Okay, I should have written this post a few weeks ago, but I have had lots of running related information to share with you, and I thought that was more important than an update on my life, but it is something I have been wanting to share and I hope it will help you if you have been struggling with insomnia.
It is NOT fun, and is something that can make you miserable if you just let it spiral out of control like I did.
A few weeks ago, I went to see my therapist, Dr Merchant.
I had been seeing her for about 5 months, and even though it initially started as me going to her because of my insomnia, as with what usually happens with therapy, you uncover deeper, hidden issues that you did not realize you had, and are actually quite upsetting to confront.
I have always been a bad sleeper for as a long as I can remember, and I have always been an early riser, but these did not explain why I was unable to fall asleep at night, my mind buzzing with things I needed to say, do, or think through.
I would have a restless night, getting up 3-4 times to go to the bathroom (even though I did not really need to go), and then around 4am, it was like someone flicked a switch; DING! I was wide awake, mind buzzing with things I needed to do.
It was especially bad when I had run a hard workout or long run earlier that day.
I am not going to lie and say that now I am officially graduated (is that the word?!) from therapy, that I can now sleep for 10 hours straight, no moving, no thoughts, falling into a peaceful sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
But am I better?
Do I feel like I am “fixed”?
For me, I would say yes. For anyone else, I would say no.
I used to force myself to
go to attempt to sleep at 9pm sharp, thinking that I NEEEEEEEEDD to get those precious 8 hours that are going to prevent me from sickness, damaging my health, and most importantly (yes, pathetic I know), protect me from injury.
After fidgeting around, bouncing across the bed, often waking up Steve screaming and crying that something was wrong with me because I was so frustrated and fed up, I would fall asleep from exhaustion in the early hours of the morning.
At around 5am, I would throw the covers off, angry and confused as to why I was already wide awake again.
Now I go to bed around 10pm, and I fall asleep within about 30-45 minutes, but feeling a lot more calm and almost indifferent about whether I fall asleep or not.
I still get up between the hour of 5-6am most nights, but sometimes I stay in bed. I usually wake up in the 4am hour, turn a few times, enjoy a little snuggle up against Steve, and then get up when I feel like I want to.
Some days I am able to “sleep in” till around 7am, which for me is impressive, but the difference is, that rather than trying to fight it, feeling like something is wrong with me because everyone else can sleep in till 9 or even 11am, I just have accepted that my body will sleep when it needs to, and I am just one of the 5% of people who does not NEED 8-10 hours, despite my mileage as a runner.
So how did we change this?
Well, there are a few things that Dr Merchant did to change my attitude towards sleep, but to be totally honest, for the most part, it was the time in the office with her, confronting those deep down issues that really solved this.
For that reason, if you have insomnia, the best thing for you to do would be to go see a therapist.
There is nothing to be embarrassed about, well I don’t think so anyway. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, and if you are having trouble sleeping, it is affecting every area of your life, whether you accept that or not.
Would you not rather be the best wife/mother/daughter/friend that you can be to your loved ones? Do you not want to feel more content and happy about your life?
I would say that is worth swallowing your pride and going to see someone, you do not even have to tell anyone if you do not want to.
Realistically, I shouldn’t even be telling you right now, it is a confidential issue, and something that should be kept private, but I want to help others, I want to be an example that there is nothing embarrassing about showing your vulnerability and going to get help.
We work with running coaches to make us better runners. We use mechanics to fix our cars. We see doctors when we are feeling sick to help us get healthy.
But what about your mind being healthy?
Each and every person in this world can do something to make it a better place, improve someones life. A therapist will help your mind get to a good place, which means you enjoy it more, and being happier……well, who doesn’t want that!?
A therapist helps us to face our demons (much like we do in a race) in a constructive way, so that you have the tools to handle your struggles.
Do you think it is a coincidence that I started feeling so much better about my running, about my life around the time I started seeing the therapist?
I told you that Evie helped me to handle those mental freakouts, she taught me what to say to myself when I have those battles, but Dr Merchant opened the door.
She allowed me to see why I was feeling this way, and what the root of the problem was with why I felt so much pressure to perform.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am still a Type A person, I am still GOGOGOGOGO all the time, and to be totally honest, I still have this unattainable expectation of myself that I HAVE to succeed in everything I do. I LOVE to achieve, and I LOVE to show that I am doing things with my life.
I have learned that it is not realistic to hold myself to these ridiculous standards, and I am working on letting go of control.
Control. That is the biggest issue in my life.
Those closest to me know it. They see it in daily life. As much as someone can say to you “don’t worry”, we all know that doesn’t help, if you are worried about something, it will consume your life if you let it, and I was letting it.
I told you I have been letting go of control within my running. I have taken away the goals (other than that one lifetime goal that I accomplished a few months ago).
So how did Dr Merchant help me?
Well firstly, we attacked the control issue.
I am sure you noticed, there is a correlation between the more you feel like you NEED to sleep, with how bad you actually end up sleeping.
Those days I did a hard workout or long run, I struggled with sleep the most.
Well, I think we all know the answer to that one. We have all been there.
I NEED to get sleep, I NEED to fall asleep now……so what happens? We can’t….our minds start to race and we get more and more frustrated, and you end up miserable.
First, Dr Merchant made me do a sleep restriction.
For 5 nights, I had to go to bed at 11pm, and wake up at 5am. I was not allowed to take naps, and after 9pm there was no phones, no TV, just a dim light and reading. Oh, and there were no naps allowed.
It was miserable.
Steve would go to bed, and that final hour would be torture. I would be just trying to keep my eyes open, checking the clock every few minutes to see if I was any closer to the minute hand pointing to the 12.
By the time 11pm rolled around, I could barely make it up the stairs.
But you know what. I fell asleep right away, and when 5am arrived, rather than my mind buzzing, I just wanted to keep sleeping, but I had to get up.
After 5 days, I had “reset” my body clock, and I could start pulling the bedtime back by 20 minutes IF I fell asleep within 20 minutes the night before.
Eventually, my bedtime was back at 9pm, and I slept all the way to 5am.
For about a week, I slept soundly, but soon I started to stress about the 9pm again. No matter what we were doing that evening, I would start making Steve get ready for bed about 8:30, even if I was not tired.
So what happened?
I started to stress when I couldn’t fall asleep, and it got worse, and worse.
Dr Merchant had me work on a “what if, then, but” approach.
She would talk to me about consequences. What if you do get a bad nights sleep? What is the worst that can happen?
I feel tired tomorrow
Will you make it through the day?
I have always been one of those people who can just plow my way through a day if I am tired, rather than taking naps (and when I tried to add naps into my routine before the world half, my sleep deteriorated)
Then I will fall asleep from exhaustion tomorrow night…….or I will stress even more about not sleeping, and then not sleep again
But when we looked at my history with her. I usually would have two bad nights, followed by a good night. So this helped to show me that even if I did stress the following night, I would be so exhausted, that I would give up caring, and fall asleep.
Kind of like the sleep restriction thing.
This approach helped me to see that yes, I was putting myself at risk of injury if I kept having sleepless nights, but in my day-to-day life, it really was not going to kill me, and even if I did end up injured, then what would be the worst that would happen there?
I would heal, and try again.
Not exactly the end of the world.
Overall, this approach helped. Every now and again we would have to go back to the sleep restriction, and I know I will have to in the future. It is a way to reset your body, remind it that you will sleep when you are tired, and raise that sleep drive to a high level, so you let go.
I also had to promise her something else. If I could not fall asleep within 30 mins, I HAD to get up and leave the room.
As torturous as this was, as much as we want to stay in bed and “try” to sleep, at least I am resting that way, my legs are recovering, even if my mind is not, I followed her instructions.
Often I would have to get up, force myself out of bed to go downstairs and read or just sit until I felt so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open, but once I crawled back into bed, I would fall asleep right away.
One important note is that I said leave the room. I had associated my bed with stress, frustration, and insomnia, and that needed to be changed.
There were only two things I was allowed to do in my bed, sleep and…..well, we know what the second is.
No phones near my bed, no talking about my training in bed, nothing at all, and anytime I felt frustrated and flustered, I HAD to leave the room.
So I did.
I used to despise going to bed, I dreaded it actually, but now I am starting to find that I look forward to it.
I am never going to be a good sleeper, and I have accepted that. When I interviewed Dr James Maas, he said that we all NEEDED 8 hours sleep or we were putting our serious long-term health at risk.
Only 5% of the population does not need that much sleep, and almost everyone is sleep deprived.
Dr Maas had 5 questions for you to answer, and if you replied yes to any of them, you are sleep deprived. The questions and the interview are here if you are interested.
I answered no to all of these, and the therapy has allowed me to see that I am in that 5%. I don’t need 8 hours, and on the rare occasion I do get 8 hours, it is a pleasant surprise!
But rather than this information he shared with me helping, it actually made things much much worse, as now I felt even more like I NEEDED to get sleep. It put even more pressure on, and made me feel like something was wrong with me.
Now I feel like a weight has been lifted.
I wake up excited for the day, and I am happy in my life. I do not feel tired throughout the day, and I don’t have that 3pm slump. I may not be getting 8 hours of sleep a night, but the 6-7 I do get is good enough for me, and just by accepting that lifts a HUGE weight off my shoulders.
So a few weeks ago, when I returned to the US, I had an appointment with Dr Merchant. I talked to her about my races (she did not know I had run for GB or my 2:37 marathon PR).
When I last saw her, we had spent the last few sessions talking about my struggle with letting go of control of the Great Britain selection for the world Half.
She knew how much that was ripping me apart not knowing which direction I was going in, but she helped me let go, and allow my path to unfold before me.
With a beaming smile and a happy heart, I told her about what I had done, and how free I felt after accomplishing those goals.
That I did not have this pressure on myself to perform, that I was not out to prove myself to anyone else; the selection committee, other elites, you guys…..actually I think it was in fact proving to MYSELF that I was good enough, that I was worthy of the elite title.
I know many of you think what I did before was enough, and you have been so wonderfully supportive to me over these past few years.
You loved me for who I am rather than what I had accomplished, but at the end of the day, what we think about ourselves matters a lot. And I did not feel confident about myself. When it came to my running, I felt like I was out to prove myself, that I just wanted to show that I was good enough.
Representing Great Britain, my number one goal in my running life, and running a time in the marathon that I felt was respectable was what I really needed to take that pressure off.
I feel like a whole new person. I feel more relaxed. I feel like my life will unfold as it should, and that I just have to enjoy the ride.
Most of all, I feel happy about who I am as a person. I do not feel like I need to prove myself anymore, that it is okay to take some time to relax.
It is okay to not be the best friend to every single person every single hour of the day. That I am only human and I can only do what I can, and the same applies to you too!
Those who love you will love you no matter what you accomplish or what you do.
At the end of the session, Dr Merchant casually said to me “Well, I don’t think you need me anymore”
I was shocked, and for a moment, panicked…..WHAT?! I am not ready to face the world on my own yet? I NEED you.
But she reminded me of how far I have come, what I have done, and how my mindset has changed.
So we said our goodbyes, and she told me I could see her at anytime I needed, but she trusted that I would be okay.
And I am
I have stopped caring about bad nights sleep. I have stopped caring if I wake up at 4am and get up. I have stopped caring how much sleep other elite runners need.
I know what I need, and once again, listening to my body is key.
If your mind is buzzing and you are wide awake at night, force yourself to get up and go do what you need to do to get rid of that junk in there. Then when you do feel tired, go to bed.
The real test will be whether I can keep it going like this when I get back into the hard training again. Yes, I did it with her around, with her reassurance during the london marathon build up, but can I do it without?
There were many meltdowns last time around, lets see if I truly learned to let go.
Have you ever had trouble with sleep? How do you feel better?
PS. My interview with my Strength Coach, Drew, went live today, you can listen here!
I love love love this. for myself and as a mother. people used to tease me about how EARLY Id put my child to bed and then ask/say I BET SHE STRUGGLES FOR HOURS TO GET TO SLEEP!! (nope. she was out in a minute.) For some reason that freed me almost as much as discovering intuitive eating. INTUITIVE SLEEPING it is around here. We each need different amouts and approaches and thats precisely what we do.
I’m glad you were able to overcome your sleep issue. As someone who does see a therapist, I think it’s important to keep your mind healthy before your body.
So pleased to hear this, Tina! You’ve worked so hard on getting to the root of your sleep issues and improving things 🙂
I think seeing a therapist could help soo many people. Nothing wrong with it!
I totally empathize Tina! I find that my insomnia is linked to stress. I recently went through a pretty tough break up and there were many nights where I would just stay up thinking about him and beating myself up. For me, finding ways to be with people I love, share evening meals, and snuggle with pug help keep the negative thoughts at bay, which translates to better sleep. I am a huge fan of therapy and I think all of us can benefit from speaking with someone.
I”m so glad you worked through your insomnia issues–which really weren’t about sleep at all, right?
This is so fascinating! I do struggle a LOT with sleep. I used to take melatonin every single night for 6 years and I’m just now weaning off of it because i noticed I felt so groggy and terrible in the mornings. I saw a therapist for awhile my senior year of college and it didn’t help me as much as I would have liked, but my RD I used to see was really life-changing for me as she acted as a stand-in therapist. I still chat with her occasionally and she’s able to help me work through some things that I might not think about. Control is a huge issue for me as well, so I was interested to hear how letting go has helped you sleep better! I never thought about that!
Oh girl, that must have been awful. I cannot even imagine functioning with just a few hrs of sleep. I cannot sleep more than 9hrs and I usually get 8/7:30 to feel normal. I found out that 8hrs30min is ideal for me, but rarely possible. Less than 7hrs30min and I struggle. Less than 7 and I officially cannot function. That’s why I feel so much for you and I’m so glad that you were able to solve this problem!
I run at night during the week and I sometimes have troubles falling asleep after speed work because of the adrenaline. Thankfully my body got more used to that and now that’s rarely a problem.
Therapy is so good and can be helpful in so many different ways! So glad you have finally gotten to a point where you can sleep as you certainly need all the rest you can get now 🙂
I think knowing how much we need, as individuals, is super important!
I know I’m an 8-9 hour person. I used to fight it and try to sleep less, but now I know this is what I need and I set my schedule accordingly.
Hi Tina! I really enjoyed reading this post as I have had insomnia problems on and off for a lot of my life. I am happy it is getting better for you! Congrats on your continued running success! And I’m SO happy for you and Steve! Take care.