioning even at a most basic level. It’s definitely not to kind of downplay the effects because they can be really difficult. It can feel as though I just have a complete inability to function, but we can function at some level.

Martin Reed:
Like you said, if we can give ourselves the opportunity to experience it, how capable we might be able to be, by giving things a try, we might surprise ourselves. I was surprised that you said you got much sleep at all the night before the board exams because I know if it was me in that situation, I probably wouldn’t have got one minute of sleep. But my interpretation of that is different. Because I’m not in that in the throes of the insomnia struggle, I would be like, “Yeah, it sucked. I didn’t get any sleep,” but I’d still go to the exam and I’d still feel reasonably confident that I could perform maybe not 100% of my ability, but probably pretty high up there and still do well.

Martin Reed:
I’ve had clients that have gone through really long periods of awful sleep and done amazing things like really intense job interviews and still passed them, done really intense boot camps, CrossFit, physical competitions and placed really highly. It’s kind of incredible how capable we can be even after really difficult nights. I think it’s helpful to recognize that we’re always going to have difficult nights from time to time and, second of all, that we can still be quite remarkably capable even after difficult nights too.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. Yeah.

Martin Reed:
All right, Wayne. Well, I really appreciate the time that you’ve given up out of your day to talk to us. I feel like you’ve kind of already touched upon this, but this is a question that I ask every guest, and so I want to ask you to. It’s this. If someone with chronic insomnia is listening and feels as though they’ve tried everything, that they’re beyond help and that they just can’t do anything to improve their sleep, what would you tell them?

Wayne Tan:
I would say that there isn’t anything wrong with you, that everybody is capable of sleep and everybody is capable of getting good sleep. With that said, I think it’s important to rule out any health issues that you may have, underlying causes that could cause you to experience insomnia. All things said and all of those things are ruled out and you’re just struggling with it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It does require you to… I don’t want to use the word effort because it’s not… Effort causes sleep to be harder, but it does require you to kind of change your mind about things in how you view sleep. When I was going through it, it really helped me to hear people finally being cured of insomnia.

Wayne Tan:
It’s strange now that I’m on this side speaking to somebody who may be going through it, but I made it. I went through it and you can too, you really can, and you don’t have to live with it. You can put it down. You can put down this boulder that you’re carrying. It won’t be instantaneous. It will take time for it to happen, so be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself and just remember that sleep is not an enemy. It’s your friend. You just have to learn to be reacquainted with sleep because you’ve always known it all your life even as a child. You’ve been friends with sleep. Just treat your time going through it as being reacquainted with this person that you just have a warped view of what. Whatever caused a warpage to happen, that can be undone.

Martin Reed:
That’s great. Well, I think that’s a really great note to end on, so thank you again for taking time to come on and share your experience, Wayne.

Wayne Tan:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Martin Reed:
Thanks.

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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