Falling asleep has always taken me a while. But during my late teens, I started to stay awake longer and longer. I’d lie in bed worrying about something I said, or dreading something I had to do at college the next day.
One week, as part of my A-Level psychology course, my class watched a video about a man with an incredibly rare medical condition. He became physically unable to fall asleep, went mad and died. That night, I became convinced this was happening to me.
I am a rational person. I can see two sides to an argument and stay calm under pressure. But, lying in the dark next to my snoring partner, I transformed into somebody else entirely; someone going crazy with fear, envy and frustration. I was trapped in the cinema of my mind, with a movie screen that showed back-to-back horror films: I was and always would be a failure; I would lose everyone I loved; our house would be gobbled up by a giant sinkhole.
After each disturbing thought passed, I would notice that my fists and jaw were clenched and my heart was pounding. I would berate myself for still being awake and demand that I try harder to fall asleep. When it all became too much, I would weep with frustration, or selfishly toss and turn to wake my partner and stop his contented snores from stoking my envy.
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This continued for over a decade: when I look back on my teens and 20s, I remember feeling exhausted. I was in good company. One in three people are regularly affected by poor sleep, and one in 10 suffer from chronic insomnia.
Sleep is worth taking seriously. Without enough of it, your mood, energy levels and concentration are impaired. Long-term insomnia lowers your life expectancy and raises your risk of medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
I was determined to find a cure for my sleeplessness. I read self-help books, joined forums and forged friendships over a mutual inability to sleep. I used ear plugs to cut out all sound, and eye masks to block out all light. I didn’t consume caffeinated drinks or watch TV in bed. I bought pillow sprays, eye massagers, hypnotic lights and special bedding. I tried audio books and relaxing music CDs, then threw them out when they didn’t work.
Reluctantly, I moved on to herbal sleeping pills, then prescription drugs. They helped on the first night I took them, but I would wake up in the morning feeling groggy. On the second night, they made no difference at all. So I bought different brands and alternated them. If anything correlated with a particularly bad night’s sleep, I cut it out of my life. I became tee-total, shut down my social life and lived by a strict set of rules. I was an insomniac zombie who was completely obsessed about the sleep I wasn’t getting.
One night, I was in bed worrying about a job interview I had the following day. I felt my heart rate start to speed up as I focused on how much I wanted the job, and all the things that could go wrong. This is a familiar scenario for Professor Colin Espie of Oxford University. He is one of the world’s leading experts on sleep and co-founder of Big Health, a company that uses digital platforms and ‘virtual therapists’ to help people access mental health treatment.
“Many of the patients I see complain that their mind becomes preoccupied with worries or just a torrent of thoughts. They often feel out of control, and may experience ‘overgeneralisation’, which is when your mind focuses on the idea that everything is going wrong,” explains Professor Espie.
“Another common thinking error is ‘catastrophic thinking’, when you are tricked by your anxiety into exaggerating a problem so it gets out of proportion.”
Lying in my bed the night before my interview, my pulse started to pound in my ears. I became convinced that I was going to give myself a heart attack. I realised I needed to quickly calm myself down but didn’t know what to do. In desperation, I searched my mind for the most relaxing thought I could find. I remembered how calm I had felt when on a recent holiday in Corfu. I would open the balcony doors each morning, then lie on the bed and watch the white voile curtains curl and flick as the wind lifted them. As the fabric danced and shifted in the breeze, I occasionally saw glimpses of the blue-green sea in the distance, freckled with light from the morning sun. I focused on remembering every detail of the room and the view. It worked better than I could ever have hoped. I relaxed, slept and awoke the next morning feeling more refreshed than I had in years. I was elated.
All this time, I had been looking for an external fix. None of those so-called cures could change the film that my mental movie screen was playing. But I could. From that day on, I chose a relaxing thought to focus on each night.
Over the next couple of years, I tried and collected hundreds of mindfulness exercises, visualisations and techniques taken from the world of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a treatment method that involves identifying, challenging and changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.
“CBT can train people to manage a ‘racing mind’ and to overcome the worry and other negative emotions that accompany the experience of being unable to sleep,” explains Professor Espie. “It can also help to strengthen the connection between your bed and successful sleep, meaning that falling asleep and staying asleep in bed becomes more automatic and natural.
“CBT has been shown to be effective in controlled scientific clinical studies, and on average 70% of people with even very long-term poor sleep obtain lasting benefits from treatment. Indeed, many of the techniques are helpful for the stresses of daily living because they help people to feel more organised and more in control in general.”
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Before my Corfu visualisation, my night-time thoughts had felt like wild horses that I was unable to rein in. With practice – and patience – I realised that I could tame them by choosing which thoughts to focus on and which ones to let pass. It’s been life-changing. Improved sleep has given me more energy. I feel so much more positive and I get ill less regularly.
I felt so excited to share what I’d learned that I set up a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a book for other insomniacs. The campaign achieved 120% of its target, and the book, Go To Sleep: Peaceful Thoughts for Active Minds, has been a huge success all over the world. The book’s focus is on helping readers to relax, with practical techniques to manage an active mind while in bed, and tips for learning how to trust your natural ability to sleep again.
“It’s important to challenge any negative beliefs you have about sleeping, as they can trap you in a vicious cycle,” Professor Espie adds. “As well as maintaining wakefulness at night, these faulty beliefs promote the sense of helplessness that many people with poor sleep report. It also helps to recognise that your thoughts are not out of your control, although at times they might feel that way!” It still takes me a little while to fall asleep. But now I don’t panic, or worry about whether or when I will drift off. I trust that I will sleep and I do. I choose a visualisation exercise, or just relax into the silence of the night.
3 ways to beat insomnia
Use a visualisation to help you relax
When you imagine something, your body produces the same physiological response as if you were actually experiencing it. So when you focus on an anxiety-inducing thought, you go into fight or flight mode: you clench your fists, feel adrenaline race through your veins and notice your pulse quicken.
Happily, this works the other way around, too. If you vividly imagine a peaceful scenario, your body begins to relax. Try mentally re-living a relaxing holiday you went on, remembering a lovely picnic you once had or even touring your childhood home. Re-experience each memory in detail, visualising how it felt, what you could smell and what you saw.
Label your thoughts
If the same, worrisome thought keeps coming up, give it a name. For example, if you think, ‘I’m never going to fall asleep’, you could label that thought as ‘never’. If you have a jealous thought about your partner, label it ‘jealousy’. Next time it pops into your mind, greet it. Thank it for turning up, repeat it in a funny voice or even sing to it! The aim is to distance yourself from your thoughts, and to deflate their emotional power by responding to them in a more positive and mindful way.
Change your story
If you tell people how badly you’ve slept, talk about your insomnia in online forums or even think about yourself as an insomniac, you could be contributing to your sleep difficulties. You are training your brain that sleep is something that is difficult for you to do. This creates a type of performance anxiety that makes it harder for you to relax at night and causes you to doubt your natural ability to fall asleep. Trust your body to do its thing without letting your mind get in the way. Stop thinking of yourself as an insomniac, and avoid talking about your lack of sleep. Instead, focus on all the times you have slept well.