How The BBC Helped Me Fight Off Nighttime Anxiety
I never expected the world’s largest broadcaster to become a useful weapon against mental illness
If you deal with anxiety, you’ve had sleepless nights when your brain delivers negative thoughts at Warp Nine.
Fifteen years ago, I found a solution that might also work for you.
I’ve dealt with severe anxiety for more than 40 years, and it has a lot of triggers. Nothing, though, is worse than a sick family member.
Long hours in ICU wards
Having a loved one in the hospital is the most helpless feeling in the world. There’s nothing I can do to help — I can only sit, wait, and try to stop my brain from destroying itself. If there’s good news, my thoughts race through all the ways things could still go wrong. When the news is bad, my anxiety gloats and tells me how things are going to deteriorate. The best way I can describe it is as a Niagara Falls of negative thoughts — a constant rush of catastrophic scenarios.
The worst is at night. That’s when the demons shift their operations into their highest gear.
I’ve suffered from severe insomnia since my dad’s heart attack in 1988. For years, I was terrified I would be asleep if he had a second one, and I’d miss a chance to save him. I couldn’t stay awake all night every night, but I remember hours of listening.
After years of therapy, I was able to sleep through most nights. My anxiety still manifested itself at times, usually when I was about to travel, but it wasn’t a massive problem.
Dad’s second illness
Things changed in the summer of 2005, 17 years after Dad’s heart attack, when he went back into the hospital. It shouldn’t have been a big deal — he needed his gall bladder removed — but things immediately went wrong.
The surgery was delayed because of concerns over his heart, and there were complications when they did it. At first, they told us he would on the ventilator overnight, and then it was going to be another day or two. He ended up in a medically induced coma for weeks, with the doctors unable to give us any answers.
I stopped sleeping. I was living alone, so I wasn’t listening for sounds of life. I was waiting for the phone to ring. When I was at work, at the hospital or online, I had a distraction. Even watching TV provided some relief, but when I went to bed, there was no escape from my own brain. Things would start off OK because my cat Moonlight would come to bed with me, lie down on my chest, and listen as I poured my guts out. He only stayed about 20 minutes, though, and it got rough. When I closed my eyes, it was a parade of reasons he might die and a feeling of certainty that I was about to get the call from Mom.
My fiancee (now wife) was a single mom, so she could only stay for two nights every other weekend. The rest of the time, it was Moonlight and me. Therapy gave me the strength to be supportive of Mom during the day, but nothing was working at night.
The solution was a complete accident. Our local public-radio stations carried the BBC World Service overnight. One night, during the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, I flipped on the radio at bedtime to hear the latest updates. I figured when Moonlight wandered off, I’d turn it off and try to sleep.
I woke up more than seven hours later, feeling more refreshed than I had in weeks. The next night, I tried it again with similar results. I experimented a little and found I could set the timer for 60 minutes and be asleep every night before it shut off. My brain was processing the announcer’s voice well enough to prevent constant racing thoughts.
My new life with the BBC
From that night forward, I fell asleep to the BBC. It got me enough rest to help my parents through the roller-coaster ride that lasted three months before Dad passed away at the end of October. By that point, it was a habit, and I fell asleep that way through 2015 and into 2016.
My routine was interrupted around Valentine’s Day, but for a good reason. Angie and I bought a house, and we became a big, happy family with her daughter Brittany, Moonlight, and their cat Kai. It was great — we’ve been living together for 14 years and married for 13 — but there was an immediate problem. Angie couldn’t sleep with the radio on. My brain locked on the voices enough to relax, but it was the opposite for her — she focused on them to the extent it kept her awake.
My first thought was a clock-radio with a headphone jack, but that didn’t work. Something about our converted bungalow made radio reception impossible. It was taking me hours to fall asleep until I bought one of the newest gadgets on the market, an MP3 player. It was a thumb drive with a headphone jack, a volume switch, and some primitive controls. I’ve never been able to fall asleep to music, but I was able to use it for audiobooks along with something new — the podcast.
This August will mark the 15th anniversary of Dad’s illness, and I still fall asleep every night with voices in my head. Unfortunately, I’ve needed them for anxiety relief many times. My mom passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer, and my wife had several serious health problems. Luckily, those have had better outcomes, including a kidney transplant that will give her extra decades of life.
The technology has changed over the years — I upgraded from the MP3 player to an iPod. I wore two of them out and now use my phone. I buy $20 wired earbuds — I don’t need state-of-the-art sound for people talking me to sleep — and snake them through my CPAP mask. Most nights, I listen to a podcast about English soccer — I recommend The Offensive, which includes a character named after me — but other nights call for a mystery novel or a lecture about Aztec architecture.
I’ve suggested this technique to other people with anxiety-based insomnia, and a few of them have found it helpful. So, here are some suggestions about how it might work for you.
How to beat insomnia with friendly voices
- Buy a smartphone. I suspect most of you have already done this, so well done. Advance preparation is an important life skill.
- Download Spotify. Again, bonus points for those of you who have previously done it. Feel free to use something else, but I like the way Spotify makes it easy to find the right episode. As you will read, that isn’t always going to be the most recent one. (BONUS FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS: If you experiment with the search function in Spotify, you might discover an Easter Egg that allows the app to play music as well as podcasts.)
- Buy a cheap pair of earbuds. It’s 2020, so it seems obvious to go with wireless headphones, but I suggest going wired. I’ve never found reasonably priced wireless earbuds that are comfortable for sleeping, and this isn’t an item where you want to go for a luxury item. You will probably go through a couple sets a year — the cords get stretched every time they catch on something — so you want comfort at the lowest price possible.
- Listen to a lot of podcasts. Save the fascinating ones for when you are awake, but for this specific project, you want a weekly roundtable discussion of an interesting topic. In the past, I’ve suggested politics, but that isn’t calming at the moment. For me, soccer works, but you might choose a TV show or economics or something else entirely. You need people peacefully talking about a subject.
- Choose your favorite podcast. When you think you’ve found the right candidate, download the last few episodes and listen to them while you are driving, exercising, or anything where you are going to be awake. Get used to the format and the panel members.
- Pick your favorite episode. Listen to it for a second time. Try to pick one with some humor or an entertaining few minutes of discussion.
- Prepare for bed. That night, when you go to bed, go through all your pre-sleep rituals — setting your alarms, petting your cat, rechecking Twitter — before you open Spotify.
- Get comfortable. When you are ready to sleep, pull up the episode and hit play. Set your phone down and listen. Instead of racing thoughts, your brain will focus on the familiar voices. Think about what is coming up later in the episode. For me, it usually takes about five or 10 minutes to fall asleep.
- Try new episodes. Each week, when the new episode comes out, listen to it during the day before using it for sleep. You don’t want to be hearing it for the first time at night, because you end up paying too much attention to new information.
- Go with what works. If you find an episode consistently puts you to sleep, keep using it. I’ve listened to some shows more than 250 times. I know the first five minutes by heart but haven’t heard the last 15 minutes in years.
- Listen to a book. If you have audiobooks, toss some into the mix. I usually set the timer for an hour, then start the next night at the last point I remember. It can take a month to finish a book.
- The most important rule. Break any of these rules if you find something that works. The key is finding a way to get the sleep you need.
Good luck. This is a tough time for everyone — civil unrest during a pandemic is new for most of us — so don’t feel bad about having trouble sleeping. I hope this helps.