Guest blog from Jay (14 year-old daughter of Dr Rachel)
I have just finished “The Sleep Book” by Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School. This excellent book gives the reader insight into the act of falling asleep from the author’s vast knowledge and experience working with people with insomnia. The book also provides a five-step plan to help the reader understand and overcome their sleep problems. If you have suffered from sleep anxiety like me, I hope this blog helps.
I picked up this book out of desperateness, as I was faced with immense difficulties falling asleep and a horrible sense of constant tiredness negatively impacting my daily life at school and at home. I can speak only from my own experiences as I write about this book as a teenage-insomnia-sufferer and how this book has benefitted me.
I have struggled with sleep since I was nine years old and I began to dread the mundane act of going to bed. But only recently, at the age of nearly 14, did I face a night when I could not fall asleep for the whole night and experienced intense, self-perpetuating anxiety. I remember feeling extreme misery and frustration about my sleeplessness. I felt as though this wretched combination of emotions might well be the most horrible experience in the world. Since this time, my heart really, really goes out to all the insomniacs of the world and those who’ve suffered sleeplessness, for I know the feeling of despair. I know that insomnia is a real challenge and that you truly deserve sympathy and compassion for enduring. It can be hell!
Back to The Sleep Book: I found this book clarified a whole lot about the sleeping process. I have not personally fully implemented the five-step approach to sleeping yet. However, I have found that the principles I learned from the book have helped me enormously in my sleeping already, and I would like to share how.
The underpinning philosophy of the book is that trying to fall asleep is counterproductive. The more we try and control it, the more props, rituals, and efforts we dedicate to it, the more we begin to unintentionally amplify our problem. I found this quite obvious on reflection. It made sense to me that although humans have an instinctive compulsion to try and exert control over our problems, including sleeplessness, when it comes to difficult feelings the key is not to try too hard.
This idea of counterproductive effort is why I have refrained from using medications, extensive wind-down routines, or putting effort, time or money into external methods of sleep aids (such as weighted blankets or apps), save for this book.
To fall asleep, I did try techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises, as well as forcing my mind to think up random nonsense to occupy it with neutral thoughts. These are all fine. But the way I used these methods proved to be counterproductive. I would do them for a while, but forcefully and with the impression I was not doing them correctly. And from the fear and negative sensations already manifesting in my body, I began to feel completely overwhelmed by anxiety and almost be on the verge of breaking down. After that, I certainly did not want to try them again a second time that night.
I have found the most helpful approach to regain my sleep has meant remembering how I used to fall asleep before my insomnia by adopting the habits of a more normal sleeper once again. I found that instead of using deliberate techniques to get to sleep, I would simply lie down. I would let my mind wander and not force it to do anything, just as I did in the past. And while this might not be the quickest way to fall asleep, it is the one I am currently using and has worked much better than my previous methods. Overall, I now face much less anxiety and unease.
I also began to adopt the book’s principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) by allowing sensations, my fast heartbeat, and quick breathing to simply proceed and exist without conscious struggle against them. What I found extremely helpful was beginning to view these physical responses as helpful, and having the knowledge this was my body’s way of trying to help me. Insomnia is a real, valid, and harsh challenge you face, and these physical reactions – rapid heart-rate and breathing, tight chest, racing thoughts – are your body’s way of responding to threat. These symptoms become conditioned as your amygdala begins to associate lying in bed with stress, hopelessness and anxiety. Your brain is preparing you for the threat and these anxious feelings are alerting your body to a situation it believes is a problem, and your primal brain does not understand these responses are only amplifying the problem.
The key is to understand that these are your body’s natural and biological responses to this challenge, and that you did not cause them. In fact, try to view them as helpful. Allow yourself not to be self-critical, and even if your physical manifestations prevent you from sleeping, know that you will be able to manage. Remember, this is not your fault. You are trying your best and that is all you can do. I find that adopting this mindset has benefitted me most of all.
While I still suffer from sleeplessness, reading this book has certainly enlightened me about many aspects of the sleep process. It is truly a gem. The book provides many other valuable insights, but I hope my limited sharing of a few has been beneficial. As I regain a sense of control over my life as my generalised anxiety also begins to subside, I plan to implement the five-step approach to better regain my natural sleeping patterns. Despite the hardships my insomnia has caused me, I am thankful for what I have learnt from it so far, and thankful that I have gained this understanding at a young age; knowledge which I can apply to the rest of my life. I am grateful for this book and I hope that by sharing my experiences here, I have given you some insights. I wish you all the best for your wellbeing.