How to unlearn insomnia

Professor Williams explains how to unlearn insomnia. It’s complicated of course, but if we try and keep it simple, let’s start with 4 easy and quite obvious things you can do that will help you sleep better.

Happily, we no longer live in a time where sleep apnoea is amusing, and instead we now recognise the importance of sleep and the real impact of insomnia. While it’s quite clear that insomnia is a problem for a large amount of people, it’s also apparent that there is a lot to be done to help the situation. 

In my practise I find that the simple things are often the most powerful; that powerful things are often lo-tech; and that all it often takes to improve a given situation is a small lifestyle change or three. I like to think of lifestyle changes as being cumulative – every little helps – and doing two or three small things is better than doing something on its own. Making few little changes to start with is better than changing everything in one go. Whatever changes we make need to be sustainable. Measured and gradual is more often than not, the most efficient approach.

Four things to do to help unlearn insomnia

  • No caffeine after 2pm: An easy one to start with; and if you need a boost to get you going in the morning because you had a bad night’s sleep, you can still have a morning coffee (but probably no more than one).
  • Exercise: This is most important thing you can do according to Professor Williams and, in addition to helping with insomnia, exercise has many other obvious health benefits. The thing to remember is that exercising once a week on a Saturday is unlikely to help – shorter exercise sessions done more frequently are the going to be more effective. This is a lifestyle change that I have found people very resistant to and I’m not sure why; I suspect that it has something to do with the mental enormity of starting a fitness regime. Remember though, that working out hard in a gym for an hour five days week is unsustainable and will only hurt you, but doing 15 minutes of an exercise that you really enjoy and gets your heart going 3 or 4 times a week is certainly a good start; remember that we are trying to unlearn insomnia and break cycles that are, for whatever reason, fixed within us – the best way of sustaining the unlearning process and forming a positive habit is to start small and gradually build up.
  • Meditation: The para-sympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems affect us in important ways. We tend to spend a lot of time with our sympathetic systems on full alert. We’re adrenalised, on the edge and ready to run and/or fight most of the time, not giving our para-sympathetic systems a chance. The role of the para-sympathetic is to calm us down, functions to help us rest, and controls homeostasis – it should be the place we hang out and relax. Deep (in the sense of filling the lungs deeply) and intentional breathing – the cornerstone of meditation – will stimulate the para-sympathetic and balance out our adrenaline filled days. Like exercise, 10 minutes of meditation every day will do more than an hour once a week – we’re replacing unhelpful habits with helpful ones and a little done everyday is the quickest way to do this.

    acupuncture treatment aims to find what is causing bad sleep in the individual and fix that particular problem at the source.

  • Acupuncture: In a general sense acupuncture helps take the edge off stress – most people I see experience being in a more relaxed state, more of the time, after acupuncture treatment. Just about everyone I see in clinic is stressed to some degree. Some people appear to function better under stress, but at some point even they will need to relax, because an adrenalised state is not a long term option for anyone. Apart from helping almost everyone I see to calm things down to some degree, acupuncture treatments are tailored to the individual. While the first three points above tend to help most people sleep better, acupuncture treatment aims to find what is causing bad sleep in the individual and fix that particular problem at the source.

A combination of a little of each of the above points will go some way to improving your sleep and helping you unlearn insomnia. But remember that the best way forward is to do a little most days, rather than a marathon session once a week. Almost nothing in life works like that; whether learning or unlearning something, doing little bits frequently is the way to go.

Professor Williams’s bio

Professor Williams’s interest in sleep began in 1975 during his tenure at Harvard Medical School with a study in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) which implicated Obstructive Sleep Apnoea as a cause of the syndrome. He became tenured Professor of Medicine at U.C.L.A. and Co-Director of U.C.L.A’s Sleep Laboratory in 1985. He was one of the first to become a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

On his return to the UK in 1994 he took up he directorship of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St Thomas’s Hospital, was a founding member of the Sleep Section of the RSM and, in 2010, was awarded the UK’s first Chair in Sleep Medicine.

He currently practices at the London Sleep Centre in Harley Street, and has been a Sleep Advisor to Headspace.

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