Five years ago, completely out of the blue, I developed insomnia. I can safely say that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. That experience – and how I eventually overcame it – is what inspired Sleepio.
When you’re caught in the trap of insomnia there’s no escape. Every night I would lay there dreading the dawn, and then simply getting through the next day would be a monumental challenge. Before long a feeling of all-pervasive helplessness set in – if I couldn’t even sort out my sleep, what hope was there for handling anything else? And worst of all, you feel entirely alone in this struggle – the only one in the world awake at night, and the only one silently battling through the day in a world of good sleepers.
I was lucky enough to have studied psychology at university, so I knew that there were very powerful non-drug ways to beat insomnia. Eventually I visited my GP and (somewhat smugly) demanded a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT. He flatly refused, instead prescribing me sleeping pills.
So I took the pills. And, beyond a few nights of temporary relief and the odd nasty chemical hangover, they did nothing to help my insomnia. So the sleepless nights continued.
After another three months I was reaching the end of my tether, a full-blown pillow-punching, relationship-ruining, emotional mess. Out of desperation I rang my sister (a clinical psychologist – another stroke of luck). She pointed me towards Prof Colin Espie, a world expert in CBT for insomnia who had written extensively about the techniques involved. I tracked down the descriptions he had published and set about self-administering a course of CBT, manually recording my sleep and calculating my progress, mustering the motivation to put the techniques into practice and see it through. Incredibly, in six weeks I was totally better.
My first reaction was: this is amazing! I knew about the theory of CBT from my uni days, but for the first time had experienced personally how powerful and effective it could be – and in such a short period of time.
My second reaction was: this is insane. Poor and disrupted sleep is the most common ‘mental’ problem in the Western world, affecting a huge 28% of people at any one time (1), causing immense human suffering and costing millions in lost productivity each year. We have a proven solution to this problem in CBT (reliably been shown to be 7 times more effective than drugs (2)) but – here’s the kicker – no one can get access to it! If, as a psychology graduate with a clinical psychologist sister who knew what I wanted had to track down and self-administer a course to myself, then what hope for the millions of other sufferers?
So arose the idea of Sleepio. Why not use the web to get this proven therapy to the millions of people who suffer from sleep problems? Why not use this technology to tailor the material to each individual? Why not connect the isolated sleepless with each other online? Why not try to create something that felt more like entertainment than dry self-help – something that didn’t feel like medicine but that was many times more effective?
I rang up Prof Colin Espie – who had been trying to solve the very same problem for 30 years – and it became clear we shared the same vision. So together we set about creating the Sleepio course. We re-wrote the CBT material to work as an interactive, personalised experience. We created a human face to the course, your virtual therapist “The Prof”. We designed online tools to help put the course into practice – from the Sleep Diary to cognitive tools such as the Thought Checker. We added a peer-support community and Prof Espie wrote a huge library of expert articles for those who wanted to look ‘under the bonnet’. Thanks to the superhuman efforts of our technical and creative teams the first version of the course was alive at the end of 2010.
From day one, on Prof Espie’s insistence, we were committed to only clinically-validated, evidence-based material. So our next step was to test the Sleepio course to the highest standards of scientific evidence. Prof Espie devised a gold standard clinical trial – the world’s first placebo-controlled RCT for an online CBT sleep improvement course. That’s to say we built a complete alternative placebo version of the course, including animated sessions with The Prof and new online tools, to test the real Sleepio course against. In retrospect it seems a bit crazy to go to those lengths, but it put the course to the most rigorous test possible, on a par with what is required of prescription drugs before they go on sale. And the results showed that the Sleepio course is incredibly effective, at helping people fall asleep faster, stay asleep through the night and feel better during the day (see Prof Espie’s explanation of the trial and the results here). And the personal effect on participants was every bit as powerful as I had experienced; just ask our ‘course graduates’.
With the trial paper being reviewed for publication in a scientific journal we can now for the first time release Sleepio into the wild. If you suffer from poor sleep (and you’re sure it’s suitable for you) then I urge you to give it a go. We’d love to hear what you think – comment below or drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope it helps you regain control over your sleep!
(1) UK Office of National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2001
(2) Riemann D, Perlis ML. The treatments of chronic insomnia: A review of benzodiazepine receptor agonists and psychological and behavioral therapies. Sleep Medicine Reviews 2009