What to do after a bad night’s sleep?

So what do you do in the future when you don’t sleep well after sleep re-training?

You have very recent evidence of what poor sleep for long periods of time looks like, and so it’s no wonder then, that despite everything you have learnt and what you have achieved by altering your sleep problem, the anxiety cloud can come over you just the same and threaten your progress with all its questions. What if I don’t sleep now? What if this is not just one bad night? Am I slipping back to what it was like when I had insomnia? Did the  treatment even work for me? Was it all for nothing?

From years of working with clients with insomnia of all different shapes and sizes, plus my own experiences with going through tough physical changes – those memories of the bad times are still there, and although you have done so well to overcome the physical problem you once had, and your sleep for the most part looks very different now… getting over the memories and how it made you feel is a whole other process. 

In fact, I would go so far as to say some of those nights back when you had chronic insomnia can be really traumatic – no wonder the fear of them returning is strong. But don’t worry, just like the physical act of getting sleep back on track, you can also weaken this feeling, and become like the ‘good sleepers’ who aren’t people who sleep well ALL the time, but they certainly don’t have all these fears and associations with a bad night’s sleep (lucky them!).

You see, sleeping poorly is a normal part of life. No, you don’t have to put up with poor sleep every night – but yes, you do have to accept the odd poor night or even the odd poor few nights of sleep as part of your reality – even if you were doing every perfect thing you could do for sleep! Hormones, life stress, getting poorly, aging, random stuff we don’t even KNOW is happening IS going to affect our sleep. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we just didn’t care?! It’s not just nice… worrying changes our behaviour. It sabotages consistency and makes you flit between one behavior to the next looking for an impossible resolve. Worrying is dangerous and really does have the capacity to make insomnia return, whereas poor sleep itself, does not!

Here is a blueprint strategy for you to start using in this new stage of your recovery from ex – insomniac to good – sleeper!

You see you NEED poor sleep experience, without the CHRONIC/repetitive poor sleep experience to prove that it is nothing to fear (that you will survive, and you won’t suddenly get insomnia again). It is the act of having poor sleep every once in a while, and NOT good sleep, which will not only liberate you from the fear, but actually can keep your sleep more consistent and good in the future (worrying in itself as you know, can cause you to stay awake). Ever heard the term feel the fear and do it anyway?

So how do you do this? How do you become someone who just doesn’t think about their sleep? I have created a little blueprint for you to keep in mind.

I suggest using it on the next 10 episodes of poor sleep (1 episode starts from the moment of worry, not the moment of poor sleep, and ends the hour/day you have stopped worrying – not when sleep goes back to normal). 1 episode could be 1 night or 4 nights, depending on the strength of your worries.

1. Start from the right page. First things first let’s all be working from the right knowledge: for your problem to be chronic, and not going away anytime soon, it would need to be affecting you 4/7 nights a week and longer than 3 months. That is probably NOT where you are when you start worrying about a specific night. Repeat this to yourself and re read this whenever you need to  hear it. I know education alone is not going to make the worries go away, but the more you hear it the more you will start to believe it too.
2. Lean into it! Have you ever noticed when you can feel or you are experiencing an unusual night that may look like less or broken sleep, we concentrate on how to fix it or we concentrate on the worries we have around it which make us feel bad, and then we are in this horrid vicious cycle of trying to fix it, and also fearing the feelings we are getting and really telling ourselves ‘this shouldn’t be happening, I shouldn’t be feeling like this!’. But what we never do is lean into it. This is what you must do. Lean into the poor night. Your new inner monologue is this ‘I am not having a usual night for me, and that is ok. I feel a bit funny about it, and that is ok. I am allowed to feel this way. There is nothing wrong with me. This is normal’.  
3. Make it fun, make it a luxury. Don’t know what I mean? Just ask a time-poor person such as a mum! I want you to put a plan together for your worst nights. See them as activities to prep the night, and also ways to reward yourself the next day for dealing with it so well. That could look like simply listening to rain sounds in bed and letting your mind wander, to getting up and watching your favourite series (in reduced brightness) or book, and then the next day treating yourself to a small treat with your coffee, a trip somewhere fun, buying yourself a small gift, whatever is a small reward for getting through the night.  
4. Relinquish control! Now you might be thinking, but I know all these things from the sleep retraining  program that I can start doing to fix it immediately! Here’s the thing, what you learnt on the sleep retraining program was how to fix a chronic sleep issue. And whilst the broad philosophies you learnt are still applicable (such as the golden rules and the boosters), the really hard-core approach of sleep window scheduling and control was not designed for the odd bad bout of sleep. And remember point 1 – this is not chronic. So what! You say? Can’t we just use them anyway? They work, don’t they? Well yes, that is true, but they also create this reality in your head that whenever you start panicking, the way to resolve your panic is to control your sleep, not to actually resolve the panic itself. This is not helpful when the strategy no longer works for you (like we said earlier, doesn’t matter how controlling you are over your sleep, other things will still catch you out whether you like it or not) and it also sends the message that without sleep there will be panic in your life, which there just doesn’t need to be.
5. Reverting back to old tricks. You KNOW what not to do, you learnt that from the sleep retraining program, but in moments of panic…sometimes taking a sleeping pill, going to bed early, cancelling next day’s plans…lying in… it can be very tempting as old fears and worries, no matter how unscientific they are, try to persuade you that bad things will happen if you don’t try to fix this  NOW NOW NOW. The trick here is to not punish yourself when this happens. I know that’s not what you thought I might say (you might think I might tell you to avoid these things at all costs), but the reality is you are not perfect. Behaviour change doesn’t happen from applying all rules on day 1 and suddenly you meet your goals, similarly doing something not so good for your sleep one night is not going to make everything much worse forever. And in this particular case It’s about trial and error with all of these nights when you have these episodes of poor sleep, doing it wrong 10 times to feel safe enough to do it right one time.  
6. Repeat! Start on the right page, lean into this tricky night, make it fun, relinquish control and no judgement for reverting back to old tricks… REPEAT!!! Eventually you should notice that you have less fear, less judgement, and less need to revert to old crutches. And even better? Less bad nights!!!

For each episode, write down how you were feeling and your actions before during and after the night in question for example:

Episode 1 – I started feeling anxious before I went to bed because I was staying in an airbnb and not at home. I stayed up and tried to go to bed when I was sleepy but I got too anxious and went to bed too early which made the anxiety worse. So I thought enough is enough and I got up and followed steps 1-4 in the blueprint. I actually did get some sleep in the end and was surprised at how much I wasnt that worried the next day.

It doesn’t matter how your episode went, the important part is trying to adopt the steps in the blueprint and then observing how each episode is entirely different – not only does this provide new evidence that your anxieties are not always correct, but over time helps you desensitise to the anxieties and to normal bouts of poor sleep, and your body eventually reacts quite differently to them and recovery becomes much quicker!