Bernice Tuffery - 17 May 2024

Overcoming Insomnia: learning how to sleep well naturally

Picture of Bernice Tuffery

This is a guest blog post by Bernice Tuffery, Sleep Health Advocate, Adult Sleep Coach and author of Sleep Easy. Check out reviews of her widely acclaimed self-help book, Sleep Easy, here https://www.sleephaven.co.nz/sleep-easy-book

Bernice Tuffery: One of the most common phrases I hear from people struggling with sleep is, “I've tried everything, and nothing works". Because sleep deficiency feels so horrible, those lacking shuteye are typically highly motivated to help themselves. Even though they are disillusioned, they keep trying.

The trouble is they can be trying things that don't make a difference, or even worse (and this is really common), they do things that unintentionally perpetuate Insomnia. The good news is that people can confidently navigate their way home to a good night's sleep with the right information, support and a sleep-conducive bedroom environment.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia isn't just difficulty falling asleep; it can be waking up too early or waking up frequently throughout the night and struggling to fall back asleep. It can be problems with the quantity or the quality of your sleep. This sleep disorder can be acute (less than a month), lasting for a short period (1-3 months), or chronic for three months or more. In my case, it was years.

It can be triggered by various factors, including stress, poor sleep habits, having a baby/young children, peri/menopause, medical conditions, or mental health issues.

Insomnia tends to be inconsistent – you might sleep well some nights and then sleep terribly other nights. So, it can feel unpredictable and hard to pin down what's going on. It's helpful to consider the ICSD-3 definition of Chronic Insomnia to grasp what you might be working with:

- Dissatisfaction with the quantity or quality of sleep
- Sleep difficulties occur despite having given yourself sufficient opportunity to sleep 
- Suffering significant distress or daytime impairment
- Experiencing Insomnia at least three nights a week for three months or more
- Not having another sleep disorder (e.g. Obstructive Sleep Apnoea) that's causing what seems to be Insomnia

How does Insomnia unfold?

Insomnia seems tricky, but once you understand that it's 'learned', there is glorious hope because you know that it can be unlearned with the right insights and training!

Once Insomnia is triggered, it's all about how we respond to it that determines whether it will continue or pass. How we think about our sleeplessness and our choices in dealing with it are vital. And yet, because our sleep education leaves so much to be desired (through no fault of our own), we often take steps that accidentally perpetuate Insomnia.

Common thoughts and behaviours that feed into the cycle of Insomnia include:

- Extending our opportunity for sleep – going to bed too early, sleeping in, napping
- Counter-fatigue measures – hitting the stimulants by day (coffee, tea, chocolate) to get through or decreasing physical activity to conserve energy
- Developing unhelpful 'sleep strategies' – like increasing our non-sleep behaviours in the bedroom to 'kill time'- TV or phone time; sleeping somewhere other than our own bed; earnest reliance on 'special rituals' hoped to induce sleep
- Self-medication or sedation – for instance, hitting the vino at night, having a nightcap, or over-use of over-the-counter sedatives.

So, while we think we're doing the right thing to help ourselves by 'catching up' sleep, saving our energy, or distracting or numbing ourselves from our sleeplessness, we can feed into the very problem we're trying to solve.

Because we don't see the improvements we're expecting, we get distressed and lose confidence in our ability to sleep. Hyper-arousal adds to the problem, and a vicious cycle ensues. Our actions don't work, our thoughts spiral, and we feel anxious and increasingly desperate about how sleep deficiency will affect our days and whether we can actually sort out our sleep.

So, what can be done about it?

The gold-standard, first-line treatment for Insomnia is CBT-I. It's a terrible-sounding name, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, for what is fundamentally very practical and very doable training for sleep. Yes, you have to change some of your thinking and some of your daytime and evening habits, but the payoff of sleeping well naturally is life-changing. I know because it's what saved me from almost a decade of chronic Insomnia.

It includes five key protocols that are all very understandable and do-able.

- Sleep Education
- Sleep Consolidation
- Bed as a Cue for Sleep
- Thought Retraining
- Stress Management & Relaxation

These are all mapped out, step by step, in my self-help book, Sleep Easy. I also include a healthy dose of self-compassion along the way. Those of us who've struggled with sleep deficiency for some time tend to be incredibly hard on ourselves, and we need to learn to be kind to ourselves if we are to see improvements in our sleep.

Picture of Kind Face Linen+Wisewool Sleep Mask and Sleep Easy book

So, how can your bedroom environment support your sleep?

As part of CBTI, it's essential that your bed acts as a cue for sleep. There needs to be an automatic association between bed and your body's relaxation response. You want your bed to be your sanctuary. It's not just about how it looks aesthetically; it's about the feeling it evokes in you. Does your breathing slow and deepen, your shoulders drop, and your stomach relax? Do you feel a wave of calm as you climb into your bed? Is there a delicious sense of surrender and safety?

For those who've struggled with sleep for some time, their beds are often associated with fretful wakefulness rather than sleep. While we need to retrain ourselves to change this association, one of the things we can do is make sure we have the fundamentals in place.

To create a sleep-conducive bedroom, consider the following:

Comfort
- Our mattress, bedding and pillows need to be comfortable so that our body relaxes. Our bed is the foundation for our sleep, so it needs to be fit for purpose. Ideally, our mattress is still within its use-by date (about 8-10 years).

Bedlinen made of natural, breathable fibres, like cotton or linen, is best. Pillows. I think I've experimented with every different kind of pillow in search of an option that's both supportive and comfortable regardless of the position that I sleep in. Finding one that's just right is so personal.

The beauty of the Kind Face Wool Wise pillow is that I've been able to tailor it, so it's just right for me. Having the option of taking wool out or putting more in is brilliant. It's taken a few nights to get it exactly how I like it - and I have felt a bit Goldilocks in the process – too firm, too soft – but now that it's 'just right', I think I've found my ideal pillow! The fact that it's made of natural NZ wool resonates with me in terms of its naturalness and provenance. I feel like I'm sleeping with a clean conscience!

Darkness – Our body clock is strongly influenced by darkness and light. As night falls (provided we aren't bathing ourselves in the blue light of our screens), our melatonin levels increase. This is the darling hormone our bodies produce to help us fall and stay asleep at night. So it's best if our bedrooms are dark and free from screens.

I've been trialling a Kind Face eye mask and am impressed with the difference the total blackout makes to my sleep. My room is generally pretty dark, but light levels add an unnecessary challenge to my sleep when there's a full moon and a clear sky (or my neighbour's sensor lights are on the fritz).

I find having the mask on my nightstand as a sleep resource reassuring. When I can completely block out unwanted light, I fall asleep or go back to sleep more quickly, and I notice my sleep quality is better despite the light in the room.

Other environmental factors that can support your sleep are:

Room temperature and ventilation – keeping your bedroom around 18 degrees is recommended if possible. If not, work with your bedding and sleepwear to approximate this temperature. If possible, it's helpful to ventilate your room overnight. But if temperatures or safety make this unworkable, open the windows and get the air circulating throughout the day to keep the air in your room fresh.

Quiet – keeping your room quiet is also recommended to support a good night's sleep.

Reserved for sleep – Given that we want our beds to be a cue for sleep, the World Sleep Society recommends reserving our beds for sleep. No work, no TV, no phone. They do make the concession that it's OK for sex. Phew!

Many adjustments can be made to your bedroom environment to ensure that it's conducive to a good night's sleep. These upgrades help create a better foundation for sleep. However, if you find that sleep remains elusive despite having the fundamentals in place, it's important to get help. Insomnia, especially if you’ve been experiencing it for more than a month, is unlikely to go away by itself.

Remember, improving your sleep environment, habits and thoughts about sleep takes time and patience. But know that the benefits are worth it. The most common phrase I hear from people who’ve overcome Insomnia is that the experience is “life-changing”!

About the author - Bernice Tuffery

Bernice Tuffery is known for her practical, do-able approach to sleep improvement. From her discussions with sleep professionals, extensive research and lived-experience of restoring her own sleep, Bernice shares her knowledge of self-taught CBTi with humour and heart. Her best-selling book, Sleep Easy, maps out the evidence-based path through Insomnia.

You can find Bernice at www.sleephaven.co.nz. Sign up to her mailing list for a free chapter of her book, and get started on your sleep improvement journey.

Picture of Sleep Easy book

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