“I have followed all the received wisdom around sleep hygiene—to no real effect,” says Fleur Britten. “But then a chance conversation a couple of months ago with the sleep coach Camilla Stoddart changed everything.”
I feel like I’ve lost years of my life to sleeplessness—sometimes I look as if I have, too. Most nights I wake in the middle of the night, suddenly on some kind of vigil for that saber-toothed tiger attack. But of course, the tiger never comes (I know this because I am then awake for hours). For me a good night’s sleep is a meagre six hours. The worst-case scenario – about four hours, broken into little pieces (a bit like me)—happens all too frequently.
Like many insomniacs, I’ve tried everything: over-the-counter sleeping pills (they work, but dependency feels wrong), quitting caffeine and alcohol (it helps, but it is no cure), ear plugs and eye masks (essential), sleep podcasts, bedtime breathwork, magnesium and melatonin (all useless), and CBTi (that’s ‘i’ for insomnia—effective but brutal, and my bad habits and wakefulness always won out). I have followed all the received wisdom around sleep hygiene—to no real effect. And with all the literature around the negative health consequences of sleeplessness, it’s easy to let panic steer your life into obsessiveness around sleep. That didn’t help either.
But then a chance conversation a couple of months ago with the sleep coach Camilla Stoddart changed everything. “Have you tried journaling?” she asked. I hadn’t. I was always too self-conscious, too unconvinced. To me, journaling belonged with pillow mists and milky drinks in the softly-softly, totally ineffective category. Stoddart explained the science: “The amygdala is your brain’s worry center, and is responsible for emotional processing—it’s the amygdala that judges whether something is worth panicking over.” It was my stressed-out amygdala that was waking me up, she said, adding, “but journalling will help to switch it off.”
Stoddart pointed out that, as someone with a busy mind that is prone to anxiety, I tend towards a state of hyper-arousal, i.e, I am always on high alert, whether I’m awake or asleep. “What you need to do is stop the arousal before it wakes you up,” she says. By giving myself 20 or so minutes a day of “constructive worrying,” where you commit all the things preying on your mind to paper and permit yourself to worry about them, I will be offloading my mind, clearing the amygdala of sleep-interrupting anxieties, and lessening my state of heightened arousal. “By journaling,” she adds, “you’re standing down your busy mind and stopping it from warning you over and over again. For all your adult life, your way of dealing with stress has been to do it in the middle of the night—you have to un-train your brain. Just try it for a week.”
There are no strict rules around writing a worry diary, Stoddart says: “There are as many ways to journal as there are people— you don’t have to come away with a punishing to-do list that will just make you feel worse.” She has some suggestions, though: you can identify whether you can actually act on the worry: “For example, you can’t do anything about the war in Ukraine—so try to take that off the list of things going through your head.” My journal could also be a place where I explored worst-case scenarios of my perceived problems, she says, or where I worked out solutions—or at least steps towards them. Or I could write a list of things I’m grateful for, or that I’m looking forward to: “It can be helpful to end on a positive,” says Stoddart. “But even just offloading your worries works.”
Ever since writing my first and only other diary at the age of 10—the dullness of which still haunts me (“Spaghetti for supper then had a shower and went to bed”)—I’ve deemed it a fact that I am no diarist. However, I found journalling surprisingly easy. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not like it reads like some fabulous memoir. This stuff is not intended to be read, ever—not even by me (I deliberately write in a wild, faint scrawl with a blunt pencil to deter my family from bothering to decipher it). I do it in bed before bedtime, and often whole rivers of consciousness pour out, as if I’m chatting to a long-suffering friend. Honestly, it’s absolute drivel, but that’s not the point.
The point is that, to my astonishment, it worked. During the first week, I slept for six hours straight every night. It might not sound much, but for me it was radical—not having a single broken night’s sleep in a whole week was already a massive breakthrough. After a couple of weeks, my innings stretched to seven hours, then seven and a half, and on occasion the fabled eight. I should add that it’s not completely bombproof, not quite, “She slept happily ever after”—the six-hour sleep is still in evidence, but it’s nothing like as frequent. Journaling has been transformational. The effect is like being on happy pills —I feel more chirpy, less ratty, more calm, more resilient.
Stoddart explains that what I’m gaining now is more of the light-stage sleep, where the emotional processing happens— hence the better moods. “When you’re sleep-deficient, the body prioritizes deep sleep over light, in order to protect your physical health,” she says. When you’re hyper-aroused, “the minute your sleep cycle moves from deep sleep to lighter sleep, as it naturally does several times a night, then—ping! You’re awake.” But it’s getting enough light sleep as well as deep sleep that allows hyper-arousal levels to fall, she says, “while if you’re tired, you draw on hyper-arousal to get you through the day, which in turn keeps you awake—hyper-arousal is self-perpetuating.”
Without realizing it, I’d become trapped in a vicious cycle of diabolical sleep for most of my adult life. Now though, my journaling was setting me on a more virtuous track—this was truly a pinch-me moment.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.