What Happened When I Hired a Sleep Coach

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
I’m sitting on the subway, bleary-eyed, watching my fellow commuters enter and leave the train. I study their faces and wonder: Was anyone else up all night like I was? I play this game almost every morning, searching for puffy eyes and dark circles — anything to prove that I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one struggling with insomnia.
Statistically, I know that I’m not. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 45 percent of Americans say they’re impacted by poor or insufficient sleep. Ironically, I don’t need stats to tell me about the prevalence of sleep problems — as a health journalist, I’ve written numerous articles on the topic and have interviewed some of the top sleep experts in the country.
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And yet, personally, I’ve struggled with insomnia for the last six years, mostly in secret, putting up a happy, energetic front while silently suffering on the inside. I’ve slogged through countless days in a zombie-like trance doing everything I can to stay awake and keep others from noticing that I'm as alert as a college student at a frat party (indeed, studies show that being sleep deprived is akin to feeling drunk). I slap on a smile and apply an extra layer of concealer to hide the circles under my eyes.
On the rare occasion that I have shared with a friend or colleague about my sleep issues, they’ve nodded along knowingly and told me how exhausted they were from staying up late to binge-watch Game of Thrones. But that’s the thing: I’m not talking about accidentally pulling an all-nighter to watch a show or tossing and turning a few nights a month — I’m talking about having consecutive nights for years where I’ve laid in bed for a full eight hours and not gotten a wink of sleep.
Not surprisingly, my insomnia has had a serious impact on my health. On the days when I don’t sleep, I feel lethargic, checked out, and depressed. Everything feels harder than it should, from little things like waiting in line at the grocery store to bigger tasks like finishing an article under a tight deadline. And I know the fallout isn’t necessarily limited to how I feel day to day: Getting insufficient sleep has been linked to hypertension, diabetes, depression, cancer, and even increased mortality, according to the CDC. Being confronted by these statistics on a daily basis for my job has only left me more stressed out and anxious about not sleeping.
Then, a friend recommended I try a sleep coach. I was skeptical — but desperate enough to go for it. On my first call with Christine Hansen, of Sleep Like a Boss, I warned her: “This probably isn’t going to work for me. I’ve written a million articles about sleep and tried everything in the book — meditation, a digital detox, baths, deep-breathing, mantras, you name it.”
Christine was not intimidated. She asked me to tell her about the origins of my insomnia, and I explained that my sleeplessness began six years ago, during the summer of 2010, when I changed jobs and moved on my own to a small studio apartment in Brooklyn. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was scared to live by myself and was drowning in my new position. At night, my mind would race with worries: What was that strange sound in the hallway? What if my alarm didn’t go off and I missed an important meeting in the morning? If I didn’t sleep, how would I get through the next day? I’d bomb my meeting for sure and likely get a nasty email from my boss.
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Eventually, I got used to living alone and things got better at work, but somehow, I still couldn't sleep. The mere thought of getting into bed sent a surge of anxiety through my veins, as I'd immediately worry about whether or not I’d be able to drift off.
Christine listened patiently, and when I was finished she said, “You’re just stuck in an anxiety-insomnia feedback loop. You know all too well how important sleep is so when it doesn’t come, you get stressed out. This results in a vicious circle of not sleeping because you’re so anxious about not sleeping.”
“Exactly,” I said, relieved that someone finally understood what I was going through. I had thought that I was crazy for being scared to go to bed at night, but Christine assured me that many of her clients suffered from the same issue. We’d only been on the phone for 10 minutes, but already I was feeling a little less helpless.
At the end of our session, Christine told me not to worry — she was certain she could help me. She suspected that anxiety was what was keeping me up at night, and she offered a few techniques that would help me feel more peaceful.

At night, my mind would race with worries: What was that strange sound in the hallway? What if my alarm didn’t go off and I missed an important meeting in the morning?

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First, she told me to schedule 10 minutes of “freak out time” a day where I’d give myself license to unleash all my worries and frustrations in a notebook. She encouraged me to “really go there” and take my worries to the worst-case scenario. The only caveat was that I needed to do this during the day (not too close to my bedtime).
Next, she said that the next time I couldn’t sleep, I should say to myself: “So what? There have been worse nights and the world continued spinning.”
Finally, she told me to get out of bed when I couldn’t sleep and do a boring yet focusing activity like washing the dishes or organizing a closet.
Her first two suggestions were easy enough, but this final recommendation was tough. When I couldn’t sleep, the last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed, since that would ensure that I definitely wasn’t going to drift off. Instead, I’d lay there stubbornly for hours telling myself that even if I didn’t fall asleep until 4am, two or three hours of sleep would be better than none at all.
Still, when I found myself tossing and turning a few nights later, I decided to take her advice and got out of bed to do the dishes. When I was finished, I still wasn’t tired, so I sat on the couch and read until my eyelids felt heavy. About an hour later, I got back in bed and fell asleep almost immediately. I only logged a few hours of sleep that night, but it still felt like a victory.
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On subsequent nights when I couldn’t sleep, I practiced the “So what?” technique and found that it really helped take the pressure off. It reminded me that not sleeping really wasn’t the end of the world. During the last six years, when my sleep problems had been the worst, I had actually been quite productive: I’d moved into my own apartment, landed several highly coveted magazine jobs, struck out on my own as a freelance writer, and found an amazing relationship. As terrible as it felt to run on no sleep, the truth was, it hadn’t stopped me from accomplishing my goals.
On our next call, Christine told me she wanted me to start practicing some of the sleep hygiene tips I’d spent my career writing about: keep my phone far from my bed, get ready by candlelight, and write in a gratitude journal before turning out the lights. The know-it-all health editor in me rolled her eyes, but Christine had been right so far, so I quieted my inner critic and did what she recommended. I soon found that having a bedtime routine really helped, and keeping a gratitude journal was especially useful in helping me feel calmer and more at peace.

Christine helped me see that my perfectionist tendencies and controlling nature were at the source of my anxiety.

Over the course of the next few sessions, Christine helped me see that my perfectionist tendencies and controlling nature were at the source of my anxiety.
“You’ve been trying to control your sleep and get that perfect eight hours, but sleep cannot be controlled,” she said gently. “All you can do is invite it, and be kind and patient with yourself. Be at peace with the fact that you won’t get perfect sleep every night — no one does — but you can have the good nights outweigh the bad.”
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She had a point. I had convinced myself that I had to get eight hours of sleep a night, and when I didn’t, I’d beat myself up. What’s wrong with me? I’d think to myself. Why can’t I just sleep like everyone else?
Christine often had to remind me that I wasn’t the only one suffering from sleep issues. She also noted that while health experts recommend logging seven to eight hours of sleep per night, the amount of shut-eye a person needs can vary. To test this notion, she had me push back my bedtime from 11pm to 1am and get up at my usual time of 7 or 7:30am. She said going to sleep later would help mitigate some of my bedtime anxiety and help us figure out how much sleep I actually needed.
Turns out, pushing back my bedtime helped me fall asleep more easily (most likely because I was actually tired; at 11pm I’m usually still wired), and I woke up feeling restored and refreshed. For me, getting a solid six or six and half hours of sleep felt way better than going to bed “early” and tossing and turning for hours before falling asleep.
After three months of working with Christine, I’m proud to say that I went from four or five bad nights of sleep a week to just one or two. At one point during our work together, I even had a full two weeks of solid, uninterrupted sleep.
Since then, my sleep patterns have varied: Some weeks I feel like I’m back to where I started, tossing and turning several nights a week. Other times, I’ll surprise myself and have an entire week of great sleep. Recently, when I got frustrated because I had a few bad nights in a row, I pulled out my notes from my sessions with Christine and stopped on a page I had starred. I had written: You cannot control sleep — and it’s not your fault you can’t sleep!
I checked in with myself and realized that I’d been beating myself up again, and it was only making matters worse. That night before bed, I said to myself: You may or may not get any sleep tonight. Either way, you’ll be ok.
And I was.
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