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A Different Way of Approaching Sleep Issues

Having constructed a fairly large page on my website dealing with sleep issues, I thought that I had run out of things to say about the topic. However, a couple of recent clients reminded me that we always have to be ingenious in our work.

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 a strong fear that they wouldn't sleep. Both had good jobs which weren't too stressful (by today's standards!), had good childhoods and comfortable family situations. Both had had their problem 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 reflecting about what I could do to help these clients who seemed to have tried everything, it occurred 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 recordings which addressed their individual issues. I made it clear to both that it might take a while for normal sleep patterns to returned (my strategy being to train them to care less and less about not sleeping thus allowing normal sleep behaviour to return quite naturally).

Client One unfortunately fell victim to his own anxiety and having felt no change after two sessions, 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 now realised he didn't 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 had slept for a number of consecutive nights, sleeping deeply and without interruption. Where he had previously been self-medicating with alcohol to try to make himself sleep, he had succeeded without it and without using the recording I had made for him. At that point we terminated treatment and agreed that if the problem returned 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 the time needed to reduce his levels of anxiety to a point where 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 dozen or more 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. So in future, I need to spend more time encouraging anxious/time conscious clients to be kind to themselves and to let go of their sense of urgency and anxiety about having to get a quick fix.

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 can be reinstated and sleep can become an enjoyable and relaxing part of the day again, just as it was in childhood.

About the Author:

Keith Jefford is an ICH graduate who works as a Hypnotherapist in private practice.

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