For the last four or five years I've had a varying amount of insomnia. This culminated in different ways, sometimes I'd wake up 10-15 times per night, other times it would mean I'd go full nights without sleeping, most commonly it would mean that I'd take between 2 and 6 hours to get to sleep for days in a row leaving me exhausted.
The worst part about that? It was all me. It was my fault. It was in my head. I knew that much years ago, but had zero ideas how to fix it. Dr Google only gets you so far.
To spoil a paragraph below, I kept doing something that's known as hyper-monitoring. I've only recently discovered the name for it, but it's basically something that occurs when you get stressed about sleeping. It's one of those annoying repetitive loops.
I would be concerned about my sleep before I went to bed
I'd try make everything perfect to sleep. Dark room, comfy mattress, sheets, silent
I'd not be able to sleep for an hour.
I'd constantly question why! Was I too hot? Too cold? Should I roll over? Lets try it, what i'm currently doing obviously isn't working?!
The questioning meant that my brain was constantly active, getting more and more frustrated as I was so tired yet everything I was doing wasn't letting me sleep
Thus, I'd not sleep, therefore making my concern higher the next night as I desperately needed to catch up
Therefore the next night i'd question faster, and be monitoring more things (temp, airflow, sound, etc)
It's a massive pain to have something that is so 'simple' be stuffed up and not know why. Kids can do it, some people can do it without even trying, it feels really lame to be shit at sleep. It affected me pretty consistently though, sometimes having to take days off work just based on ridiculous levels of tiredness.
Over the years I went to doctors, I'd heard everything you can hear about sleep hygiene. If you know about that, it is a list of 'good things' that you should do to have better sleep. Things such as not using your phone in bed, avoiding blue light, etc. One of the worst parts about moving to Sydney was that I was unable to actually have that any more. In a studio apartment, there's no avoiding lights from things in your house, no ability to separate your 'work space' and your 'sleep space'.
In the past, i'd been prescribed medication that helped for short times, but never underestimate the ability for your mind to defeat that, and I was soon back to bad sleep.
Finally, late last year I finally decided to specifically ask for a referral to a sleep psychologist. As of last week, i've finished my sessions and just wanted to provide details as I feel like sleep is something so many people have problems with but not many fix.
What do you do?
So, I went to see an absolutely fantastic sleep physiologist. Quickly it was reassuring to find out that what I was dealing with wasn't much when it comes to grand scale of sleep issues. At the start though, I was skeptical, I really didn't believe that I could think my way out of a problem. I was worried that a psychologist would provide wishy-washy techniques that were based on feelings rather than fact.
Oh damn I was wrong.
Over the next 6 sessions were some of the most evidence based hours I'd had the pleasure to experience.
First, we identified what I was doing. Even that was a relief. I remember calling my wife after the first session excited "She knows exactly what I do! That's so exciting! I'll be boring!". Boring is good. Boring is easy to fix. In general, what I had was a flight-or-fight response to going to bed. It sounds ludicrous, but when you spend hours just laying awake, bed becomes negatively connotated.
Second, and most exciting in some ways, was we started being very evidence driven. This was kind of weird, as I expected a lot of laying back on a couch with "how did that make you feel" kind of questions. Instead I had 2 worksheets I constantly filled out.
What time did you go to sleep?
What time did you wake up?
How did you feel your sleep was?
How awake did you feel during the day?
One of the first "facts" that surprised me was how low the correlation is between length of sleep and you actually feeling awake that day. Day tiredness and sleep quality are semi-unrelated, something Dr. Clancy would stress. This was great to find out weirdly enough. It reduced the stress of sleeping on an individual night as you're less worried about the next day definitely being terrible (still might be though).
Other things we did were techniques around CBT (Cognitive behaviour therapy), all of this with a large backing in research. I was able to collect evidence based responses for concerns that my brain would blow out of scale. eg "I didn't sleep at all night, my next day will be zero fun" → counter that with my birthday last year where I didn't sleep a single minute, but still had a freaking awesome time! Just reminding myself of this evidence made a bad sleep less powerful to affect my next day, and in turn became less scary, therefore letting me sleep easier.
It was also exceptionally useful to just have a really solid understanding of what's going on in your body around sleep. As someone who values evidence based stuff, everything was framed from the science of what's behind sleep (if you're interested, there's a great book by Matt Walker called "Why we sleep").
After close to 6 months, I'm way better than I was at the start. I still have nights where I don't sleep, or sleep very little, but they don't stress me any more. I accept them and don't get terribly stressed, it ends at one bad night rather than two or three weeks of awful times. This is incredibly freeing. Bed isn't inherently difficult any more. On top of that I now feel like I have the evidence based tools that will help me in the future when I kick back into a bad sleep funk for a little while.
Finally, I really would encourage everyone treat sleep like any other ailment. If you broke your leg you'd go to the doctor. If you've broken your sleep, it's one and the same. If it's your head that's stuffing you up, then I hope that knowing that it can be such a successful treatment will help justify going to get the help needed as well. I just wish I'd done it years ago.