BOOK CLUB | INTERVIEW
Kate Mikhail, author of teach yourself to sleep, give you her top tips on how to get the most out of your rest.
After decades of trying traditional methods to cure her poor sleep, the chance reading of a book by her great-great uncle, a pioneer in cognitive therapy and clinical hypnosis, led Kate to research the science of sleep, and develop the tried-and-tested methods that have finally enabled her to take control of her sleep and wake up feeling rested and energised. Kate considers sleep from every angle - from the role of biology-based self-talk in reinforcing better sleep habits, to fixing our sleep-wake cycles through the right balance of light and darkness, and when, what and how to eat for the best sleep possible.
1. What led you to write this book?
I was reading a book by a great great uncle of mine, Richard Waters, a pioneer in cognitive therapy and clinical hypnosis who described himself as a practical psychologist, when I came across a couple of pages he’d written about sleep and insomnia. The main point he was making is that what goes on in our mind before we go to bed influences the sleep we end up with. I found this a fascinating idea and started to research sleep and insomnia, only to discover that I qualified as a chronic insomniac.
My sleep was particularly bad at this point in my life, having been difficult for decades. I couldn’t get to sleep easily at night, but would lie awake for hours and hours and then start the next day feeling absolutely exhausted. Every now and then I had burn‐out days, where all I could do was lie down and wait to recharge.
The more I researched the biology and science of sleep, however, experimenting with different tactics as I went along and interviewing various experts, all of which I’ve included in Teach Yourself to Sleep, I realised that I could take control and change my sleep‐wake pattern. Now I’m able to sleep without being up most the night and I wake up with plenty of energy.
Our sleep affects everything about our day, including our health, moods and energy. How to improve our sleep, to get the most out of our day, by looking at sleep in a wider context than usual, is something I wanted to share with readers.
2. What sleep aids did you previously try to help break the insomnia cycle?
I tried so many sleep aids over the years and some of them all at once, including lavender essential oil and sleep sprays, magnesium in various forms, herbal teas and others described as sleep teas, melatonin and valerian supplements, ear plugs, eye shades and relaxing baths, but they weren’t enough to deal with the cause of my sleep issues, so they had little effect. For many years I had to have prescription sleeping pills as back‐up, for those nights when I risked getting no sleep at all, and to stop insomnia anxiety taking over.
3. What role does our inner voice and subconscious play in the sleep process?
What has been a real eye‐opener is discovering that our thoughts have an immediate knock‐ on effect on our feelings, emotions, physiology and behaviour. Our inner voice triggers a chemical cascade and tells our brain what our priorities are, as well as our outlook and our expectations, which our brain then runs with.
If we’re constantly thinking and telling others that we’re a terrible sleeper, we barely sleep a wink, we always wake throughout the night, or we’re up and on at 3am then this feeds into our actual sleep in a self‐fulfilling prophecy kind of way. A controlled sleep lab study by a team of researchers in Germany, led by Professor Jan Born, discovered that if we tell ourselves that we need to be up earlier than usual, our body starts to prepare for this a good hour before we wake up.
Also if our habitual sleep thoughts are negative, we’re setting up our sleep as something that our threat‐seeking amygdala – the emotional HQ in our brain – needs to be concerned about. This in turn stirs our fight or flight response, which raises our stress hormone levels, which can be a huge barrier to sleep.
On the other hand, if we can change our inner voice when it comes to sleep: the quality of my sleep is on the up; I may have slept badly before, but my sleep will improve thanks to steps I am taking etc – we set the stage for our natural sleep hormones and sleep patterns to move in, and research shows that our perception of our sleep affects the quality of that sleep, for better or worse.
4. Can you tell us more about sleep scripts and the impact they can make?
A sleep script is a powerful sleep habit cue and behavioural trigger. It’s basically a recording that you listen to that helps you to relax and it runs through what will happen in your mind and body as you prepare for sleep.
As mentioned before, there’s some incredible research out there that I share in my book, which explores how our words and thoughts impact us – changing us physically and altering our behaviour, including our sleep.
Listening to a sleep script daily, changes our habitual sleep thoughts, which directly influences our actual sleep.
I listened to Waters’ one‐minute script every day when sorting out my sleep, which I recorded myself reading on my phone. I also have three other exclusive sleep scripts written by experts for Teach Yourself to Sleep. You can either listen to someone else reading the script to you in the third person, or if you record yourself reading it in the first‐person, the sleep suggestions being made are transformed into self‐talk.
5. What are your top 5 tips to help insomniacs have a peaceful night sleep?
1: It’s really important that we appreciate that everything about our day shapes our sleep and that we understand the basic biology behind this. For example, how much daylight we’re exposed to and how this plays out in our sleep. I have a daily light structure that I live by, but one thing you can do to help anchor your ‘master’ body clock and set up your sleep‐ wake cycle is to get outside in the morning.
2: Don’t call yourself a bad sleeper! How you describe your sleep activates an emotional and physical chain reaction. Instead, it pays to reassure your fear‐seeking amygdala that sleep is not a threat, but something that can and will improve as you move forward, with the right formula in place. This will reduce the amount of stress hormones that are released, helping to remove a significant obstacle between you and a restorative night’s sleep.
3: Listen to a sleep script. This is not just a powerful sleep habit cue, but it also gives you a pause in your day, which helps any accumulative stress subside. Stress is blamed for causing around 45% of sleep issues, which is why I have included so many science‐based stress busters to help readers manage their stress and to stop anxiety snowballing. I don’t listen to a sleep script these days, as I sleep easily and wake up refreshed – but I still have the recording in my phone, in case my sleep is disrupted by anything.
4: Eat regular, sleep‐friendly meals. What and when we eat has a direct impact on our sleep. I have a chapter on this, as regular meals help to keep all our body clocks lined up, which we need for effortless, top‐quality sleep. There are also certain foods that are good to include and others that are best avoided at certain times of the day, for example high‐calorie, fast‐ release foods too close to bedtime. This comes down to chrononutrition – the ideal time to eat different foods – and a simple understanding of this really helps to improve the quality of your sleep.
5: Transform your bedroom into a sleep haven. This is a sleep tip you may have heard before, but what’s crucial here is understanding the science of habits that’s behind this. I researched how habits are formed in the brain, which is fascinating, and how specifically we can displace sleep‐sabotaging habits and establish others that are sleep‐promoting, and I write about the DIY action we can all take. In brief, our bedroom is our sleep habit context, so turning it into a sleep haven fulfils one of the habit building blocks, which is Reward.
6. How do you relax at the end of a long day?
One thing I do is to dim the lights progressively as night moves in. This is not only relaxing, but it’s also an excellent sleep habit cue and it allows melatonin levels – the hormone of sleep – to inch up, which it does when your eyes register darkness. I also like to read a book last thing – but nothing too intense that will spike stress hormone levels! – as reading a book, even for just six minutes, has been shown to slow the heart rate, relax muscle tension and reduce stress by 60%, so it’s a great way to unwind after a hectic day.
Credit: Kate Mikhail is the author of Teach Yourself to Sleep: An Ex‐Insomniac’s Guide, published by Little Brown and available from all major bookshops.