A Different Approach to Sleep Problems


Having constructed quite a large page on my website (www.keithjeffordhypnotherapy.co.uk) about sleep issues, I thought that I had run out of things to say about the topic.  However, a couple of recent clients have reminded me that when it comes to the brain, there is no end to the ways in which we can bring rapid change to peoples lives.

The clients who drew this to my attention both suffered similar problems – a history of going to sleep and napping for 15 minutes or sometimes an hour and then waking up feeling fully refreshed and alert.  The rest of the night would be spent tossing and turning dreading how bad they would feel next day.  The day-times, needless to say, were spent dreading the coming bedtime and the strong fear that they wouldn’t sleep then either.  Both had good jobs which weren’t too stressful (by today’s standards!), had good childhoods and family situations and had experienced their problems for a decade or more.

They had done all the usual things recommended in books and one had had hypnosis, which had been successful for a while but had gradually been eroded by his bad old ways.

What caught my attention was that both clients “lived by the clock” and thus went to bed at exactly the same time each night (as recommended by the experts) and rose at the same time every morning.   When I enquired into this further, I found that they both became quite distressed if their “sleep” routine got disturbed – even going to the extreme of leaving parties and family events early so that they could get home by bedtime.  

On relflecting about what I could do to help these clients who seemed to have tried everything, it occured to me that their problem was not a lack of functionality (they could sleep well when ill or on holiday) but a very strong anxiety about not sleeping.

So I decided to categorise their lack of sleep as a symptom of what was really wrong with them and concentrate on dealing with the cause of  the problem – their hyper-anxiety about the consequences of losing a night’s sleep,

Having explained this to my clients individually, I then made them tailor-made mp3 recordings which addressed their own particular issues and made it clear that it might take a little while until normal sleep patterns returned  (because our first job was to make them care less and less  about not sleeping and then allowing normal sleep to return quite naturally). 

Client One, unfortunately, fell victim to his own anxiety to rid himself of this long term problem.  Having felt no change after two sessions, he decided to quit and look elsewhere for a solution.  

Client Two, however, persevered and by session 3 was reporting that although he still wasn’t sleeping any better, he felt much more relaxed about it and realised that in reality, he didn’t really feel that bad at losing sleep and that he was less anxious about it, even to the point of looking forward to going to bed.  By session 5 he reported that that he had achieved not only one, but  a number of consecutive nights sleep where he had slept deeply and continously.  Whereas he had previously been self-medicating with alcohol to try to make himself sleep, he had succeeded without it and without using the mp3 I had made him.  At that point we terminated treatment and agreed that if the problem should begin to return, he’d contact me for further reinforcement.

These cases taught me several lessons…

i)  In treating any emotional disorder, it is important to clearly separate the symptom from the cause of a problem.  In this, inability to sleep was not the problem but merely a symptom;  the real problem was an overwhelming anxiety around the whole issue of sleeping.  By treating the anxiety, sleep followed.

ii)  Both clients wanted hypnosis to provide a quick fix.  Client One was not willing to invest  time in seeing if he could reduce his levels of anxiety in order that he could sleep properly.  This is no criticism of the client;  I see it quite often in people who are so anxious to deal with a problem that their anxiety for a speedy fix means that they go from one treatment to another without ever giving something the time it needs to work.  It’s a bit like taking an antibiotic and expecting it to work in two doses instead of the fourteen or twenty one it requires to do its work.  In contrast to many other therapies, hypnotherapy is a quick fix, but change only happens at the speed that the subconscious mind will allow (see Who’d win a fight between the Subconscious and Conscious Mind?” later in this blog).   So in future, I need to spend more time enouraging anxious/time conscious clients to be kind to themselves and loosen their hold on time/speed and their anxiety for a quick fix/rapid change.

Just as being told “not to think about Pink Elephants” generates an immediate mental image of pink elephants, so insisting that sleep will happen at exactly 11pm will result in sleep not happening at 11pm or maybe not at all.   By not caring about going to sleep and allowing it to naturally occur (perhaps with the help of a relaxation or hypnosis recording), the natural order of things is reinstated and sleep becomes an enjoyable and relaxing part of the day again, just as it was in childhood.   (As an interesting aside, both clients slipped easily into hypnosis…a natural sleep state!).

iii)  Finally, this experience reinforced the view that “letting go” is the hardest part of therapy for both client and therapist.  Letting go of a fear or phobia, an anxiety or a mistaken belief can immediately remove a problem.  As long as the subconscious mind has decided that whatever it fears or feels frustrated about not receiving is no longer important – that it is no longer a serious threat or a vital need – then it will change its response from one of anxiety and stress and fear to become accepting and relaxed and happy.  Fear of flying becomes relaxed about flying.  Believing one is unlovable and thus  rejecting anyone who tries to offer love,  becomes accepting that it is possible to be loved and to thus accept love when it is offered.  And, of course, anxiety about sleeping becomes the ultimate “letting go”, to enter into restful, peaceful relaxation and deep, fulfilling sleep. 

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