Chronic Insomnia Cures and the Secret to Effortless Sleep

Have you ever tossed and turned what seemed like the entire night – unable to get to sleep? Sleep expert Sasha Stephens had 15 years of crippling insomnia until she was able to solve the problem – without medication, sleeping pills or expensive gadgetry.

She now teaches her Effortless Sleep Method – a sleep training programme that helps people get restorative sleep – even if insomnia has haunted them for weeks, months – or years.

Listen to the interview below to find out:

  • What can you do if you just  can’t sleep
  • The most common beliefs that prevent people from accessing their ability for natural sleep
  • Why the common approaches – especially sleeping pills – actually making the problem worse
  • Why sleeping less can sometimes be the answer
  • The unusual answer to much sleep you actually need
  • The different types of sleep (this explains why you can sleep 8 hours – and wake up feeling exhausted)
  •  
  • Circadian cycles – and whether you can really label yourself morning or night owl person
  • Sleep apnea and its relationship with insomnia
  • Caffiene and sleep – how to get your morning coffee – and sleep at night

To find out more about effortless sleep and Sasha’s work, go to:

Transcript:

Naomi: Welcome, everybody. Today we have on the line Sasha Stephens. Sasha had 15 years of crippling insomnia, until she was able to solve the problem. Here, I kind of want to say overnight, but I’ll take that up with Sasha. She’s the creator of The Effortless Sleep Method, a sleep training program that helps people sleep without sleeping pills.

So welcome, Sasha.

Sasha: Thank you, Naomi. I’m very, very happy to be here.

Naomi: I must say that I was quite excited about this interview, because up until about two years ago I could sleep whenever and just could sleep whenever I wanted to. And then just over the last two years, I found that sometimes I just can’t. So I’m quite looking forward to this interview, too. I’m quite excited about hearing what Sasha has to say.

Sasha: Great. And I have to say, Naomi, my recovery wasn’t quite overnight.

Naomi: It wasn’t overnight.

Sasha: It wasn’t quite that quick. It was quick and it was almost miraculous at the time, but it took a little while to get to where I would say I was utterly, completely and honestly cured. But initial changes that sort of brought about the initial sort of stage of recovery, that was very rapid, indeed. And then *** (01:16) actually made me realize no, I’m actually cured now. This is no longer in my life. But it’s important to know that, because you don’t want to get hung up on the idea that something can cure you from chronic insomnia overnight, because it isn’t usually that way. People are hung up on that. They think there’s something wrong with them when they can’t cure it overnight.

Naomi: Yeah, no, that’s fair enough. And could you just tell us exactly in a little bit more detail about insomnia and then the crisis you went through?

Sasha: Sure, yeah. I was just a completely normal woman, just an ordinary British woman, really healthy, happy, going about my life, and it was almost like insomnia just sort of struck me down one night. It literally crept up on me one night, and I went on to suffer with this acute, disabling, devastating insomnia. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep for days at a time. Very, very strange. I tried everything, and for 15 years I went through life in like a waking nightmare, just misery, exhausting, nothing ever helping, nobody understanding.

I pretty much became utterly and completely obsessed. I allowed it to effect every area of my life. There’s not a single decision I made that I didn’t first think about will this affect my sleep. Can I do this? Will it affect my sleep? In fact, some people just have to say the word sleep or insomnia and I would jump into anxiety. My heart would leap and I would think, sleep, goodness. It was almost like a massive anxiety trigger for me. It was like good sleep was just a mere kind of a memory, really.

So the whole business of insomnia became kind of my nemesis. It was like my obsession. I was really obsessed at the time. In 2005 actually, after about 15 years of this, a completely chance event enabled me to see the entire problem from a new perspective, and I kind of saw in an instant all the things I’d been doing which were also sort of enabling and reinforcing my own insomnia.

Naomi: Okay.

Sasha: At that point, I realized I had found a cure. A cure to chronic insomnia. Not in drugs or external remedy or anything like that, but just by looking at myself. My *** (03:43), my thoughts, my beliefs. It sounds like a cliché, but the cure really was inside of me. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. And after a lot of research and talking to people online and testing my ideas out on other insomniacs that I knew, I wrote my first book, The Effortless Sleep Method which I’ve already talked about, and that’s where I detail the specific steps.

Three books later, I’m pretty much a full-time sleep therapist now. I help people all over the world. Believe it or not, this problem is one that you’ll find on every continent, every culture. This is a totally universal problem. It doesn’t matter where people are. They could be in Africa, they could be in Asia, they could be in America, Canada, South America, they all are suffering with insomnia, pretty much everywhere you look.

Naomi: You say you were obsessed with it, but I think that’s quite reasonable, because it’s not until you can’t sleep that you realize just how important it is.

Sasha: Exactly.

Naomi: It’s vital for almost every aspect of functioning, really.

Sasha: Most people don’t think about it, and that’s a great position to be in. And the problem is, it’s when you’re not think about it that you sleep so well. It’s a little bit like driving a car. When you think about driving a car, when you think about changing the gears you tend to make a mistake. I do anyway. Or you think too much about sleeping and lying down and how should I sleep tonight, which is the way chronic insomniacs usually behave is to worry about how we’re going to sleep best tonight. That’s the very worst thing you can do. That’s where it becomes an obsession. You’re constantly trying to find a way to make you sleep better, when actually in a bizarre way that’s one of the worst things you can do, ironic but true.

Naomi: Yeah, I’ve noticed the times that I’ve thought, I really need to get to bed early tonight because maybe I’ve got something important the next day or have to get up early and do something. That’s probably like jinxing or something. That’s when I won’t be able to get to sleep.

Sasha: Yeah, it is. It’s weird, but it’s also those days when we have something very important to get up and the days we really need the sleep when we tend to do something unusual, special, like going to bed early or maybe using a remedy. And that’s actually a bit of a mistake, because that marks that night out as special and different, so you’re already in a slightly unusual state for sleeping and you’re actually most likely to get no sleep then. On those special nights, it’s better to just sort of be as normal as possible. So difficult I know, but this is what I’ve discovered.

Naomi: Could we go over the scientific view of sleep, just to get an idea about that? And then we’ll start looking in more detail about how we can help insomniacs.

Sasha: Okay. Well, the thing is you’ll find that my views are a little bit bizarre in some of these areas. I don’t tend to agree with whatever I hear in the media. I tend to pay not a huge amount of attention to the media, even to many scientific studies because they don’t necessarily correlate with my own experience of dealing with insomniacs every single day.

I mean, I know that not getting enough sleep has an enormous effect, a terrible effect sometimes, on your mental well-being. It can cause pressure, it can affect your career, it can affect your relationships, even. But the latest sort of medical views do suggest that not getting enough sleep will cause serious illness, shorten your life, give you cancer or who knows what else. In fact, if you don’t get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep you’ll probably die on the spot, or some other such thing.

Naomi: Right.

Sasha: I tend to downplay these scare stories. I don’t think they’re helpful at all, for two reasons actually. Firstly, I speak to chronic insomniacs every day of my life. I speak to people who survive on maybe just one or two hours, or getting nothing at all. And what I hear all the time about the negative effect on someone’s mental state, with relationships and things, I’ve never heard a single person who thinks insomnia’s contributed to any serious illness. Now I know this is just anecdotal evidence, of course. This is just my experience. But I tend to believe my own experience rather than what the official line is.

The problem is with these sorts of scare stories, is they’re not — having insomnia, you better get to sleep or you’re going to die. It’s not exactly conducive to good sleep. Do you know what I mean, Naomi?

Naomi: Yes, yes.

Sasha: It’s like the last thing that insomniacs need is you better damn well get some sleep because you’re going to really make yourself ill. It’s like telling a depressed person, cheer up. Just cheer up or you’re going to have a nervous breakdown. It’s like, how helpful is that?

Naomi: Extremely unhelpful, yeah.

Sasha: I just go on what works, really. I pay attention to the people I speak to, the actual insomniacs, and less attention to what the official line is.

Naomi: So there’s all the different kinds of sleep. The REM sleep, and then there’s the really, really deep sleep. How does that work in with insomnia?

Sasha: This is actually quiet important. Actually, you may know, but I’ll just go very quickly through these stages of sleep. The first one, you’ve got stage one sleep, which is also known as light sleep. Some people say there are more stages, but I’m just going to deal with the three basic types of sleep. So light sleep is that sleep you get just as you’re about to drop off. You might still dream quite a lot, you might dream quite weird dreams, but it’s still quite easy to wake someone up in stage one sleep. In fact, you might feel like you haven’t really slept at all, if somebody wakes you up. You’ll say, “I wasn’t asleep,” when you were just in light sleep.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that they have nights where you got no sleep at all, that’s probably — it’s unlikely. It’s quite rare to get a night of absolutely no sleep at all. You probably just had sleep that was so light that you mistook it for kind of normal wakefulness, normal consciousness.

The problem is, insomniacs tend to get a lot of this light sleep and less of more important stages. And the thing is, this light state, this light sleep, although it is sleep, it really only has minimal kind of refreshing, rejuvenating properties. You’ve really gone a whole night without sleep because you still feel absolutely lousy in the morning after that type. What you really need is a decent amount of deep, delta sleep. That’s the very deepest type of sleep. And that’s what will make you feel really good in the morning. You have very little dreaming, and it’s very difficult to wake people in that stage. If you’re woken from that type of sleep it’s a real wretch. You’re like, “What on earth’s going on?”

That’s the sleep that feels the most delicious. You can sometimes get an hour or so of that sleep and you’ll feel better on that than you will if you had eight hours of light sleep. One hour of delta sleep can sort of make you feel better than any number of stage one sleep, really.

Naomi: Is that the sleep where you don’t have any dreams, you’re just completely out for the count?

Sasha: I think there’s some debate about this, but some people say no dreams at all, but I have heard other scientists say there is actually a little bit of dreaming that goes on, but you’re probably unlikely to remember it in the morning anyway. Very, very little activity going on. You’re really, really out of it in that sleep. It feels great. When you’ve had it you know it, because you feel better in the morning.

The third type of sleep, which you did mention, most people have heard of, which is REM sleep. That’s the sleep where you dream the most. REM, as you probably know, stands for rapid eye movement, referring to the movement of the eyes. They move as if you were completely conscious, even though you’re asleep. Now this type of sleep seems to be associated with mental well-being, rather than physical refreshment. And the thing is, if you don’t get enough REM sleep your mental state is really going to suffer badly. You’ll feel confused, anxious, possibly depressed if you don’t get enough REM sleep.

And the thing is, many sleeping medications, sleeping pills, will considerably reduce the amount of REM sleep you get. This is one reason why it’s better for you to stay away from them. And this may explain why for a lot of people they’ll take sleeping pills, they’ll sleep the whole night but they’ll wake up feeling depressed, confused, anxious. It’s because they haven’t gotten enough REM sleep, even though they’ve been asleep all night.

Naomi: That’s fascinating that there’s a whole mental component of sleep as well.

Sasha: Totally, totally. There seems to be, yeah, these three types of sleep, and particularly the REM sleep and the deep sleep, these seem to be essential in different ways, but definitely REM sleep for the mental well-being is a biggie.

Naomi: *** (12:50) psychologists and the whole subconscious working out of problems while you’re asleep, in dreams. That’s really fascinating. I didn’t know that, cool. Okay, so insomniacs may be able to get light sleep, but they have difficulty getting into these other sleep states?

Sasha: I’d say generally that’s the case. Not always. I mean, you can sometimes be getting that deep sleep as well but just not enough of it, really. I’d say in my experience, most of the insomniacs I speak to, I suspect, I haven’t done a sleep study on them obviously, but I suspect they’re getting mainly light sleep. It’s actually possible to survive almost, for a long time on this light sleep. You can go days and days and days, where you had very little, other than just this light sleep, and it’s really not very refreshing at all. You need to get these other two forms of sleep in order to feel really good, and in my experience insomniacs tend to find it difficult, particularly to get the deep sleep that makes them feel very refreshing in the morning.

And if they’re taking sleeping pills, they’re not going to be getting enough REM sleep, which is why they’re probably going to end up getting depressed and anxious in the morning.

Naomi: Right. Now how much sleep do we actually need?

Sasha: Okay, there’s a lot of disagreement about this, really. Like in these other areas, I like to really avoid setting kind of these specific and arbitrary limits on the amount of sleep a person needs, because to be honest, peoples’ sleep needs, they vary enormously. Some people seem to feel fine on five hours, six hours max, and others say they really need nine. I need quite a bit of sleep actually myself, but I speak to people all the time who will get six, seven hours and that’s all they’ll ever need.

Naomi: I’ve often thought I would love to sleep less, but I’ve tried in the past, sleeping six hours a night, and it was all right for the first couple of weeks but then after that I started to feel rundown and tired and ended up not very energetic.

Sasha: Right, yeah. The thing is, the number of hours you sleep is irrelevant, if the quality isn’t good. You can have, as I’ve sort of mentioned before, if you have one hour of really good, deep delta sleep it can make you feel more refreshed regardless of the number of hours of poor sleep. So it depends a lot, I think, on the quality of the sleep you’re getting.

And this is something I address in my books. It’s a lot to go into now, but a lot of the steps I ask you to take are concerned with improving the quality of your sleep. So you may end up needing fewer hours anyway. The bottom line is really, if you think you’re getting enough sleep then you probably are. These arbitrary limits of you need eight, you need nine, you need whatever else, they really make no sense because peoples’ needs vary so much. If you can get up without too much difficulty, you’re having a happy and productive day without getting overly groggy or desperate for a nap, then you’re getting enough sleep, and that’s my sort of benchmark.

I try to stay away from these — the problem is, when the media’s telling you, you need eight hours, you need nine hours of sleep, people come to me sometimes who are really terrified because they’re maybe only getting seven, seven and-a-half hours of sleep. There’s nothing wrong with them. They feel fine, they’re functioning okay, but they’ve heard they need eight and they can only get seven and-a-half and they think something’s wrong with them. And that’s really a recipe for disaster. So that’s the sort of situation where insomnia really could jump in there and cause a problem. So I tend to avoid these sort of arbitrary amounts of sleep. That sound a bit vague, but there’s good reason for it.

Naomi: Yeah, to me that sounds very reasonable, because everyone is different, and as you say, it’s the quality of the sleep that’s important, and not a set, fixed amount. As you said, if you’re energetic during the day and you wake up and you don’t feel completely exhausted, then you’re probably doing okay, and that makes perfect sense.

Sasha: I think also, some people find that there’s a set — I don’t know a huge amount about this, but some people find there’s a set sort of timeslot in which they need to get their sleep. For example, if I go to bed sort of too late, if my seven or eight hours are too late, I don’t feel too good in the morning. I feel better if I go to bed about 11 usually, something like that, 10 or 11. It seems to suit me, rather than if I push it on a bit I won’t feel so refreshed by it.

Naomi: Does that have to do with the circadian cycles? The whole morning person, night owl thing.

Sasha: This is a really thorny subject, because some people swear they’re a night owl, but they’re not really a night owl. My grandmother was a night owl, and they can’t wake up in the morning because their internal clock is set that way. And apparently there’s scientific evidence to back this up. But all I can say is that I’ve seen numerous people change from one to the other, and I’m one of those people, bizarrely enough. For most of my life I was such a night owl. I was so convinced that there was no way this could change. I spent most of my job doing proper jobs almost my whole life. I *** (18:33), then I became self-employed.

But most of this was because I didn’t think I could ever cope with an early start. How on earth could I get up early? After all, I was a night owl. I couldn’t do this. But now this is completely reversed. I love getting up early now. I like to go to bed at 10:00 at night and get up early in the morning. That’s what I like to do. It gives me almost like a kick, to know that I’m up and out before the rest of the world is even awake. I tend to find nighttime quite boring. I’m almost looking forward to going to bed so that I can get to the morning stage. Morning is my absolute best time of day now.

Naomi: Well that’s good. I love it. So when you wake up, do you have that experience of waking up and feeling wide awake and feeling like getting up?

Sasha: Yeah, pretty much. I’m pretty much awake the moment I wake up, but I’m lucky that I’ve kind of always been that way. I wake up, sometimes I’ll set an alarm, but generally I’ll wake up before the alarm’s gone off. I’ll get up, sit on the edge of the bed, within minutes I’m up, I’m up awake, doing things. It doesn’t take me long to get myself together, but that’s just me. I know there are people who find it much, much more difficult and it takes them a lot longer to get rid of the groggy feeling. I just really don’t enjoy that morning groggy feeling, so I sort of try to shake it off as fast as I possibly can.

Naomi: Right, yeah.

Sasha: So I don’t know about this theory, Naomi. Perhaps there is some truth in it. Perhaps there’s some scientific truth in it. But what I will say is that I think it’s impossible for any person to know themselves whether your sort of night owl tendencies are really set in stone, or whether it’s something you can change. It could just be a habit, like mine was, that could be changed, because I do see that a lot. But I’m not claiming I know enough about it to quantificate about it. There may well be people who do have something set about them.

Naomi: Okay, but I’ve seen people —

Sasha: Yeah, it’s just impossible for you really to know, without sort of testing the theory.

Naomi: Yeah, fair enough. Now, let’s get to the insomnia, because I know it can be incredibly distressing if you’re lying in bed, you feel tired but you just can’t get to sleep. So what do you generally tell people, who come to you with that problem?

Sasha: Okay. Insomnia normally starts with just a normal bout of bad sleep, normal sort of situation, possibly caused by illness, stress, experiencing severe pain. It could just be keeping strange hours. This is completely normal. It happens to almost everyone. But for some people, insomnia remains long after this initial trigger has disappeared, and that’s when it can begin to ruin your life, become an obsession, a downer, and sometimes no cures or remedies will even touch the problem. The more things that don’t work, the more despondent the person becomes.

A person starts believes there’s something different, something more severe about their problem, that they’re broken and incurable. This is the situation I see again and again and again. It’s what almost chronic insomniac thinks. This is really where I come in. This is really where my specialty is. See, my own approach, my cure, is not a remedy that you can take. It’s not one specific action or something you have to do, because this sort of sticking plaster approach never really works, because every chronic insomniac eventually comes to realize that fear and belief play a huge part in this problem. And often the only thing keeping them from sleeping ends up being the fear of not sleeping. The fear itself is often enough to keep them from sleeping, even with the strongest sleeping pill.

Now, if this is true, this fear and negative beliefs can also prevent any remedy, technique or program from working. That fear is strong enough to kick in, stop sleeping pills from working, stop any remedies from working. Eventually, fear kicks in and sabotages everything. Now this is why people often report that a technique or a remedy will work for a few weeks and then just stops working, but it hasn’t really stopped working. All that’s happened is you’ve stopped believing in it.

So rather than treating insomnia with a cure, with a sticking plaster as if it were some sort of disease, my own approach is about empowerment. I work on eliminating fear, changing the negative beliefs and sort of undermining the insomnia at its foundations. So I like to tell people that when you truly understand the mechanics and the psychology of your own problem, then you can begin to take control of it. You can dominate it. You can bully it. Just the way the insomnia’s been bullying and controlling you, you can turn it on its head and start controlling it. This way, you can be sure your recovery is permanent, because only from a position of complete understanding and power, knowing that insomnia is never really going to return.

So I do have a list in the book of recommendations that you do, but the real magic is not in those steps. It’s in really getting an understanding of the problem. So I’ll tell you a few of the specifics. I obviously can’t cover everything, because I’ve written three books on the subject.

Naomi: Fair enough, but that would be great.

Sasha: I approach treating insomnia from two directions. First of all, I recommend that everyone, everyone tighten up their basic sleep hygiene. That’s sorting out any sort of going to bed *** (24:16) going to bed habits which may have crept in. That’s sort of taking too many naps, lying in bed very long in the morning, doing all sorts of things in bed like reading, studying in bed, this is basic sleep hygiene. You’ll read about it in pretty much every insomnia book in the world. And I recommend that for everyone, no matter what.

But second, I get you to go to work on fears and negative beliefs. Stopping doing those things which are reinforcing the negative beliefs, and working to create new ones.

Naomi: Okay. Can you give an example of a couple of those negative beliefs?

Sasha: Absolutely. Well first of all, a couple of the sleep hygiene rules are, for example don’t *** (25:00), don’t take naps, don’t go to bed nice and early to catch up. If anything, you should spend a little less time in bed. But this is one of the things I recommend to almost everyone. Give your sleep a little bit of push by spending a little bit less time in bed, sometimes just by half-an-hour or more or less. That can cure a huge number of insomnia problems, just spending a little bit less time in bed.

Naomi: That’s so fascinating, because it seems quite counterintuitive, like the opposite.

Sasha: Totally counterintuitive, especially if you’ve been one of those people who has been taking naps, trying to catch up, this is what I did for years, tried to catch up on my sleep whenever I could, lying in bed in the mornings and weekends, going to bed nice and early. Worst thing you can do is to go to bed nice and early. There’s no such thing as going to bed nice and early. It’s not nice; it’s totally the wrong thing to do.

Naomi: Okay.

Sasha: The second really important point I need to make is that I’m totally and completely opposed to taking sleeping pills for insomnia. I realize people sometimes take them for other reasons, but if you take them specifically for insomnia and not for something like chronic pain, it really, really is a big no-no. If you *** (26:07) you have to speak to your doctor about giving them up. It really can be a dangerous process, taking out sleeping pills, so you need to get medical supervision to do it. But this is something I’m absolutely adamant about. It’s not because of some new-age idea about sleeping pills are bad and no drugs. It has nothing to do with that. It’s because sleeping pills make insomnia worse, absolutely, categorically they make insomnia worse, and they can’t ever, ever, ever cure chronic insomnia.

Overcoming insomnia is about coming to the belief you can sleep. It’s about coming to trust yourself again. It’s about believing you can sleep on your own. And you can see that it’s literally impossible to cultivate and build that belief while you’re taking pills. In fact, every time you take a sleeping pill you weaken your own trust and your belief in your ability to sleep. So it’s actually weakening your own trust every single time you take them. I could write a whole book on this subject, to be honest.

Naomi: It’s fascinating, yeah.

Sasha: By taking sleeping pills, you cannot recover from chronic insomnia. You can be cutting down, and of course every single night with a reduced amount is a triumph. If you sleep with a reduced amount it’s a massive triumph. Eventually, you won’t be looking at taking those pills. So if you want to get over chronic insomnia and you’re currently taking a pill every night, speak to your doctor. Don’t do it alone. Speak to your doctor about cutting down, is the first stage, because it’s only really once those pills are out of your system that you’ll be able to start building your own belief, your own trust and realizing you can sleep again, like a normal person.

I’m moving on now to one of the most important ways to change your belief here, and it’s weird one but it’s pretty important. I find that you stop complaining about your insomnia. This is one of the most important things I recommend. No matter how badly you slept, no matter how horrible you feel, resist the temptation to complain with your friends, your partner, colleagues, whatever, about the problem. Because all this does is just constantly remind you of the problem. It reminds them. It turns the problem into something real, into something big. It keeps it prominent in your life. It sort of rarifies it into a huge condition, so that it becomes this monster in your life.

So you need to start playing the problem down. You need to push it to the background, where it belongs. Does that make any sense to you?

Naomi: That makes perfect sense, because if you’re working at the level of belief then if you’re making it this huge, significant thing that you focus all your attention on, then it will just become more powerful.

Sasha: Absolutely, and this little move alone, if you’ve got a real sleeping problem and you’re used to talking about it constantly, talking to your parents, talking to your friends, if your friends and your partner ask you every morning, “How did you sleep? How’s your insomnia?” that’s got to stop. That’s just keeping the problem in place. Making this change can have a profound effect on things very, very quickly. You end up forgetting about your problem. When you forget about your problem, it will often just disappear all on its own.

I’ve said all the don’ts now. Maybe I should give you a do. Here’s a good do. Do put your life first. Get on with as full a life as you possibly can, without making concessions to your insomnia. Go to every party, to exercise and really get in and grasp your life with both hands. Because every compromise you make to insomnia reinforces insomnia. Again, like the complaining thing, the more full your life is, the easier it will be to push insomnia into the background where it becomes. And the more concessions you’re making to it, the more you’re thinking it, you just feed this monster by making concessions, by compromising your life, by not doing this, not going to parties, not doing exercise, not seeing friends, because you’ve got a sleep problem. It’s just reinforcing the problem. Get on with your life and push it to the background. That’s where it belongs. That’s where it deserves to be.

Naomi: That’s really powerful stuff. I read once this lady talking about she had back pain, and she described it as a kuku that had sort of climbed into the nest, like another family member that was pushing all the other family members to the side, and then she started taking similar steps in regards to her back pain and she found that it became much less.

Sasha: That’s really interesting. I like that kuku in the nest metaphor. I think that’s really interesting, because that is what it’s like, constantly nagging away at you, yes. Very, very interesting.

Naomi: Yeah, I thought that was a very powerful picture as well. Are there any stories of people that come to mind, people that you’ve helped with insomnia? I mean, there’s your own story but over the years of all the people that have come to you, are there any that really stand out?

Sasha: Well, usually the ones that really sort of stay with me are the ones where the person has had a history, sometimes a lifetime of being prescribed medication and become physically and psychologically addicted. Sometimes they’ve got real horror stories of being locked away in institutions and sectioned and being given anti-psychotic drugs, all because of insomnia and it’s really quite bizarre. But people are being drugged sometimes since their teens or early 20s, and no one’s ever suggested to them that they maybe just take a look at their sleeping habits.

These tend to be my greatest challenges, because there actually is a genuine, physical aspect to the insomnia. This is not just about bad habits and bad thinking. They’ve got drugs in their system, they’ve got brain chemistry as being messed up. Some of these drugs are seriously heavy duty stuff. Benzodiazepine, even barbiturates, and these people sometimes are left as a bit of a wreck. Not by the mental illness itself, but by the *** (32:34) of the drugs.

And when I can help those people, I’ve got a handful, maybe even 10 people or so like that, where when I’ve been able to help people like that, I know I’m doing the right thing. I really know that I’m onto something. I know this is all worthwhile. It almost makes my own horrible history worthwhile, almost worthwhile. I can’t mention any names obviously because these are private stories, but those are the ones where I feel really proud of myself. They’re the ones where I feel, “You’re really doing some good for the world. If you can help them you can help anyone.”

Naomi: Yeah, because I can imagine how once you start getting into heavy medications, you’re just adding another whole layer into the mix to make it harder to get normal, natural sleep.

Sasha: Physical withdrawal, the mental withdrawal you have, which is very, very difficult, you have this terrible physical withdrawal symptoms sometimes, which is why it’s important to do this with the help of a doctor because the physical side effects of withdrawing from medication can be really quite severe. Doing it without some sort of program like mine that will address the negative thoughts and beliefs and worries that you’ll have along the way, it must be very, very difficult for people. But I really take my hat off to people who can do that, without such a program at the same time. Some people have managed it, and they’re the ones I feel most proud of.

Whenever anybody writes to me and says, “I’ve overcome my insomnia after God knows how many years,” it’s always lovely to hear. Those are the ones that stand out. It almost makes the whole thing — not quite worth it, I’d still rather have never had insomnia, I have to look back a bit, but I have to think — I do think to myself, “Is it worth it? No, I’d still rather not have had it.” But stories like this go some way to making it better, I suppose.

Naomi: It’s really tough not getting good sleep. It makes everything that much harder, no doubt about it.

Sasha: It really is. It really is. It’s unrecognized really, just how bad the effects can be.

Naomi: When you’re helping people with their beliefs, what have you found are some of the most persistent and detrimental beliefs?

Sasha: Without a doubt, the most detrimental beliefs are, “I’m different, I’m broken, something broke in my head or a switch got set on and I can’t turn it off,” or the belief that, “Nothing ever works for me.” These are the beliefs that most chronic insomniacs have one or other or all of those beliefs. Those are pretty bad. Another bad one is the belief that recovery should be overnight. So very often people will take — this is what I mentioned earlier — people will take a remedy for example, that may actually help them, or a technique, a relaxation technique which could be a really good one for them, but it doesn’t work the first night and they think, “Oh my God, that doesn’t work,” because they’re expecting something to happen instantly and overnight, an that’s a really, really bad belief to have because it’s rarely like that. This is generally not a very slow process, but it’s a gradual process. It’s about gradually changing your beliefs. You can’t change your belief overnight. You can’t just change your belief in an instant.

So things will rarely work that way. That’s a pretty negative belief to have, that if something’s going to work it’s going to work straight away. Sometimes I will get people who will say, “I read your book and it all sounds great, but I didn’t sleep last night. I read it yesterday, and I didn’t sleep last night.” They think they’ll just read a book and it will happen instantly. It’s not always like that, I’m afraid, and that’s one of the things I have to explain to people, that no this isn’t like that. It’s not something we’re going to fix like with a pill. This is going to be a slow process and belief change.

Naomi: How long does it usually take, on average?

Sasha: Honestly, it can be pretty much instant. It depends on how quickly sort of the click happens in your mind, when you realize exactly what’s required and what you’re doing. People do read my book sometimes and say, “I slept really well that night. I slept three nights in a row, and it was really great.” Other people take weeks or months. Most people will see some sort of improvement relatively quickly, and it’s the making it permanent that takes the longer time.

I would say, most people will see a change or see an improvement within weeks or months, a couple of weeks or couple of months.

Naomi: When someone comes to you and says, “I think I’ve flipped a switch and I can’t switch it off and I’m broken in some way,” what do you generally tell them?

Sasha: I tell them that every other person that ever comes to me says the same thing and it’s never true, and I had exactly the same belief. I had exactly that belief, that something broke, something broke. I used to be able to sleep, now I can’t, so something must have broken. And you lay down and sleep doesn’t come, so something must have become set wrong in my head. It’s not working anymore. Something’s broken in me. The doctor needs to go in and set it again. This is what I hear again and again and again, but it’s never the case, because people say this and then with a few changes to their behavior, suddenly they’re sleeping again. If you go through those changes in behaviors, it suddenly resets the switch. That doesn’t sound very likely. It’s just the switch was never there.

When we’re suffering with insomnia, we tend to focus intently on things that are going on in our bodies and we’ll make up all sorts of stories about what’s going on, like the sleep switch is broken off or I get this jump into awareness when I lay down. I think there’s something wrong with me. There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re behaving in a completely normal way. It’s just you pay so much attention to the little things that are going on in your body, you think there’s something special or different or weird going on.

Naomi: That is so fascinating, because we are creatures of habit.

Sasha: Yeah, absolutely.

Naomi: We can build habits at anything. We can build great habits, or we can build habits that are harmful to us. And I suppose when you look at it that way, it’s possible to habitually not sleep.

Sasha: Completely. In my second book, The Effortless Sleep Companion, this is the point I make. But really, people won’t believe it. A lot of people will disagree with this, but I’m adamant that chronic insomnia is a bad habit. That’s all it is. There’s nothing broken in your head, in almost every case. I’m sure there are some people who’ve got some physical problem wrong with them, but probably less than half of one percent of people I come across have actually got anything physically wrong with them. They all seem to respond very much to the same advice. So it’s a habit. It’s just a bad habit. The sooner you realize and accept that, the sooner you can actually make steps to overcoming it.

If you remain convinced that there’s something physically broken inside you, that’s going to hamper your recovery, because you’re never going to find that thing. There’s no way for you even to investigate it, even if it were true. How on earth would you find it?

Naomi: That’s fascinating, because it is also a human thing that we want to find the magic pill or the switch, or physically find the problem.

Sasha: Yeah, we want to think our way out of it. We want to sit down and think and work it out, but you can’t always work it out.

Naomi: Now what about things like sleep apnea? Where does that fit into this?

Sasha: Yeah, sleep apnea is really, to be honest, is not my area of expertise. This is a physical problem. This is something which needs to be diagnosed by a doctor. It’s potentially a dangerous condition. I don’t know if any of your listeners know what sleep apnea is, but it’s a condition where you’re stopping breathing for sometimes just a few seconds or even a few minutes at a time during sleep. You do it hundreds and hundreds of times during the night, and people who suffer with sleep apnea often wake up feeling really, really un-refreshed, with headaches and things, even though they seem to have sleep deeply all night, because they don’t realize they’ve actually been waking up constantly through the night and not breathing properly.

Certain conditions can make it worse, but this is not something I can treat with my recommendations. It’s a very, very different type of insomnia. It’s a physical problem, sleep apnea. It needs to be checked out by a doctor.

Naomi: Is it relatively rare, though?

Sasha: It seems to be being diagnosed a lot more now. It’s not something people come to me very often with, because I think when people have it they’ve generally gone to their doctor and the doctor has diagnosed it. There are specific treatments for sleep apnea, wearing masks and things which doctors can prescribe to you. You generally have to do a proper sleep study to diagnose sleep apnea.

Naomi: Okay, but the experience of lying in bed and just being unable to get to sleep is —

Sasha: That’s not going to be sleep apnea, unless you’re — if you wake up gasping for breath, if you wake up feeling breathless, if you wake up with headaches, if you’re very overweight, people who are very overweight tend to suffer a lot more with it. But if you have some of these other symptoms, like waking up with headaches or the fact that you are overweight or if you snore very, very badly, that’s a good indication that you might have sleep apnea and you might want to get it checked out by the doctor. But sleep apnea and ordinary, chronic insomnia don’t necessarily go together.

Naomi: Right. Now the relationship between coffee or caffeine and sleep.

Sasha: Yeah, sure.

Naomi: What do you generally advise for that? Because some people swear by their morning coffee, I’m one of them, but what do you find?

Sasha: Actually, one of my very good friends is now completely unable to drink caffeinated coffee at all, because it stops her from sleeping well, even in the morning. This is a very, very personal thing, I’m afraid. My own partner, he can drink an espresso coffee at 11:00 at night and go to sleep completely fine. There are certain people who are able to do that. Some people will drink vodka Red Bulls all night and sleep fine. I couldn’t drink a vodka Red Bull at night, no chance of that. So this is a personal thing.

If you are drinking coffee or cola drinks, or even strong tea, after about sort of 5:00 and 6:00 at night and you’re not sleeping, that should be the first thing you look at cutting down. I’m not saying cut out caffeine altogether. I’m just saying cut it down first of all, and see if it has an effect on your sleep. I generally now, personally try to avoid drinking caffeine after about 3:00 in the afternoon. My mother can’t drink it after noon, and as I said, my other friend, he can’t drink it at all now.

But it has an effect on pretty much everyone. It just has sort of different amounts of half life, the amount of time it takes to sort of get out of your system varies from person to person. So I wouldn’t cut it out altogether straightaway, but cut it down if you are drinking a lot of coffee or drinking it late at night. Don’t underestimate the power of a cup of tea, because tea can be very strong. If you’re drinking strong tea, that can have a lot of caffeine in it. That can give you a little kick. Some people don’t realize that and can be drinking black tea late at night, thinking that’s fine. It could be having an effect on your sleep.

Naomi: Yeah, green tea as well, I think, has caffeine in it.

Sasha: Green tea has caffeine, too. I’m not sure quite how much. I don’t really drink a lot of green tea myself, but green tea gives you a kick as well.

Naomi: I remember being in Italy once, and it was probably around 11:00 at night, and before going to bed everyone had a shot of espresso and they said it helps you sleep better. I was like wow, okay, a really strong espresso, but maybe it’s a cultural thing.

Sasha: *** (45:11) Italy, so I think they have really tough constitutions when it comes to caffeine, but I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. You may be one of the lucky ones who isn’t affected by it, but God, I wouldn’t even dream of that. Just the thought of it, I think, would be able to keep me awake. I’d think, “My God, I had that coffee, I’ll never sleep.”

Naomi: We’re back to the beliefs again, which is fascinating.

Sasha: Absolutely, absolutely we are.

Naomi: Okay. Well, I think that we’ve covered some — I’ve definitely learned a lot from this. It’s been a really interesting interview. And I’m sure that people will want to find out more about your Effortless Sleep Method and your books and your site, so where can people find out more?

Sasha: Probably the best place to go is just go to actually my website, which is SashaStephens.com. That’s the easiest one. I have a few websites, but they all lead to that one, or you can get to them all from there. You can find my books on Amazon. You can find my website and download program. But if you go to SashaStephens.com you’ll find all the resources you need.

Naomi: Fantastic. I was actually looking on there just before, and you have a sleep tool. I was interested in this. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Sasha: This is just a little brain entrainment recording that I had created. Some people really need something to help settle them down at night. I personally don’t tend to use something in bed to make me sleep, but some people really, really swear by it. They really like to have something to do in bed. If you’re one of those people, these brain entrainment recordings really, really can help. They actually work to affect your brainwaves. So the theory is that they’ll sort of calm your brainwaves down to something more approaching sleep.

There are a few different ones. I sell a whole set of them, and most people find that one works better than the others. There’s one or two of them that I’m really only able to use, one in particular. But everybody seems to find a different favorite. They’re worth experimenting with. They really are. You may find that they’ll really settle you down.

Naomi: So what does it sound like?

Sasha: There’s a background sound that sounds like beats, a little bit like — some people said it sounds like helicopter chopping or it sounds a fan, and over the top I have recorded some nature sounds, like there’s a rainfall track and nice, calming nature sounds. I sell it in different versions, so you can actually just have a pure form, which is just the beat sound. Some people like that. It’s quite a harsh sound, but some people find that — if you like the sound of a fan, you’ll probably like just the pure beat sound.

But if you prefer it just to be a little bit more gentle and soothing, then listen to one of the nature tracks. They all repeat. They’ll come in their pure form and with a background, sort of ambient track. If you want to try something, they’re a good thing to try, if you like to listen to something in bed. Some people don’t. Some people find that listening to things in bed wakes them up, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. But if you are one of those people, they’re really worth a try.

Naomi: Right. Okay, well I’ll put links underneath this interview to your book and to your blog, and Sasha, thank you so much. This has been great, and thank you.

Sasha: Great, lovely. Thanks for having me on your website, Naomi. It’s been nice talking to you.

Naomi: Okay, take care.

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