Insomnia will have you trying anything in the quest for a good night’s sleep. For journalist and author Kate Mikhail, no amount of eye masks, ear plugs, baths, sleep supplements or lavender oil could help her get a decent eight hours.
“I had trouble getting to sleep on and off for decades” she tells HuffPost UK. “I had to have prescription sleeping pills as back-up for those nights when I was still wide awake and increasingly anxious around 3am, knowing I had to get up not that much later.”
Mikhail would stress about not being able to sleep, which would turn into a vicious cycle the following day when it was time to hit the hay. “The worry and stress about not being able to sleep triggers our inbuilt fight or flight reaction,” she explains, “and we can’t relax into sleep when this is ramped up, due to the stay-awake hormones being released.”
It was a chance reading of a book by her great-great uncle, an expert in cognitive therapy and clinical hypnosis, that led Mikhail to research the science of sleep and the mind-body loop.
From there, she developed her own tried-and-tested methods that have finally enabled her to take control and wake up feeling rested. Her new book, Teach Yourself To Sleep, blends her experiences with sleep science and interviews with leading doctors, scientists and academics.
Mikhail now describes herself as an ex-insomniac, so something clearly clicked during her quest to find answers to her sleep problem. Here, she shares some of the game-changers that helped her reassess her relationship with sleep.
1. Realising sleep isn’t a separate entity to the day
Before writing her book, Mikhail saw sleep as something that happened at the end of the day, rather than being a product of that day. “I didn’t have any awareness of the sleep-wake cycle – what to do to set it up, or the need to help a whirring mind and body unwind from the overstimulation of modern life.”
One mistake she made, she now realises, was that she didn’t look at what kept her awake. Nor did she appreciate that she couldn’t simply live her day right up until lights out, then expect to instantly switch off. It was only when she realised how sleep is shaped by everything that happens in the day that something clicked into place and made her look at sleep in a completely different way.
Now, she’ll make what she calls “sleep-friendly decisions” from the moment she wakes up, such as what and when she eats, or what she can do to create and release melatonin – the hormone we need to sleep. Not looking at your phone before bed, getting out in the sun first thing in the morning and sleeping in a dark room can all help with melatonin production.
Other sleep-friendly decisions she’s since made include: sticking to a fairly consistent sleep-wake routine, seven days a week, and steering clear of high-calorie, fast release foods too close to bedtime.
“This stops your body from being over-stimulated just before bed,” she says. “Likewise avoiding nail-biter programmes last thing will help you settle much more quickly into the rest-and-digest state you need to be in to sleep.”
2. Ditching the ‘insomniac’ label
Mikhail says describing herself as an insomniac – and accepting that was her lot – probably didn’t help the situation. “Sleep is never set in stone and the words we use to describe ourselves affect how we feel, our emotions, expectations, physiology, habits and how we behave,” she says.
So she stopped calling herself an insomniac – and it genuinely helped.
“When we label ourselves as insomniacs, we’re setting up our expectations of what is going to happen each night when we go to bed,” she explains. “I started telling myself: ‘I may have slept badly in the past, but tonight my sleep will be better because of the changes I’ve made and the sleep tactics I’ve adopted’.”
This attitude helped take away the insomnia worry and self-fulfilling prophecy aspect that would set in before she went anywhere near her bedroom.
3. Appreciating the benefits of daylight
Daylight has a huge impact on our sleep-wake cycle, and therefore our wellbeing. “If we don’t soak up enough daylight, our body clocks are left in a state of confusion and chaos,” says Mikhail.
Understanding the basic biology behind this helped Mikhail understand why she wasn’t sleeping well. Light-sensitive cells in our eyes register the light around us and use this to sync our body clocks and set up our circadian rhythms. This makes us alert or tired depending on the time of day, she says.
“I now make a point of getting out in the morning – or cheating with a light box when that’s not possible – to anchor my body clock in that light. I sky grab as the day goes on – looking up rather than down – so that those light-sensitive cells get this powerful sleep habit cue and my sleep cycle is kept on track.”
4. Reading sleep scripts
Sleep scripts are designed to help you unwind before bed. They’re something Mikhail swears by. “When first sorting out my sleep, I recorded myself reading a short sleep script written by my great-great uncle Richard Waters, which is in my book,” she says. She nows sets a daily reminder to listen to this at 5pm.
A ‘sleep script’ (see an example here) sets the stage for the sleep you will have later, she explains. It helps change your thought habits in relation to sleep, but also how you feel, triggering physical and behavioural changes. It essentially runs through what should be happening in your body and mind as you prepare for bed. “It’s powerful given that our thoughts and the auto-suggestions we give ourselves set off a physical and behavioural chain reaction,” says Mikhail.
There are four sleep scripts in Mikhail’s book, one of which was written by her relative. “I found it very relaxing and reassuring to listen to my uncle’s sleep script every evening, when I was sorting out my sleep,” she says.
5. Getting to grips with habits
The ex-insomniac says researching habit science helped her tackle her problem head on. “It was fascinating to find that all habits are formed the same way, as far as our brain’s concerned, including our sleep habits,” she says. “I was able to stop my old sleep habit of ruminating in bed for hours on end.”
There’s a whole chapter on habits in her book, exploring how they are formed in the brain and how we can look at our sleep habits in an objective way to dismantle the ones we don’t want and set up ones we do.
“Our habits are fascinating – up to 40% of what we do every day is habitual,” she says. “Our sleep habit context is our bedroom and it’s important we make this as conducive to sleep as possible. This means lots of good sleep habit cues, as well as removing bad ones, such as work, or anything thats going to stimulate our mind and wake us up at a time when we need to mentally unwind and disengage.”
Kate Mikhail is the author of Teach Yourself to Sleep: An Ex-Insomniac’s Guide, published by Piatkus and available from all major bookshops.