I’m a chronic insomniac – but unlike others, I’m sleeping just fine through coronavirus
After years of anxiety-related sleep problems, our writer learned the power of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – and you can tooByMiranda Levy5 April 2020 • 4:00pmPremium
For several years I suffered from insomnia so severe, it derailed my career, sent me spiralling into depression, and separated me from family and friends. Time healed me: I’ve been okay for a year now. So, on 24 March, when Boris made that solemn red-eyed speech announcing ‘lockdown’, I went cold all over. Yup, the Covid situation was serious now. But my immediate selfish thought was: I do not want to go ‘back there’ again.
My last bout of sleeplessness was triggered by a domestic crisis – the end of my marriage – so what chance would I have with a world calamity? But you know what? Despite the odd anxiety spike, I am doing okay. Most importantly, I’m sleeping just fine, which for me is a solid six hours.
At the worst point of my insomnia, nothing seemed to help – but when I was well enough to seek more psychological advice, I took it. And the key to this was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia – or CBTi. According to the prestigious US Mayo clinic: “Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is a structured program that helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviours that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep.”
Sophie Bostock has a PhD in behavioural psychology and is a self-described ‘sleep evangelist’. She is a firm believer in the benefits of CBTi. “CBTi aims to give you a set of ‘tools’ with which to tackle your sleep problem. One set are physical (behavioural), and the other set psychological (cognitive).”
My most important ‘take away’ from CBTi is how your daylight hours set you up for the night. A routine gives you structure and purpose. As a self-employed writer, I’ve had practice at this, but in Corona-times I’m trying to stick to it more than ever. Broadly speaking: I wake up to the Today programme, look at social media, have a bath, do some work, eat meals at regular times, and make sure I do my allowed ‘one a day’ exercise: a 20-minute walk at least around some local fields. “Fresh air is really important,” says Bostock. “Because we have less exposure to light this time of year, we have a shorter ‘photo period’. Our circadian rhythm is affected and our body clock doesn’t wake up properly. This means we are less likely to sleep well the following night.”
Late afternoon, I start my evening routine. “Think back to when you were a child or had a baby of your own,” says Deborah Forsythe, a consultant who runs clinics advising menopausal women. “The routine was early tea, slow play, a bath, hot drink, and bedtime story. Adults needs their own version.” Mine includes a glass of wine, some TV, and social media or phone chats, a second warm bath with Epsom salts and a scented candle and NO NEWS AT TEN. “Upsetting news fires up anxiety and puts us into a hyper-vigilant state – the opposite of what we need to sleep,`’ says Bostock. The latest I will go is the Six O’Clock news, but I’m starting to avoid that as well.
CBT therapists encourage their clients to go to bed only when they are sleepy, advice I keenly follow. Bostock talks about the ‘quarter hour rule’ where, if you are in bed for 15 minutes and still wide awake or feeling anxious, you should get up, stop stewing and go and read a book (TV is not recommended because the ‘blue light’ it emits affects the hormones in your brain that promote sleep).
I have also started practising ‘sleep contraction’, which, despite its name, is not to restrict the amount of time spent asleep, but the time in bed doing other things which can interfere. So, I go to bed at around midnight and awake naturally at about 6am. I wake up at least once during the night and check my phone – bad! – but am fortunate enough to drop off back to sleep.
Things aren’t perfect – on ‘just’ six hours I am often tired – but compared with 18 months ago, it’s a revelation. One which means that, come the morning, I can thanks the Gods of Sleep. And, instead of cursing the sun, I salute it.
Miranda Levy is a columnist who wrote The Insomnia Diaries about her battle with insomnia. You can read them here.