The real reason insomniacs can’t sleep

Cat sleepingThis week, I had a piece about insomnia published in Stylist (you can read it here). As part of my research, I interviewed Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School, who emphasised something non-sufferers don’t always realise about insomnia: it is a learned condition. While a stressful event might have sparked the problem initially, it’s anxiety about being unable to sleep that triggers chronic insomnia. As a frequent sufferer (and insomnia really does cause suffering), I have sometimes felt frustrated by doctors asking whether I’m worried about anything. Yes, Doctor, I’m worried about another sleepless night. That’s the cycle you have to break if you want to resolve insomnia. Dr Meadows believes the secret is to stop employing strategies to beat the problem (such as taking steps to relax before bed) – he feels that just builds the quest for sleep into something bigger than it is. Instead, us insomniacs need to learn to mimic those fortunate but rather annoying people who naturally sleep well. What do they do to prepare for bed? Nothing. They just put head to pillow and start snoring.

If you’re on first-name terms with those sheep you’re counting, Dr Meadows recommends the mindfulness approach: hold the anxious thoughts a bit more lightly. Rather than trying to banish negative thoughts about sleep (like one of my favourites: ‘What happens if I never sleep again?’), simply observe the thought pop into your mind, understand it’s just a thought, and watch it drift away again. It takes a bit of practice, but it works. If you want to learn more about Dr Meadows’ approach, I’d really recommend one of his workshops or courses. I’m going through a phase of sleeping well at the moment, so I’m not going to jinx it by thinking about insomnia for another moment…

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