My Number One Tip
As a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) trained sleep coach, a lot of people ask me for sleep help. I've had insomnia myself as well. People who know me understand I can speak from both sides of the coin – the experiential side, having been through it before – and the clinical side, having helped people before.
My go-to piece of advice for sleep issues
When I do an initial consultation with someone, we talk about a lot of sleep-related issues, including behaviours, thoughts, and fears. Unless they've done some sleep diaries before they come, I send them home to do some so that we have some baseline data. It's hard to give a lot of specific advice in that context if I don't have that information.
Sometimes this frustrates people – they like to go away with at least SOMETHING they feel they are doing for themselves right away.
So I'll give them one piece of advice.
That piece of advice is so simple but so powerful. And I'll share it with you now:
Out of sight, out of mind
I tell them to ignore the clocks and to not think about the time.
Keeping a diary might seem a conflict with this, but I ask them to write down when they go to bed intending to sleep, and when they get up, and estimate anything else.
I ask them to turn off the phone tracking apps.
I suggest they turn off the phone entirely.
I advise them to take off their watches.
I urge them to turn the alarm clocks around or put them on the other side of the room or in another room.
I suggest to them that their partners stop asking them about how long they slept.
Why do I tell people to stop checking the clock?
The aim is to have them stop thinking about how much or how little sleep they are getting, and to instead focus on how they feel in the day. This is often a real challenge. People with insomnia are very used to looking at the clock. They are very used to counting time.
"I was up for an hour and 37 minutes at 2:48 AM."
But the truth of it is that thinking about how many minutes you've been up – or how many minutes you've been asleep – it only hurts your sleep. Why?
Reducing sleep anxiety
Focusing like this is a sign of sleep anxiety – and concentrating so hard on the hours and minutes usually only generates more of it.
Does it serve someone's sleep to look at their watch at 3:30 AM and note that it's only been an hour and a half since they finally fell asleep?
No. It's only upsetting. It doesn't help at all.
Compare that person to this person:
"Wow! I'm awake. I'm not sure what time it is, and it doesn't matter. I'll get back to sleep, or I'll get up and at least enjoy the time I'm awake."
Change is possible
The first person is more likely to fall down the rabbit hole of getting less sleep. They will get more anxious, comparing the times to the night before, or the week before. They might start to worry about what they are doing to "try to sleep" and think about trying something new. They will be upset in bed, and reinforcing that being awake is bad, and their psyche and physiology will begin to associate bed with those feelings.
The second person is much more likely to enjoy the time they are awake without focussing on or tracking the numbers. This can relax them, and bring down any anxiety because they won't have something to focus anxious thoughts on. Getting up will build sleep drive and reduce the association they might have between bed and wakefulness. And they will be going to do something they enjoy, which makes a more positive association with being awake.
I know which person I used to be – and which person I am now. It is possible to be this second person. It can start with something as simple as not watching the clock.
How often does someone offer you unsolicited advice on your condition?