Insomnia Coach® Podcast

Insomnia Coach® Podcast


How Eric got his life back from insomnia by focusing on what he can control (#53)

October 31, 2023
Listen to the podcast episode (audio only)

Eric’s insomnia journey began after he woke in the middle of the night and experienced a huge panic attack. From then on, sleep became very difficult.


As he tried to fix things, Eric stopped watching TV in bed with his wife — something they both enjoyed. He tried napping, even though he never used to nap in the past. He tried sleeping on the couch. He tried sleeping in a chair. He tried blue-light-blocking glasses. He stopped traveling. He isolated himself as he became convinced that his struggles were reflected in his appearance. He would beat himself up every time he had a difficult night.


Eric’s transformation began when he shifted his focus away from trying to control his sleep, his thoughts, and his feelings and redirected his efforts toward his actions.


He started to do more of the things that mattered — even after difficult nights and even in the presence of difficult thoughts and feelings. He started to accept the presence of anxiety as a necessary ingredient for a rich and meaningful life. Eric found that the more he did this, the less power and influence sleep and anxiety seemed to have over his life.


Eric was never into meditating but he started to practice meditation — not in an attempt to make sleep happen or to control his thoughts and feelings — but to practice and develop skill in making space for his thoughts rather than trying to fight or avoid them. He also gave himself permission to do something else during the night when he was awake, rather than tossing and turning.


Today, sleep doesn’t consume Eric’s attention. His focus now is on controlling his actions and doing things that matter rather than trying to control his sleep and what he might be thinking or feeling. As a result, insomnia no longer holds Eric back. By practicing a new approach, Eric got his life back from insomnia.


Click here for a full transcript of this episode.



Transcript

Martin Reed:

Welcome to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. My name is Martin Reed. I believe that by changing how we respond to insomnia and all the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it, we can move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life we want to live.


Martin Reed:

The content of this podcast is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, disorder, or medical condition. It should never replace any advice given to you by your physician or any other licensed healthcare provider. Insomnia Coach LLC offers coaching services only and does not provide therapy, counseling, medical advice, or medical treatment. The statements and opinions expressed by guests are their own and are not necessarily endorsed by Insomnia Coach LLC. All content is provided “as is” and without warranties, either express or implied.


Martin Reed:

Okay, Eric, thank you for taking the time out of your day to come on to the podcast.


Eric Flanders:

Absolutely. Glad to be here with you.


Martin Reed:

Let’s start right at the beginning. If you could just tell us a little bit about when your issues with sleep first began and what you think may have caused those initial issues with sleep.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, that’s a great question about what caused them because I think if I would have known that it would have helped out a lot, but I really struggled with that answer as to why. I know a couple of years ago. I had a couple of instances over the course of a year where I just was struggling.


Eric Flanders:

Like I would go two or three days and just not sleeping much at all. And it didn’t really bother me too much at the time. But I’ve had a little bit of anxiety over the course of my life. And the more it started happening, the worse I started to respond to it. And then I had family over to my house during the holidays and I had a rough night of sleep.


Eric Flanders:

I woke up in the middle of the night and I just was having like this huge panic attack. My heart was racing. I remember waking my wife and up saying, I think I need to go to the hospital. Like, I’m freaking out here. Everything is, it was really bad. And from that night on it Sleep became very difficult.


Eric Flanders:

And I think probably it added pressure to me because I had family staying at my house. And now I’m like, Oh my gosh, I’m not sleeping. My days were starting to get really bad. And that just led into a night after night. I had a looming doctor’s appointment as well coming up and I hadn’t been to the doctors in 20 years and my wife was forcing me to go just to get my blood drawn and I’m terrified of needles so that on top of everything else, it was just sleepless, sleepless nights.


Eric Flanders:

And that’s where it really started getting hard for me.


Martin Reed:

Were panic attacks something you’d dealt with in the past, or was this just kind of it just appeared in the middle of the night, out of the blue?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I mean, this was, I was 41 when this started happening, but when I was younger, around 17, I had lost my mom when I was younger, in my teenage years, and she battled heart disease her whole life.


Eric Flanders:

So I had some panic attacks at that point in time, thinking that I was Going to inherit those types of heart issues and anxiety can create some of those symptoms like you’re having some type of Health issues and so I did that for about I had it issues for like six months at that point in time And this was again when I was 17 and then but you know, but the doctor told me I was fine So that all went away Never had any issues, no panic attacks, no sleep issues, nothing like that leading up to this point in time.


Martin Reed:

Some people can really pinpoint the initial trigger for their sleep disruption, which then morphed into this longer term struggle or issue with sleep disruption and for other people, which it sounds like maybe is more aligned with what you’re describing. It doesn’t really seem to be this obvious trigger.


Martin Reed:

And so I think it’s really good to have. Both sides on both sides of that experience coming onto the podcast, because if we hear that people always can trace things back and there’s a clear and obvious trigger, then we might think, well, there’s something unique and unusual or vice versa. But really, the trigger itself, sometimes it can be obvious, sometimes not.


Martin Reed:

But largely it’s not that relevant if we find that the sleep disruption is sticking around for. More than just a few nights, it’s usually then becomes… Oh boy, it is. How we respond. Yeah. So on that note, when we’re talking about how we’re responding to it, how did you respond to that sleep disruption when it first started to show up?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah. I mean, at first it was just the usual stuff. I mean, my wife and I always watch TV in bed. It was always a thing of ours. I’m like, okay. Let me just stop doing that. Right. And again, this was one of my family was there. I’m not a napper at all. And I never have been. And I found myself, Oh, I’m just going to lay down in the afternoon and, try to get some rest so I could at least be, okay, while my family was there.


Eric Flanders:

But when I would do that, I would just. Obviously not sleep in there while I was trying to nap and that would just make me more frustrated. I didn’t do a bunch more because I had that doctor’s appointment coming up that I just talked to you about and so I had tried those things but now I’m going on like two weeks and I’m sleeping maybe a couple hours a night, if that.


Eric Flanders:

And I’m moving around. So now I’m trying to sleep on the couch and trying to sleep in the chair. I’m not even sleeping in the bed anymore. And now at this point, my family’s left and gone back to their home. And I’m still, now I’m really panicked. And so by the time I had my doctor’s appointment, I mentioned to him that, obviously I’m having these sleep issues.


Eric Flanders:

And so he said, well, I’m going to get you sleep and don’t worry about it. I’ll get you sleeping. And that’s when I ended up. With another challenge, which was going down a path of medication and trying to solve the sleep that way.


Martin Reed:

Back when all this was going on, the kind of, the origin of your experience were there any characteristics of a typical night?


Martin Reed:

What was an average night like when things were really difficult back then?


Eric Flanders:

Man, so I have I have a little issue with control, which I’ve obviously gotten better at, because you have to learn that you can’t control some things, and I’ve learned that sleep is one of those, but it took me a long time to figure that out, and so I would go to bed early, like, I’m going to bed at like eight o’clock at night, and that is unusual for me, and I would typically toss and turn in there.


Eric Flanders:

I mean, for a very long time, maybe three or four hours, and then I would move out to the front room and lay on the recliner and try to sleep out there and do the same thing. And, I would have these moments where, you’re sleeping, but you can, you’re not really sleeping. You’re like in between.


Eric Flanders:

That’s what most of my sleep was. And that was a typical night, every night. And it didn’t get much better for a very long time.


Martin Reed:

How about the days? What were the days like? Were you finding that it was also influencing the quality of your days or maybe what you did each day?


Eric Flanders:

Oh yeah. I’m a big workout guy.


Eric Flanders:

I like going to the gym. I stopped doing that. I had a very responsible job. I had a couple hundred employees at the time and I still went to work, but I found myself shutting the door a lot to my office and I’m a guy that’s always usually out and, with my teams and I was not doing that a lot.


Eric Flanders:

I was isolating myself a bit. And just trying to like, I didn’t want folks to see what was happening with me because I felt like everybody could see it on my face. Like, oh he looks, because I felt horrible, you just feel horrible. And so I would always think that, man, they’re going to see right through me.


Eric Flanders:

So it absolutely affected my days. I stopped traveling, isolated myself with my family at my house and I became terrified to go anywhere.


Martin Reed:

I think it’s really understandable why we end up doing all of these things, and you touched upon many of the reasons, right? We either, we don’t feel as capable or we feel like we need to get more rest in, so we do less of the stuff that we would normally do.


Martin Reed:

Yeah. Or we worry about what other people might think about us or what they might see in us.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah.


Martin Reed:

I’m curious to know did you ever ask anyone if it was noticeable? Like, could they tell that you’d had a difficult night? I


Martin Reed:

always asked my wife, right, if she could… How do I look? I feel like I, I look horrible. I know I look horrible. It’s just like, you don’t look any different at all. And what I found myself doing a lot is taking selfies. Like I can’t, I’m never like I was a selfie guy, but I would always take pictures of myself just to see what do I look like right now?


Martin Reed:

What do I look like? What do I look like? And I still have those photos on my phone. At the time when I saw those photos, I was like, Oh my gosh, I look like a wreck. But when I look at them today, I look completely fine. And so it was really just in my mind, I’d convinced myself that I must look the way I’m feeling.


Martin Reed:

And so I made a lot of decisions based off of that.


Martin Reed:

It’s really interesting that you said that and you’ve got that, that record of it that you can now look back and actually see. What you saw, but it’s different to what you saw, if that makes sense, like your interpretation of what you were seeing was different.


Martin Reed:

And it’s a concern that a lot of people have discussed with me. I’m really concerned about like the circles under my eyes or my eyes look really tired, I don’t want to look this way. What will other people think about me? And it’s all totally understandable. And I think one thing that can help is just as you described, maybe it’s not quite as noticeable.


Martin Reed:

As you suspect maybe what you’re seeing might be different to what other people are seeing. Yeah. But also, can we control that? Can we control what we look like? I mean, maybe to a certain extent, you might want to put some lipstick on or something like that. Who knows? Lots of eyeshadow.


Eric Flanders:

But you look the way you look!


Martin Reed:

Exactly. It’s one of those things we can’t really change. It’s the only thing we can really control are our actions. So maybe we can be kind to ourselves if we’re feeling that we’re not looking the greatest or not feeling the greatest, but then maybe do some other stuff that matters to us, even though we’ve got those big dark circles under our eyes.


Martin Reed:

And even though we might be thinking that other people might be judging us or making up stories about our appearance, we can’t control any of that stuff, right? We can only control what we do and I think maybe we’ll explore that a little bit more as we continue to talk, but I just found it really interesting that you actually have that photographic evidence that you can now look back on and be like, wow, I can’t really see any differences now, but back then it was real, right?


Martin Reed:

You saw differences. And that was like one of the concerns.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, it’s amazing what it’s amazing how your thoughts can really work against you in a way, I mean, your, the mind is so powerful and your thoughts really can be your worst enemy or they can be your best asset. Right. And it’s just a matter of how you engage with your thoughts is what I’ve really learned over the last couple of years.


Eric Flanders:

And yeah, at that point in time, my thoughts were telling me that I, Must have looked horrible, right? And so that’s what I was believing.


Martin Reed:

On the role of thoughts. I think that’s a kind of good segue into talking a little bit more about the role they can have. As many people listening to this or struggling with insomnia are going to be able to identify that if only I could get rid of the anxiety or get rid of the worry or not feel so frustrated with all of this struggle maybe I’ll be able to sleep better. So then we focus on trying to get rid of all these thoughts and these feelings or challenging them or pushing them away when they show up.


Martin Reed:

Can you tell us a little bit more about your own experience with all those thoughts and feelings? And, did you find that they were? Making things more difficult. How did you initially try and fix that and reduce the influence of those thoughts and feelings?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I mean, they were really taking over.


Eric Flanders:

I have listened to many of your podcasts when I was going through this and they really did help me out a lot. And I heard a lot of people talk about feelings and thoughts and they were absolutely in my worst way I was for a period of there were I was really beating myself up and just thinking about it constantly, constantly thinking about it looking up stuff, which would just make it worse, and now it’s all I’m thinking about every day.


Eric Flanders:

Put me in a panic attack at night, I remember I, we had some email exchanges several times and, I was telling you, how do I get this anxiety to go away? It just won’t, it’s the same thing, eight, nine o’clock at night, bedtimes coming around and like, all of a sudden you think you’re going to go have to like present in front of 1000 people.


Eric Flanders:

And of course, you’re not going to sleep that way. And then you try to control it even more. And I tried to control that by just going to bed. That’s what I would do to deal with it. I’d be like, okay, I’m just gonna go fight this right now. And I don’t care if I don’t sleep, I’m just gonna go lay down.


Eric Flanders:

That’s what I did and that’s why I had a really hard time with some of the tactics was because I was just wanting to be in control. And so, In order to deal with these thoughts, I would just go lay in bed, and I’d lay there and toss and turn, have a miserable night, and beat myself up all night about it, but at least I was in control, and trying to deal with it that way, and they were very consuming though, it took, I mean literally I spent all day.


Eric Flanders:

For, I don’t know, a year, probably, thinking about it.


Martin Reed:

You mentioned that when you find your mind was just going into overdrive, like about sleep and anything else that it wanted to go off and think about, you were just right, I’m just going to go to bed now. So you just go off to bed.


Martin Reed:

I’m guessing that then you’d be in bed. And the kind of thoughts would still be churning around in your mind. So now you’re in bed, so you can’t get into bed again, right? How would you respond then to when all these thoughts started to reappear once you were in bed?


Eric Flanders:

I would wrestle with them all for a very long time.


Eric Flanders:

And instead of getting out of bed and dealing with just being awake, I would just stay in bed and would drive me crazy because I’d get in bed and like, if I’m not sleeping in two minutes, I’m already thinking, well, there we go. I’m not going to sleep tonight. And then that just spiraled into stuff.


Eric Flanders:

And by that time, my wife’s already asleep because of course she sleeps like a baby, just like everyone who has insomnia. Usually the person next to him sleeps like a baby. And yeah, I would just stay in bed. And that was a very hard piece for me to start to deal with was removing myself.


Eric Flanders:

And what happened is I started to hate my bed. I hated it. I hated looking at it. I would go in the room and I’d find myself, like, giving it the side eye, like it was somebody I just did not like. And it just did not find it… appealing at all. So it was a whole like having to relearn that whole thing for me.


Martin Reed:

How about we talk about that now, like that, that relearning process or exploring a different approach. So you mentioned that a change in your approach when things started to get difficult was you’d go to bed earlier. You found yourself wrestling with your thoughts. You implied that You were staying in bed, whereas maybe an alternative option that was available could be getting out of bed.


Martin Reed:

Curious to hear, the change in approach that you took and how, what that experience was like.


Eric Flanders:

For me cause it, it sounds like from everybody that I’ve watched on these podcasts and just the different groups I’ve looked at Everyone’s got a different thing that really hit home for them.


Eric Flanders:

And for me, it was the piece where you talked about, like, don’t change what your plans were the next day, or are the next day, right? So, go live your life to the fullest. And when I did those things, and I started to do those things, what happened is I… I started like being able to convince to myself that I was actually, my thoughts weren’t right.


Eric Flanders:

That, they were telling me that, Oh my gosh, I’m going to have a horrible day tomorrow because I’m not going to sleep. But then I found myself not having horrible days all the time and being able to enjoy myself. And so it was that piece. And then honestly, it was time. It was being able to have a great couple of nights of sleep, maybe not have a great night that third night, maybe not that fourth night either, but still living my life to the fullest, but then that fifth night I would have a great night of sleep again.


Eric Flanders:

And then just repeating that pattern over time, slowly it started convincing myself, like, sleep is not the end all be all. I mean, it’s important, but it’s really not the end all be all. You can absolutely live a great life and not have to be so concerned about your sleep. And over time, and challenging my thought processes, and challenging thoughts to just be what they are, and that’s, they’re simply a thought, right, they started to lose their power.


Martin Reed:

I’m curious to hear when you had this suggestion of continuing to do things that matter, or living your life as though. The insomnia wasn’t there, or living your life even though the insomnia is there. What that was like, because, the reason I ask that is because some of us, when we’re really struggling, we can just be 100 percent convinced that we just can’t, we just can’t do either everything we had planned, or some of the things we had planned.


Martin Reed:

Or certain activities and just the idea of doing some stuff, doing, following through with our plans or doing anything related to our plans or even just getting out of the house can just feel like it’s going to be impossible because we might have had two, three, four, five, six or more nights in a row.


Martin Reed:

Very little sleep. What was your experience like with that? Was this something that was a difficult change for you to make, or was it difficult to push yourself to, to stay active and do things that you had planned?


Eric Flanders:

It was one of the hardest things. I mean, I say it as it’s easy, but let me just add that challenging those things up front at first was very hard for me.


Eric Flanders:

I remember. Towards the end of, and I get to say the end, but towards the end of my insomnia days, where I was still really in the midst of it. I was living in Florida at the time, and my daughter and family is in California. My daughter is getting married. And I have not gone anywhere. in two years now, right?


Eric Flanders:

Because I’ve been dealing with this insomnia and I’ve really isolated myself and I know I have to fly to, I have to fly to California. I have to be out there for five days. I’ve got to walk my daughter down the aisle. All of these things. And I think I worried and freaked out about this and this trip for like six months from the day.


Eric Flanders:

She told me I was like, oh my gosh It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming and I remember getting to California and with my family and that first night we got here I didn’t sleep one minute not one minute and I was you know, we’re in a strange bed, And I’m up all night. I’m telling my wife. Oh my gosh, like this is gonna be a wreck And how am I going to do this?


Eric Flanders:

And the next day I just went throughout the day. My family was all with me in the in, we’re all together and challenged my, my, I forced myself to just be normal as much as possible. And you know what? That next night I slept and that was a big milestone for me. Cause I’m like, okay, wait a second.


Eric Flanders:

I thought I was never going to be able to sleep anywhere again. Right. And granted the first night was not very good, but the second night I slept really well. And then I’m like, I think I’ve got some going here. And then the next few nights I I had some decent sleep, but not complete sleep, but I was able to completely.


Eric Flanders:

Go to the wedding and have a great time. Walk my daughter down the aisle. So everything I told myself for that six months was not true. And had I not gone, because believe me, there were times where I said, I’m just not going to go. I would have just reinforced everything that was not true. And I would have, it probably would not have gotten better for me, but because I decided to go.


Eric Flanders:

Face that thought and challenge it. That’s what really helped me out. And that was a big breaking point for me. That was a big breakthrough. And then two months later, I sold my house in florida and I moved to California. Still having some sleep issues, but I mean, selling your house, moving across country, all of that goes in with all that stresses and all that.


Eric Flanders:

Still, I started challenging everything and the more I challenged it, the more I felt like I was Letting go.


Martin Reed:

There’s so much powerful stuff there. I think maybe the key insight there is that we can still commit to actions. Regardless of what our brain might be telling us, what the thoughts that are showing up might be.


Martin Reed:

So, even though you had all those thoughts, all those doubts, all those worries, maybe all those anxieties, or lack of confidence, I can’t do this, I shouldn’t do this. You should… Went ahead and did it, even though your mind was just churning out all those different and very difficult thoughts, feelings, stories, emotions.


Martin Reed:

And I think when we have that experience of being able to recognize that we can still control our actions, regardless of what our mind might be telling us. That can be really powerful to experience, that we have thoughts and we have actions and our thoughts don’t necessarily have to control our actions.


Martin Reed:

That’s something that we can still control no matter what our mind might be churning out.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, and you know what else I was doing is… Is I, would have a night or two of bad sleep, or no sleep, and that would start the whole thought, which you know is wrong, is I’m not, I’m never gonna sleep again.


Eric Flanders:

I don’t know how many times I’ve told myself that, over and over again. Even if I would have a couple of good nights of sleep, the second I would have a bad night of sleep, I’m like, Not gonna sleep again. And for some reason that was a very believable thought even though I had been sleeping you know eventually you fall asleep and When you really start believing it and I again, I think it has to do with time and I say time Meaning that you’re not trying to do anything to fix sleep Like you’re challenging it 100 percent on your own without anything there to help you.


Eric Flanders:

Because once you add a crutch, then you start thinking the crutch is what caused it. You have, for me, it was about, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to go at it and then I started learning over time, and that’s what brought the anxiety down is, you start to your mind starts to learn that, hey, this isn’t right.


Eric Flanders:

That’s not that thought is not correct. And so now, I mean, if I have a bad night of sleep now, which I still do it’s totally fine. That’s totally fine. Tomorrow I’m going to the gym. I’m working out like crazy. And I’m gonna, I know I’m going to sleep eventually. And I do.


Martin Reed:

That’s another one of those places where there can be that disconnect, right?


Martin Reed:

So I just, well, we just both talked about that disconnect between our thoughts and our actions. Another one can be there’s often a disconnect between our thoughts and our experience. So our thoughts might be telling us something like. We’re never going to sleep again, ever, which is really scary. But our experience tells us that’s never happened.


Martin Reed:

We might have a thought that says, if I go into work after another night of no sleep, I’m going to get fired. I’m going to lose my house. I’m going to be homeless on the streets. Our experience tells us, well, that’s not happened. I mean, that’s not to say it won’t necessarily happen. Nobody can predict the future with 100 percent accuracy.


Martin Reed:

But often, this kind of stories our brain generates whilst it’s working really hard to look out for us and protect us and help us do what matters. There can be this kind of disconnect between what it’s saying. And what we know from experience to be maybe more accurate or more likely.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I’m not a big reader.


Eric Flanders:

But I found myself doing lots of reading on anxiety and things like that. Just trying to educate myself on it. And there was one thing that really stuck with me and that was there was this phrase initiate to generate, right? And that’s what I, you started doing. And this, you have to initiate.


Eric Flanders:

A situation in which you are going to feel anxious about in order to generate new learnings behind it, right? So it was initiate to generate so I started just saying to myself I’m nervous right now to go do this But then I said I’ll have to go do it because I can’t generate any new experiences behind that thought Until I do it and I had done these I mean, I mean I had anxiety about so many things because I took over at this point, because I was starting to believe in all of these thoughts and I had to really relearn a lot of different things.


Eric Flanders:

And the only way you can really do that is to go out and challenge those thoughts and see that it’s not all true and by doing that, yeah, I was able to really get out of that dark spot I was in.


Martin Reed:

I think another example of that whole thoughts versus experience, similar to what you were just describing, I think that’s another reason why we can so easily get stuck, just trying so hard to make sleep happen, or to wrestle with our thoughts and our feelings.


Martin Reed:

We get tangled up in that struggle. And our experience is telling us this isn’t working. This has been going on for a long time. We’re not really getting where we want to go. But our mind is telling us well, I’m a little bit out of ideas here. Maybe you don’t hear that part, but the brain’s out of ideas.


Martin Reed:

So it just says, well, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll just try harder. So we’ll just try even harder to get rid of these thoughts, these feelings. We’ll try even harder to make sleep happen. We’ll try even harder to get rid of that wakefulness. So that’s just another one of those kind of disconnects, right?


Martin Reed:

So we can be convinced that we just need to keep doing what we’re doing. Maybe something will change, but our experience on the other hand. is telling us, well look, there’s nothing’s been changing up to this point. But it can be really hard because They, our thoughts can be so convincing, right? They can just seem like they’re 100 percent true.


Martin Reed:

They’re complete facts. And we trust our brains, right? We recognize that the brain has been with us our whole lives. Generally does a good job of steering us in the direction we want to go. So when we get these thoughts that, are scary, worrying. big obstacles to the life we want to live, we can just assume that they’re 100 percent true 100 percent of the time and that’s just another one of those areas where we can get a little bit tripped up.


Martin Reed:

That’s right. Yeah, I mean, it snowballs, I mean, you can, you start worrying about sleep and that can really get your fight or flight activated. Right. And now that transfers over to other things in your life. And now all of a sudden, your anxiety is just running, on superpower and at no fault of your own.


Eric Flanders:

Right. It’s just. It’s just that’s what happens and you’re and then it’s your mind can really become a little bit addicted unfortunately to worry and You can find yourself just doing it more and sleep could have been the cause of that Initially, or maybe that was the effect of you worrying about other things.


Eric Flanders:

I don’t know but either way You know that whole thought process is a game changer And being, and it’s helped me in other parts of my life, that would give me anxiety before now I’m, I just, I don’t engage with those thoughts like I used to.


Martin Reed:

Going back to that experiment that you said that you were doing I’ve forgotten the phrase, it was initiate to…


Eric Flanders:

Initiate to generate.


Martin Reed:

Initiate to generate. Yeah. Let me ask you a question about that. Did you find that maybe whilst you were engaged in those experiments that it… It reminded you or made you more aware of the fact that when we do things that matter to us… Even not completely unrelated to sleep, but just when we’re doing things that matter to us, things that are important, often some difficult stuff will come with that.


Martin Reed:

So, for example, off the top of my head, just the idea of walking your daughter down the aisle, oh, what if I trip? I’m gonna feel some anxiety, maybe some worry. Or if I want to advance my career, I have to do a job interview, so I get the butterflies, I get the anxieties. When you are engaged in that experiment, Was that something that you noticed too?


Martin Reed:

Did it reinforce this idea that in order to do things that matter, we have to make a little bit of space for some of that difficult stuff too?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah. Yeah, I still do that today. I mean, I, with my job, I do a lot of presenting. And even today I tell myself for an hour before I’m getting on camera, it’s like, oh my gosh, all of these things can go wrong, and I’ve done this my entire life with having to do that, but.


Eric Flanders:

Now it’s not so powerful. It’s still there and the thoughts are there. I mean, I don’t push them away or try to ignore them, but I just don’t engage completely with them anymore. Now I’ve learned that those things could possibly happen. Yes, they absolutely could possibly happen. But does that mean they’re going to happen?


Eric Flanders:

No. And that’s the difference. Not saying, they’re not going, not trying to remove them completely by saying, yeah, those can’t happen. Yeah, everything can happen, but it doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen. Like the worst case scenario type of thing.


Martin Reed:

Oh, 100%. And, just whilst you were describing that to me, I can just use this discussion that we’re recording right now, so an hour or so before, even earlier in the day today, I’m thinking, right, everything I’ve got to get ready for this discussion with you, right?


Martin Reed:

And then my brain is like, what if the batteries run out on this light that you’ve got up here? What if the power goes out? What if there’s a power outage? What if the trains will start going by? What if I completely freeze up and I forget all the questions that I plan to answer? What if I get a cough?


Martin Reed:

What if I lose my voice? All of this stuff is going through my mind, right? And, when, for the first few podcast episodes a few years ago, They would feel way more powerful than they do now because I didn’t have that experience to support that I can still do this even when the brain’s churning, barreling along at a million miles an hour.


Martin Reed:

But even to this day, with years of experience doing this, I’m still getting those thoughts. But the difference now is, I think it’s a skill. I’ve got more skill in acknowledging them and being able to just know from experience that, alright, this is my brain looking out for me. Thanks brain, you’re just keeping me better prepared for what I’m about to do.


Martin Reed:

And just maybe keep me a little bit sharper, maybe. But it’s not something that kind of hooks me, jerks me around, and makes it impossible for me to act anymore. It’s something that I can still do these things when my brain is doing all the things it chooses to do.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, because your mind just wants to, it’s just trying to protect you, right?


Eric Flanders:

It’s trying to protect you from an embarrassing moment or from failure. And unfortunately, we all are really scared of failing these days. I mean, it’s just what we’re brought up with, right? Don’t fail. So yeah, everything that you’re doing, you’re, you convince yourself of that, but you’re right, you have to go put yourself in those situations, or at least I did.


Eric Flanders:

I had to really put myself in situations that challenged what my thoughts were. And it was the hardest thing ever, and it didn’t always feel good. And I think that’s the key, like sometimes you’ll go do it. You won’t want to do something, but you’ll go do it anyways. And sometimes it just doesn’t feel good while you’re doing it.


Eric Flanders:

But when you’re done doing it, even though it didn’t feel good, it’s still another learning experience. Like I didn’t die, it wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t the greatest of times, but it wasn’t the worst of times. It wasn’t the end of the world. And so. Just making sure you go and do those things is extremely important and it really helped me out with my my sleep.


Martin Reed:

I think sometimes it can be helpful to just maybe ask ourselves what the alternative is to whatever we’re doing, so if we feel like What we’re doing now isn’t getting us where we want to be. Is there an alternative approach? So for example, if we’re calling in sick to work on a lot of days, if we’re cancelling plans, we might just ask ourselves, is there an alternative here that we can even just experiment with?


Martin Reed:

If we’re spending a lot of our time battling with our thoughts, trying to push them away when they arrive, wrestling with them is there an alternative here? Because sometimes, you just like you touched upon when you said, I would just do things. I would still do things even after difficult nights, even when those difficult thoughts and feelings turned up.


Martin Reed:

Because if we don’t do that, what is the alternative? In that example, it’s doing less of the things that matter. And when we do less of the things that matter. We tend not to get to where we want to be or where we want to go.


Eric Flanders:

That’s right. Yeah. And then usually you’re sitting in your house obsessing over.


Eric Flanders:

What’s going on in the first place, and you’re not even allowing your mind to, to go somewhere else, right, or experiencing something else and that obsession can really become your life. And it certainly was my life for a good period of time.


Martin Reed:

You’ve talked about how you would, experiment with actually seeking out some difficult thoughts and feelings just to practice almost like an exposure therapy.


Martin Reed:

But basically by just complete, just allowing yourself to experience it. Maybe moving away from thoughts, directly influencing your behavior, being able to practice taking a step back when your thoughts might be saying one thing, taking a step back and then deciding how to respond to them. Was there anything else, that in your experience was helpful in terms of letting go of that struggle?


Martin Reed:

With the thoughts and the feelings that tend to show up either when you’re awake during the night or when your brain starts to think all about sleep and the upcoming night during the day.


Eric Flanders:

Really, for me it was really that. Piece that we’ve already touched on, which is just trying to challenge the next day and I really needed to convince myself that This wasn’t true because I tried everything You know I was staying up later.


Eric Flanders:

I was getting up in the middle of the night and I was even trying to be physically active and all those types of things, but I wasn’t doing it to the extent that I wanted to. And it really, the game changer for me was challenging it and allowing time and, not influencing it, trying to do something to influence sleep.


Eric Flanders:

That was the biggest thing I was always trying to do something to improve on it and I touched on the medication piece. I had I don’t know how many times things I tried but I had Returned a bag of medication to the pharmacy and I have never taken medication in my whole life ever I’m like an anti medication guy and Not to say that it’s not a good thing for some folks But for me, it just wasn’t the answer but I had a bag like that of different medications that I had been prescribed over the course of this year and a half through different doctors because I had seen therapists and primary care physicians and all of these things and the answer was that, but you know, as always, anything you try, maybe it doesn’t work.


Eric Flanders:

Maybe it doesn’t, but if it does work, it’s not going to work for long for me, right? It would work a couple of days a month at the most. And then it wasn’t. And then so I had this medication thing along the road with me for A year and a half and then, I finally said enough is enough and I needed to do this on my own.


Eric Flanders:

And so I just let everything go. I stopped trying to use medication as a supplement. I stopped everything, which was not easy. It was very hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Trying to get rid of all of that, but I did. And when I faced it on my own and I just let it run its course and just live my life the way I knew I wanted to do it and challenged my thoughts And I challenged them with my actions. That’s what really changed it for me.


Martin Reed:

It sounds like your approach to the medication You just recognize this was something that it was important to you not to take medication if it could be avoided.


Martin Reed:

So did you just make that decision? I’m just not gonna go down this route. This isn’t a path I’m gonna take anymore. I’m just gonna stop. It was like a cold turkey or I’m not even gonna go on it. Or was it like a tapering process? I’m just curious to hear a little bit more about that.


Eric Flanders:

I had tried both. I had tried, I tried tapering for a while and I found that it was just prolonging my experience, and I wanted to just be at my core and deal with this on my own at the time, and so, I’m not a religious guy very much either, I mean, but I have gone to church before, and so I, Went to church one day and I was sitting in there all by myself because it was in the middle of the afternoon and I was at a breaking point and I was breaking down obviously in church and by myself and I, whether it was a sign or not, but I just asked myself and I was speaking out loud and just said, what should I do?


Eric Flanders:

And I remember thinking about, should I just, Give up on all this stuff and let it go and feel comfortable. And the bells ring. I mean, it happened to be, the time the bells ring anyways, but it was assigned to me. And from that day on, I went home and I told my wife, I said, I’m done with this.


Eric Flanders:

And, again, one of the hardest things that I’ve ever gone through in my life trying to get away from that. But it was absolutely for me the right thing to do because I knew that I needed to be able to approach my sleep without anything or any help. And. It was making it more difficult.


Martin Reed:

Did, I’m just curious, did your doctor give you any kind of suggestions? Did you talk to them about, this is a kind of route, this is something I want to get away from. Did they offer you any suggestions on a useful way forward for that?


Eric Flanders:

Tapering is the safest way to do it and that’s always going to be the medical recommendation.


Eric Flanders:

But for me, it was, I was in such a bad place when I was on the medication and It was the same when I was tapering and I’m like, this can’t, this is so bad. I can’t do this for six more months. And that’s what I was thinking about. Like, this is going to be a six month taper and I’m not going to be able to do this.


Eric Flanders:

And so I just, I knew it was going to be very hard. I knew it was going to cause. Some hardships, just letting go of it. But I did, and I remember that day and it was hard. It was very hard and they recommended all kinds of things like go do yoga. Practice meditation.


Eric Flanders:

So I did start meditating which did help. I got an app on my phone and I had never been a guy or meditating type of person. I would totally have said that’s for the birds before, but it helped a lot because when you’re just sitting there I, that’s where I really learned that thoughts are thoughts, cause my mind, when you close your eyes and you just by yourself your mind takes over and.


Eric Flanders:

Then you can really recognize thought patterns and just let them be and not engage with them. And the better and more practice you, you do the better you get at just letting things go. And so I guess meditation did help in a way. I really don’t do it as much as I used to, but. It does help with thought patterns.


Martin Reed:

What was the medication that you were taking at the time?


Eric Flanders:

Oh man, I mean, I took all kinds of stuff. I took I took a Klonopin, which is a benzo, right? And I took that for a while. The other medications I was on… were more anxiety driven at medication. So the doctor was trying to help my anxiety go away.


Eric Flanders:

But all of the anxiety medications that I was trying were making my anxiety worse. And because I wasn’t handling what was causing my anxiety. And so, I took 20 different anxiety medications over the course of a year, which I would not recommend. But yeah, I tried hydroxyzine. That was something they prescribed to me at first, which is just like a Benadryl type of thing.


Eric Flanders:

That was for sleep. And then the Klonopin was later. I didn’t take that for very long, but all of these things I had to get off of. And then I ended up taking Mirtazapine, which is a older anxiety medication, which also can help her sleep. And so that was another one that I was taking at the end there, but I just let them all go.


Eric Flanders:

And I remember the doctor that I had who had prescribed those she was saying, look, if you’re not going to, if you’re not going to do what I’m telling you to do, like we just can’t see each other anymore. I guess we’re done. Because I just was not going to take the medication and that was what her only answer was.


Martin Reed:

It’s been great listening to you describe, your change in your approach to the wakefulness and the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with it and doing things that matter and a lot of that is When we’re awake, it’s daytime, lots of distractions available to us. How does that translate to changing your approach at night?


Martin Reed:

Because fewer distractions, right, at night we tend to be more alone, less social, less of a social environment, fewer distractions. How do you change your response toward a day? difficult thoughts and feelings that can come with the wakefulness and that temptation to start wrestling with it again and tossing and turning and dealing with all that difficult stuff.


Martin Reed:

How do you change your approach there?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, and those thoughts don’t go away. For me, at least they haven’t, right? So I still go to sleep at night. And I think if you’ve had insomnia, like really have had it, man, I don’t know if those thoughts ever go away because it’s like a very traumatic experience.


Eric Flanders:

It so when I go to sleep I still have those thoughts. They still are in my mind saying, I’ve been laying here five minutes, and and, but now I say, well, so what? I’ve been laying here five minutes, who cares? And that could turn into an hour. And it’s, I still, at this point, now am I’m totally fine with being awake.


Eric Flanders:

And, cause I know eventually I’m gonna fall asleep. And you will if your thoughts don’t create these emotions. That trigger all kinds of like chemical responses in your body where, now you got adrenaline going on, right? And your sugar levels start spiking and all of this stuff starts happening.


Eric Flanders:

But if you just let those thoughts be, and they still happen for me often it will be fine. Like you will fall, you’ll fall asleep. And I don’t find myself thinking about it very much though, before I get in bed anymore. So like, when it’s dark and it’s eight o’clock I’m enjoying my evening with my wife and my son.


Eric Flanders:

And sometimes I go to bed with my wife. Sometimes I stay up and watch TV. It’s no big deal anymore. But when I get in bed, I close my eyes, there’s the thoughts still happening, and it’s totally okay. And I would say it’s okay if those thoughts are happening. That’s what I would say to myself if I could.


Eric Flanders:

It’s totally fine that those thoughts are happening. It doesn’t mean anything, but that’s not easy when you’re going through it. Oh, man.


Martin Reed:

Yeah. Exactly, and I’m so glad that you do keep emphasizing that because it’s, I think it is one thing to say You know, yeah, I just have to allow these thoughts.


Martin Reed:

But the thing is, we don’t want to allow them, because they don’t feel good. Now, but what again, it’s going back to what’s the alternative, if we don’t allow these thoughts to just flow through us to come and go as they choose, the alternative is to battle with them. What does your own experience tell you there?


Martin Reed:

If your own experience is telling you that battling isn’t really helping, then maybe it’s time to experiment with that new approach. Yeah. And allow the thoughts to come and go even when they are really difficult.


Eric Flanders:

It is so hard to, yeah, I mean, I heard folks say that on these types of calls and I’m like, wait, that sounds amazing.


Eric Flanders:

Like, please, I just want to be that person. Like, how are they doing that? How does that just happen? And. Going back to what I said before it only happened for me when I started to just one night of no sleep, two nights, no sleep, three nights, no sleep, a couple, I didn’t care. I went and did what I wanted to do.


Eric Flanders:

It was very hard to do it sometimes, but I did it anyways. And so when I started laying in bed and those thoughts would happen now, I could tell myself like, what’s it matter? Like tomorrow, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do anyways. It doesn’t really matter. Like I, I don’t need to have a sleep tonight. And that’s hard to, again, say when you’re sitting on the other side of it.


Eric Flanders:

But at the end of the day, if you get up the next day, stay up. You’re, you can go do what you want to do. You can. You can go do whatever you want. You’ll probably surprise yourself. And so the thoughts lost their steam after that, but when I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live, when I was purposely not going out, when I was not seeing my friends, when I wasn’t just going to the gym and doing all these things, not flying around, like I love traveling, not doing any of that, it really gave all those thoughts power.


Eric Flanders:

And so those thoughts become real powerless when you just, who cares? And it doesn’t happen overnight. I mean, this is a process.


Martin Reed:

Absolutely. It is a process. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on that. It was, if you are going to reflect back on when you were really tangled up in the struggle, and it felt really difficult to when you get to a point where it feels like, I can live my life independently of this stuff.


Martin Reed:

It’s not something that is always on my mind. I’m always trying to troubleshoot. If you had to put an approximate timeline on that process, on that part of the journey, how long would you say roughly that took?


Eric Flanders:

When I really started challenging my thoughts and doing what I wanted to do and live the way I want to, I really…


Eric Flanders:

saw slow progress over the course of maybe three or four months. And so I was constantly having to challenge things. And then it took about six months for me to start really feeling comfortable about those difficult thoughts. So it was not overnight. And I don’t think everyone’s timeline is the same.


Eric Flanders:

I will say that I, when I listened to some of the things I’m like, well, man, that maybe their situation just wasn’t as bad as mine, and so I would keep telling myself that. So I wanted to really tell everybody who’s going to listen to this. I was literally in the worst case scenario possible in my mind.


Eric Flanders:

Like it was that bad, just knowing who I am where I was at. And so it took longer for me. It wasn’t overnight. And but I kept at it. I kept doing it and doing it and just, wouldn’t let sleep prevent me from doing what I wanted to do and I took on another job.


Eric Flanders:

I got promoted, all these things happened while I was challenging all of this stuff. And Yeah, I’m here today because I did that.


Martin Reed:

Yeah, everyone’s timeline is different, but I think the one thing that they all share in common is they’re always longer than we want them to be. We always want to make that progress really quickly.


Eric Flanders:

They are longer.


Martin Reed:

Yeah, exactly. But it’s another one of those things we just can’t control, right? Just like we can’t control sleep itself. We can’t control what goes through our minds. We can’t control the timeline. We can only control. the implementation, the practice, the exploring a new approach if our previous or current approach isn’t working.


Martin Reed:

That’s the only thing we can control is we can control what we’re doing on the journey. We can’t control when we’re going to reach that final outcome. And it often takes longer than we’d like. That’s for sure.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah.


Eric Flanders:

And I’m not a patient guy, so it was really yeah, it was really working against me because of, control.


Eric Flanders:

I’m a little bit of a controlling guy, gotten better at that. No patience. Like, I mean, yeah!


Martin Reed:

Did you change your approach in terms of like when you would go to bed at night? Because I remember at the start of our discussion, you said you started to go to bed a lot earlier at night. Did you is that one of the things you change?


Martin Reed:

You started to go to bed either later at night or more closely to when you used to go back to when you used to go to bed before all of this struggle appeared.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, i, I, so I had a hard time with it because. I knew that staying up was the right answer, but when I found myself being awake and of course you’re the only one awake when you’re doing this, right, your family’s sleeping and you want to be in there.


Eric Flanders:

And so I had a really hard time with being awake by myself and it would just make me more anxious. And so I would give into that anxiety and just go lay in bed, which would make it even worse. So I would stay up late. And then I would go to bed and then I would jump out and so, at first I was going to bed early and then I slowly started like extending my hours and then that changed over time.


Eric Flanders:

Now I, I just go to bed when my wife goes to bed. I mean, I moved to California, like I said, and hours changed, right? The time zones changed, all that changed and we still work on East Coast timeframes. So, I’m starting. work and my wife at 530 in the morning here, and that would have terrified me before.


Eric Flanders:

How am I supposed to do that? And now I like getting up early, which I would never have done before, but I actually enjoy getting up early and seeing the sun come up and having a cup of coffee, whereas when I was really overthinking everything, it was giving me severe anxiety getting up earlier.


Eric Flanders:

So yeah, the sleep times changed for me.


Martin Reed:

And how about responding to the wakefulness with actions during the night? Were you one of those people that found it helpful to get out of bed when your mind was in overdrive, or were you one of those people that prefer to stay in bed and just experience the thoughts, practice allowing them to flow?


Martin Reed:

I’m curious what your approach was there.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I towards the end, I got a lot better with getting out of bed and I became okay with being awake. And I, when I would get out of bed at first, I would start, I was doing things that were not natural to myself. Right? Because a lot of people just recommend we’ll do something boring, right?


Eric Flanders:

That’s not super engaging. And that’s exactly what it was. It was super boring and like doing crossword puzzles or word searches or things like that. I would do tons of those things, but that’s not something that I enjoyed. So it made my time awake. Unenjoyable and I was already not enjoying it. And so, I started when I wake up now, I would just turn the TV on, and I know the TV, I would always, I bought blue, the blue sunglasses, right.


Eric Flanders:

To block out the light from TV thinking, Oh man, the lights just allowing my serotonin is not working. Right. Because, so I started doing all these weird things. I was, I’d be the only person in my house wearing sunglasses at night, watching TV. And Yeah. That obviously didn’t help at all, but I was doing it anyways because I was looking for anything.


Eric Flanders:

But then now, if I wake up, I just watch TV and I’ll watch a show and then I’ll go lay down again and see if I fall asleep. And I usually do. But most times I’m going to bed with my wife and I’m sleeping pretty quick.


Martin Reed:

I think really what it comes down to is just that more natural approach, right?


Martin Reed:

There’s, you move away from the rules and the rituals, whether it’s I have to wear a certain type of glasses or I can’t watch TV. We come up with all these rules and rituals for ourselves, even though if we’re able to reflect back on a time in our lives when sleep wasn’t a concern. Will we engage in those rules and rituals back then?


Martin Reed:

And if not, maybe that tells us something. Yeah. There’s always some insights to be gleaned there. But, and I love, what I really like was the fact you touched upon a few times during our conversation was there are still some difficult nights from time to time. You’re not some kind of superhuman that’s having a great night of sleep every single night.


Martin Reed:

What’s different now? I mean, First of all, are you still having some difficult nights from time to time? And if so, what’s different in terms of how you respond to them now and the kind of influence they might have over you?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I you know, I thought you know over the course of my life. I’ve always been an amazing sleeper and But in reality, I was telling myself that when I was going through this not remembering that man Most people don’t sleep great every night and I was not anything out of the normal.


Eric Flanders:

I, I had nights where I didn’t sleep great, but I totally forgot about that when I was going through it. I was like, I went from zero to nothing or a hundred to nothing here today. I would consider myself. Not having insomnia anymore. That I would absolutely consider, but does that mean I don’t have a night once a week where I’m getting three or four hours versus eight?


Eric Flanders:

Yeah that absolutely can happen. I don’t give it any attention now, because I know And I’m confident, like I’m going to sleep great probably the next night and usually I do, right? I mean, that’s just what happens, right? Your body knows when to sleep and when not to sleep if you’re not trying to play around with it.


Eric Flanders:

And so, it’s not abnormal for me to have a rough night and it’s, I wouldn’t even consider it a rough night anymore. I would consider it, it’s just me laying in bed comfortably. I, maybe I’m just not sleeping and that’s totally fine. It’s okay for me now and it the bed is now a comfort for me You know, I enjoy being in there whether i’m awake or not.


Eric Flanders:

Whereas before it wasn’t and So yeah, it’s not like a you know All of a sudden I had insomnia and then all of a sudden i’m a perfect sleeper again That’s just not the reality of the situation And it could be circumstances Something i’m thinking about the next day right things happen in life where you have something really important the next day and that can keep you up you know There’s all kinds of things and explanations as to why maybe you don’t have a great night of sleep.


Eric Flanders:

And that’s okay. It’s totally normal. I think that’s what I finally understood is it’s totally normal.


Martin Reed:

Absolutely. Well, Eric, I’m really grateful for the time you’ve taken out your day to come on and just share your experience and your story and your insights. Great stuff there. I do have one, one last question for you which is a question that’s quite similar to my final question for every guest, so I’m gonna ask you the question too, and it’s this.


Martin Reed:

If someone with chronic insomnia is listening, and they feel as though they’ve just tried everything, that they’re beyond help, that they’ll just never be able to move away from this struggle with sleep, this struggle with insomnia, What would you say to them?


Eric Flanders:

I would say that I was absolutely right there where they are right now and absolutely believing that there was no hope for me either.


Eric Flanders:

And I say that from the bottom of my heart because it was, it’s absolutely true and being here today I am very grateful for it because I never thought I would be here today but I would tell anyone who’s sitting there listening to this and really having a hard time that to be, you said, kind to yourself and not beat yourself up over it because, if you could choose not to be in the situation you’re in, you would probably not choose to be there.


Eric Flanders:

And so it’s not your fault. You’re not doing anything wrong. And to go out and live your life the way you want to live it, no matter how hard it is to just do it. And. Especially do it those nights where it’s rough sleep. Go out the next day and do everything that you planned on doing.


Eric Flanders:

If you’re avoiding doing things, go do them. And it will be okay. It will be okay. You will, you’ll convince yourself that it’s gonna be okay by showing yourself it’s gonna be okay.


Martin Reed:

All right. Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. So thanks again, Eric, for taking the time to come onto the podcast.


Eric Flanders:

Yeah, I appreciate your time, Martin. Have a great night.


Martin:

Thanks for listening to the Insomnia Coach Podcast. If you’re ready to move away from struggling with insomnia and toward living the life you want to live, I would love to help. You can get started right now by enrolling in my online course or y


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