As a qualified sleep consultant trained in CBTi, many people want me to help them sleep. Having had insomnia, I have knowledge of both the professional and the ‘experienced’ side of the insomnia coin. In my initial interview with somebody, we discuss many topics related to sleep, including habits, feelings, and fears related to sleep and sleeplessness. Then, to work on resolving their personal experience of insomnia, I need them to do a week or two of sleep diaries for me. Doing this helps create really important baseline data – but it isn’t very interesting to my client.
This isn’t always satisfying to a client – they ideally want to start doing something helpful right away.
So I give them one word of wisdom.
My top tip
The tip is very simple, but it is so important.
I advise them to forget their clocks and to not think about what time it is.
When they do their diaries, I encourage them to look at the clock only when they get into bed to sleep and wake up – for the purpose of their diary only. They can certainly use clocks during the daytime – but they aren’t to use clocks at all at night except for those two purposes.
I ask them to switch off the software apps on their phone for tracking sleep. (They aren’t accurate anyway)
I will urge them to remove any watches – both analogue and digital, especially trackers like Fitbits. (They aren’t accurate either.)
I recommend they shut their phone off completely.
Also to turn their clocks around or to put them somewhere where they can’t be seen.
Then I recommend they tell their friends to not asking them about their sleep.
The goal is to avoid worrying about the amount of sleep they are or aren’t getting. If they don’t know how much sleep they are getting, they can’t worry about it.
People with insomnia often become used to watching the clock and counting the hours and minutes they are awake and asleep.
I hear this in a lot of different ways.
‘I only got 2 hours of sleep last night and only three and a quarter the night before’.
‘Last night I woke up three times, the first time for 50 minutes, and the second two times for 35 minutes’
‘I was up at 3:48 am for an hour and 37 minutes.’
This is a hallmark of sleep related anxiety -and clock watching only makes it worse over time.
Would it help someone’s sleep to know they woke up at 2:45 am for about 25 minutes, and then again at 4 am for 25 minutes, before they *finally* got to sleep for a solid 4 hours?
No, it isn’t helpful. That person is anxiously counting. And knowing those details only focusses them on it, resulting in more anxiety, and even less sleep!
Compare this person to someone who realises they have woken up, but remembers that they got back to sleep before, so they are sure it will happen again. Maybe they decide to get up and do something they enjoy.
Person one is likely to have worse sleep. They’re likely to get more nervous, making mental notes and comparisons to previous nights.
They may start to get frustrated and worried. The numbers give them a fuel for those negative feelings, which of course – when you’re laying in bed – will only feed insomnia.
Person two can’t dwell on the numbers because they don’t have them! They could more easily switch into doing some mindfulness or just appreciating the time they ‘re awake. They won’t have numbers to consciously or unconsciously fixate on. This will help calm them because they won’t have that as fuel for their worries. Also, getting up and being awake is, in the long run, helpful for insomnia. Being awake adds to the biological drive for sleep and makes the next sleep easier, and being out of bed and feeling positive about being up will reduce anxiety. Plus, they are helping to preserve their physical and psychological association with their bed as a place of sleep and rest.
I used to be person number one, and I’m not that person anymore.
You could make this switch too.
Start with not watching the clock.