Therapy Was My Game Changer

by Beth Howard Patient Expert

From a very young age, Kyle Elliott, now 26 and a career coach in California’s Silicon Valley, struggled with sleep difficulties. He began experiencing insomnia before he was even in school. “At age 4 or 5, I would have trouble falling asleep, and then I would also wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and just not be able to go back to bed.”

Elliott’s parents tried such steps as having him stick to a set bedtime and not watching TV late at night, but the problem persisted. Mornings were difficult, Elliott says, but he managed.

As he grew older, Elliott saw doctors for anxiety and other health conditions, including chronic migraine, but his sleep problem was never fully addressed. “There was always something more pressing,” he says. “I would mention it and they would say, ‘OK, this migraine medicine may help with sleep,’ or ‘This anxiety medicine may help with sleep,’ but it was never, ‘Let’s focus this appointment on your sleep.’”

Elliott tried taking melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a hormone that the body makes naturally at night and promotes sleep. The supplements helped a little but didn’t get at the root of his problem. He ended up relying on caffeine to get through the day.

A rough road

In graduate school, Elliott’s sleeplessness took a turn for the worse when he was assaulted. “After that, I would go nights and nights without being able to sleep or only getting a few hours of sleep, and I was having flashbacks,” he says. “That’s when it was at its worst.” Counseling helped him deal with his trauma, but sleep issues still plagued him.

Then Elliott found a therapist who took a holistic approach to his health and well-being. “I went to her about my anxiety and how to improve my stress,” he says. “But she didn’t just talk to me about my mental health issues. She talked to me about my sleep and the importance of it.”

The therapist practiced a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing the dysfunctional thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are hurting an individual’s quality of life. “That was a game changer for me,” Elliott says. “She really took a multipronged approach, going through everything in my life: ‘How much coffee are you drinking? How much are you sleeping? What’s your screen time like? What are you doing right before bed?’”

Removing an obstacle

Elliott and his therapist quickly zeroed in on his smartphone use. “One of the biggest challenges was having my phone in the bedroom,” he says. “It would be on my nightstand, and I would check it constantly. And every time I had a thought, I would write it down in my phone or I would check my email and email myself. I would get lost in it. This would go on and keep me up for a while, and that’s where I really got stuck.”

Elliott first moved the phone to the other side of the room but found he was getting up to use it. And he kept coming up with reasons why he needed it in the bedroom, such as using it for his alarm or as a light. “I really needed a full disconnect and to put it in the bathroom,” he says. “Having my therapist challenge me and cut through all my excuses helped to get the phone out of the bedroom.”

Elliott’s therapist also helped him stay accountable, which allowed new habits to stick. “When you actually have to say, ‘OK, I won’t have my phone in the room,’ and then you come back and your therapist says, ‘Was your phone in your room?’ that’s what really made the difference,” he says.

Next steps

Therapy also introduced Elliott to good sleep hygiene measures such as creating a restful environment in his bedroom and reducing his caffeine intake. “We talked about making goals that are realistic, and that’s what we worked on,” he says. “So it’s OK to still have coffee, but less—maybe two cups a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, instead of three, four, or seven.” In grad school, he had been having coffee every couple of hours.

Elliott also established a specific wake time in the morning. “I used to wake up early during the week and sleep in on the weekends to catch up,” he says. But that doesn’t work. So now he gets up at the same time every day. “And I’m consistent with what time I go to bed and make sure that I’m in bed in time to get eight or nine hours of sleep.”

Although Elliott was never a fan of exercise, it now plays a critical role in managing his ability to sleep. “A lot of my sleep issues revolve around being anxious and having a lot of energy,” he says. “Exercise helps get it out so that I’m tired at the end of the day.” He primarily walks and ice-skates in the winter to get his heart rate up.

To help him stay motivated to work out, Elliott’s therapist suggested he set a realistic goal. “Some people set lofty ones like working out for an hour at the gym every day,” he says. “Mine is just to put on my walking shoes every day. That’s been super helpful, because once I have the shoes on, I think, ‘Oh well, I might as well go for a walk.’”

Over time, Elliott’s sleep has improved dramatically. He feels better day to day and is reaping other benefits from being well rested.

“My productivity and efficiency are just amazing now. The amount of work I’m able to do in a period of time is through the roof—I’m able to sit down and bust through projects,” Elliott says. “And I also need way less caffeine because I’m not lethargic and tired all the time. I’m living my best life.”

Beth Howard
Meet Our Writer
Beth Howard

Beth Howard is a health writer based in Charlotte, NC. She writes about health, medicine, and health care for publications including U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and Prevention Magazine.