I used to be a great sleeper. A full eight hours a night, jump out of bed refreshed kind of sleeper. Fast-forward seven years and with two kids, a haphazard approach to bedtimes, lockdowns and a job that regularly entails waking up in different time zones, perhaps inevitably I’m having trouble reaching the land of nod.
If you’re reading this and suffering sleep disturbance, you’re not alone. Since the pandemic a whopping 28 million Brits are struggling to get some shut eye according to Dr Michelle Ni Raghallaigh, who runs The Sleep Sphere and has joined forces with Champneys health and spa resorts to run retreats to try and help some of those millions.
Things get off to a good start when I step into my room and clock the huge bed and retreat goody bag full of Champney’s slumber toiletries, like lavender spray and bubble bath.
My first workshop with Dr Michelle (warm, friendly, very soothing Irish accent), starts at 4.30pm in the Bridgerton-esque Peacock Room and it’s a bit of a shock - after a full assessment it transpires I’m officially an insomniac, with symptoms including difficulty falling asleep, waking during the night and not feeling well-rested after a night’s sleep. Gulp.
We discuss the reasons why I’m not sleeping, from drinking five cups of tea a day to irregular bedtimes, jet lag and waking up at 3am with random thoughts, and then I’m introduced to the Buffer Zone Technique, which involves doing all the prep I need in the 90 minutes before bed, like brushing my teeth, having a warm bath, dimming the lights, switching my phone to night light (or, even better, turning it off) and keeping a worry journal, which involves writing a ‘to do’ list for tomorrow, any concerns I have and how they can be actioned.
Back in my cosy suite sanctuary, I try out all of the above and, miraculously, do manage to nod off quicker than normal. However, I’m wide awake at 3am and it take ages to get back to sleep, with thoughts whirring around my mind, including ‘I’m not getting enough sleep.’ Grrr.
After a light breakfast and a swim, it was back to work in the Peacock Room. This morning it’s time to get our geek on, with the science behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) fully explained - surprisingly fascinating and beneficial.
Apparently one of the key problems is that insomniacs start to view their bedroom as a torture chamber, a place to toss and turn and worry, rather than a snuggly place to get some kip. As Dr Michelle succinctly puts it, “Trying to get to sleep stops you sleeping”.
But how to stop this madness? Through Stimulous Control Techniques of course! First off, only use your bedroom for sleeping (sex and getting dressed are ok too), so no more binging Netflix box sets in bed. Next, build your sleep fuel (adenosine) by making sure you have an anchor time - the same daily rise time - and see daylight as soon as possible, as this helps trigger the release of melatonin 12 hours later (seriously, how clever are our bodies?!).
If I’m wide awake in the middle of the night and it’s clear I’m not going to be nodding off any time soon, Dr Michelle recommends leaving my bed and doing something I enjoy in a ‘nest’ (think reading Women’s Health mag on a sofa wrapped in a blanket) until I feel sleepy.
A big break through for me is when we’re shown graphs explaining we have around five sleep cycles a night and that even insomniacs only managing a couple of hours sleep still get some vital stage 3 (where the body heals itself and boosts its immune system) - in short, if I’m not getting a full seven hours a night, I’m not going to die early. Phew.
After a delicious dinner of Thai noodle starter and vegan curry (with a cheeky glass of red wine), I go to my bedroom and do my sleep prep. I now know a warm bath before bed is great for insomniacs as the temperature drop when you get out mimics the cooling down humans naturally need to sleep at night - a primordial thing that, presumably, predates central heating.
I work out that if my anchor (rise) time is 7am and I want 8 hours sleep, I need to push through the snoozing on the sofa at 10pm barrier and try for 11pm. Worry diary complete, lights dimmed, book page starting to blur, I nod off easily (hooray), but wake in the middle of the night (boo). However, the big difference is that rather than stress and worry about this, I roll over and close my eyes and go back to sleep, without so many of the usual thoughts whirring around. Progress.
Our last day is spent learning ways to distract the mind when the internal chatter won’t stop. Things like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, where you clench and relax muscles moving down the body, Guided Imagery, basically meditation, and, most intriguing, Thought Algorithm. The latter is particularly useful for insomniacs like me who get off to sleep but wake up in the middle of the night, mind filled with thoughts. The trick is to ask yourself if the thought is useful and, if the answer’s no, bin it. If it is useful, ask yourself if you can do something about it in the morning (invariably yes) but if it’s a no (eg have I left the door open?) deal with it and then go back to bed.
However the best technique of all to stop the chatter is to simply repeat the word ‘the’ in your mind every time you breathe out. Admittedly it sounds a little nuts, but Dr Michelle assures us it’s a patient favourite and she’s had super successful results. The idea is that ‘the’ is a neutral word, neither positive or negative, and saying it acts like a guillotine to the thoughts shooting their way through your brain. Simple yet effective, we’re told this is useful for day time anxiety too.
All too soon it’s time to leave the slumber party and try out all our new sleep techniques in real life.
Back home... to bed
Reader, I’m sleeping. Since returning home I’ve been making an effort to push through the drowsy 10pm zone, dimming the lights and reading, before crashing out after 11pm. I’m still sometimes waking up in the middle of the night, but am finding that repeating ‘the’ in my head does magically cut out internal chatter. I haven’t yet managed to get up and ‘nest’ in the middle of the night, it’s too warm and cosy in bed, but I’m definitely getting back to sleep quickly, which is major. Weirdly, although I set my wake-up ‘anchor time’ as 7am, I’m finding I’m naturally waking at 6.30am now, so am getting out of bed and doing a bit of (gentle) yoga before the kids wake, which is something I used to do pre-Insomnia.
Could I have simply Googled ‘Insomnia’ and found some of these techniques for free online? Yes, the internet’s swamped with sleep disruption info, but I’ve read it all before and it hasn’t done any good. For some reason, an expert telling me exactly what to do in a controlled environment has had an affect. Is it worth the money? For me, a thousand times yes.
AT-A-GLANCE SLEEP TIPS
Of all the advice we were given on the retreat, these are the bits that have worked best for me:
Don’t worry about not getting enough sleep - your body gets what it needs from just a few short hours, anything else is a bonus.
Make sure your sleep space is welcoming - dim the lights, put screens away (or cut out the blue light) and have a warm bath or shower, as the temperature drop when you get out signals to your body that it’s bedtime.
Set an anchor time - don’t stress about how late you go to bed, it’s all about a wake-up time. Stick to this religiously, even if you’ve been out late or want a lie-in at weekends (until you start sleeping properly again).
Seek out daylight as soon as you rise - open those curtains and blinds because this triggers Melatonin creation later in the day.
If you wake in the middle of the night, repeat the word ‘the’ every time you breathe out - this shuts down the chatter in your head.
A Healthy Sleep Retreat costs from £566pp including two nights’ accommodation, meals, full use of spa facilities, pre-arrival assessment, four 60-minute treatment sessions of CBT-I with Dr Michelle, sleep handbook and follow up care; champneys.com or email email@example.com to register your interest.
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