Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (ii)


Last week I described the “conventional” CBT for insomnia approach (CBTi), but this week I want to introduce an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach which is superficially similar to CBTi but holds to some of the fundamental principles of ACT: mindfulness, and letting go of control. As is typical for ACT, there are no hard and fast absolutes and instead there is a focus on workability – what works, in context.

Most of the content of today’s post is drawn from my personal experience and The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows. There are five basic steps and according to the book it should take five weeks to get sleep sorted. I’m not as convinced about timeframes, so I’ll describe it as five steps.

  1. Discover: this step is about discovering what triggers and maintains insomnia, and focuses on why struggling to start sleeping is counter-productive. That’s right – stop struggling!
  2. Accept: well, with a name like ACT you’d expect some acceptance, right? This is not about resigning yourself to nights of poor sleep, but rather a willingness to let go of the struggle, to be fully present in the now – rather than reminiscing about the past, or predicting the future.
  3. Welcome: everything that shows up in your mind and body (after all, they’re there whether you want them or not!).
  4. Build: a new sleeping pattern by identifying how much sleep you need and when you need it.
  5. Live: during the day and sleep during the night!

Like absolutely any behaviour change, this process is not always easy! It takes persistence, courage and doing things that may not feel like sensible things to do! Let’s begin.

Discover: we do a whole heap of things to try to get to sleep – normal sleepers don’t. Normal sleepers just put their heads on the pillow, maybe let their minds wander over the day, and then gently fall asleep. When people with insomnia try to sleep, we try all manner of things to get to that state – and many of those things either prolong the sleeplessness, or actually wind it up!

Meadows describes four factors associated with the start of insomnia:

  • risks which may be getting older, being female, being a worrier or depressed, having a family history of rotten sleep, maybe being generally full-on;
  • triggers may include life stress, some medical conditions like irritable bowel or a fracture and yes, pain, and medications or alcohol, time zone changes and so on;
  • arrivals are memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions and urges that come to visit when we’re trying to get off to sleep but can’t – and these are partly the fight, flight or freeze response which happens when we begin worrying, or are part of the triggers (and we often think it’s those things that need to be got rid of); and finally
  • amplifiers, or things that are meant to be helping reduce insomnia but can actually make it worse: things like spending longer in bed, sleeping in, going to be earlier, having naps – and oddly enough, some of the things we’re traditionally advised to do to help us sleep. Things like reading in low light, having a warm bath or warm milk drink, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing with devices like the phone…. Even some of the things we do because we’re not sleeping – like getting out of bed and doing things like checking emails, doing some exercise, going to the loo – all of these things are done to try avoid the chitter-chatter of our mind, or eat least to control or distract from it, yet can paradoxically train your brain to be awake right when you really want to sleep… even things like keeping the room dark, wearing earplugs, doing relaxation, sleeping in a different bed from your partner, trying a new mattress or pillow can be a step too far and train your brain to think controlling these thoughts about sleep is the Thing To Do.

I’ll bet that, like me, most people have done all these things – and some of them are part of CBTi. There is a place for them in moderation – but it’s even better to develop the skill of not being caught up in trying to control our thoughts, worries, feelings, body sensations when we’re heading to sleep.

Now I’m sure this is where people are going “yeah but…” and giving a whole list of why your situation is different. Would you be willing to keep reading and look at some alternatives?

The risk of trying to control these arrivals and amplifiers is that while they don’t work, it’s too scary NOT to do them. Your brain learns, as a result, that sleep is a problem. And what does the brain like best? Oh that’s right – solving problems. Except that if you’ve ever tried to “make yourself” stop thinking, or feeling – have you noticed that you just can’t? Try it now: try and make yourself feel happy. Yeah… you either have to recall something enjoyable from the past, or anticipate something in the future. And while you’re doing that, your brain is cranking up. It’s worse if you try to stop yourself from thinking or worrying because that old fight, flight or freeze response kicks in and up goes your heart rate and perspiration and breathing…

So the first step of this programme is to discover all the things you’re doing to control the uncontrollable. We can’t stop feelings, thoughts, memories and so on from arriving. They just do. So fighting with them and trying hard to get rid of them just does not work – they’re there AND you’re feeling stressed because you can’t get rid of them!

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