For over 15 years, I was held prisoner by a monster. Tears come to my eyes when I think of the contrast between then and now. I feel elated knowing that it’s over. It seems like a miracle. However, the distress of how chronic insomnia devoured me is still palpable. Everything happens for a reason, right? That distress now serves a solid purpose, and that’s what counts going forward. After all, my mission in life is to help others out of insomnia too.
Sometimes it would take me hours on end to fall asleep… 1am, 2am, 3am… despite being a complete wreck. And then I would wake up constantly during the night, unable to get back to sleep. People would ask me – but how many hours do you actually sleep? You never know how to answer that…and being asked just adds to your despair. Neither your friends, family nor doctor understand. Nor can they help you. So you close up like a clam and soldier on, while the monster is consuming you one day at a time, inside and out.
In a nutshell, this what it was like:
I consulted around 30 health professionals. None were able to help me. It’s not their fault. Over a period of 7-9 years, most medical training programmes dedicate less than a week to sleep. This tends to focus on physical issues. After 15 years, I had come to the conclusion there was no way out. I had tried every possible solution under the sun.
Then one day I picked up a book. There I was, right on the opening page. The author was describing me – I was her former self! For the first time ever, I had proof that someone else had been there too but SHE now slept well. Through her written expression, I could feel her understanding and empathy. This time, there was more than a glimmer of hope. I devoured the book immediately, and then slowly began believing in my ability to sleep for the first time since I was a teenager. This book was the Effortless Sleep Method by Sasha Stephens. If I hadn’t read it, I may still have been struggling today.
From the book, I understood that I had allowed insomnia to define me and that my issue was largely psychological. Also, I had wrongly refused to believe that some simple behavioural changes could contribute to resolving my extremely severe disorder. It took approximately 10 days from the day I read the book to the day I felt confident I could sleep well again. 10 days!
I figured my ideal sleep time was around 8 hours so I restricted my sleep opportunity to 7 hours 30 minutes total to ensure it was consolidated over a fixed period. I would go to bed around 11:30pm and get up at 7. That way I wasn’t too stressed about the sleep time being overly restricted. The author said to fix the wake up time in the morning and to get up no matter what. I had faith in her and the method so I decided to trust that it would be ok. The first few days I was exhausted but within around 4 days my sleep got in sync. I could already sleep pretty well – wow!
Instead of lying in bed awake, I was instructed to get up and do something else. And also to plan whatever that was in advance. She recommended lying on a cold floor and I did this a few times – that certainly got me creating a positive association with my bed! I also planned to study some Japanese scripts which was relaxing for me. I felt like I was somehow being productive with my time. It was half something to look forward to and for this reason my stress around wakefulness was reduced. I no longer feared being awake. Unbelievable but true.
I stopped thinking negatively about insomnia. I wrote down several times a day something like: “I sleep well now”. Also, when people asked me how my sleep was doing, I began saying “great – I sleep well now,” even if it wasn’t the case. This felt empowering to me. Sometimes I would even brag about sleeping well when I hadn’t slept well at all! Now I brag, but it is actually true!
I also stopped clockwatching during the night. Before this, I tended to count how many hours I’d slept, how many I hadn’t slept and how many I potentially had left to sleep before I needed to get up. This obviously increased my stress around sleep. When I stopped doing this, sleep time stopped being a fixation.
The final thing was that I stopped no longer doing and planning things because of the fear of not being able to sleep. For example, I somehow accepted that I would go and sleep at a friend’s place even if I was not in control of my environment. I would just accept things as they were. Magically, this took the pressure off me needing a perfect environment to sleep in. Low and behold I could sleep anywhere from then on.
Around a month after reading the book, I had completely regained confidence in my ability to sleep. I still try to stick to the guidelines. If I go off course now, these are like a compass for getting my sleep right back on track.
This was just the first part of my journey back to sleep however. It continues today. The learning process never ends. I keep on building more blocks to improve my sleep.
A couple of years after reading the book, I headed to a fasting retreat for a week in the South of France. The main reason I decided to go was because it was an inexpensive way of staying in a beautiful villa with a swimming pool and other facilities! The fasting was initially just a detail and a bit of a challenge.
Little did I know but during that week without food, I would learn the importance of nutrition and how it contributed to my sleep. From then on, I reduced the quantity of my food by half and began eating at a slower pace. The key to this was serving myself on a small plate and obliging myself to put my knife and fork on the table between mouthfuls. This way my body has enough time to realise when I’ve eaten sufficiently. This is instead of me gobbling down as much food as possible at 100km an hour!
The other key learning from the fasting week was the impact caffeine had on me. I obviously didn’t drink coffee during the week. When I returned home, I didn’t consume any for several weeks. I found that I was much less anxious. The day I tried coffee again my heart raced, I got the jitters and my thoughts began racing. I tried to eliminate my caffeine intake from then on but unfortunately I haven’t managed to entirely yet. I only have one coffee per day in the morning and it doesn’t impact my sleep. However, I know it would do me good to eliminate it from my diet.
From there I began studying sleep therapy and education. I opened a treasure trove on sleep science and well-being in general.
Firstly, I established a morning and evening routine. This gave me stability and a sense of security.
Currently my morning routine is as follows:
In the evening:
There are times when I’m travelling etc. where I don’t necessarily do this. However, this kind of routine is what I come back to whenever I get out of sync. It really suits me. Routines are very personal so it depends on what suits you best!
Secondly, I learned about Circadian Health, notably the impact of light on our general well-being and in the sleep-wake cycle. I now use a light therapy lamp as soon as I wake up in the morning at home and get as much sunlight as possible early in the day (if the sun actually shows up!). This not only regulates sleep but also improves mood. For me, it’s a lifesaver in the winter when there is very little sunlight during the day. I’m also careful to stick to regular meal and exercise times to keep my internal clock in sync. This helps regulate and optimise all the physiological processes of our body across the 24-hour cycle.
Thirdly, I learned to integrate calm relaxing moments into my day and became kind to myself. One of the reasons my stress levels got worse during insomnia was because I had the accelerator pedal down full throttle all day long. I never took the time to check in with myself and breathe, ask myself how I was doing and bring my stress levels down a notch through breathing.
Today I use the STAR method that I learned from Mitra Manesh. It takes just a minute or so. I have a gong alert that chimes on my phone 3 times a day so I remember to take just a minute to check in. Here it is:
Smile (even if it’s a false smile – this physiological change sets off the positive hormones associated with it)
Take 3 deep breaths
Ask yourself how you’re doing
Return to a calmer state (whether this means getting up and walking around, conscious breathing for a minute or so, calling a friend – whatever helps you return to calmness, even if it’s just a tiny notch)
Finally, today I have fully regained confidence in my ability to sleep. Yes, I can have a difficult night, anyone can, but it doesn’t matter – I know my sleep will be back on track the following day.
I now sleep well but there are some remnants of those insomnia-ridden years. I developed a lack of confidence in myself due to my inability to concentrate and show up in life as I desired to. I also adopted various other unhelpful habits. However, as I got through insomnia, I know I can overcome anything now – and I’m on it!
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