How to beat insomnia

From relaxation exercises to lavender oil, Lee Levitt has tried almost everything to ease his sleepless nights. Can a trip to a 'sleep retreat' – a boot camp for insomniacs – get him the shut-eye he craves?

Does anyone not like raisins?" A packet of raisins was handed out. "I'd like you to imagine you are aliens. You've just flown down to Earth. Everything is new and you have been presented with a raisin. Hold it in the palm of your hand and notice how it looks; how it feels. Gently push it around and notice its colour and texture. If you want to, gently pick it up between your thumb and forefinger and notice whether it feels hard or soft. Maybe put it up to your nose and see if it smells and to your ear and see if it makes any noise. And when you are ready, put it in your mouth and use your tongue to push it around. Maybe notice how your tongue feels and how the raisin feels. And very gently, pop it between your teeth and notice if there is any taste to it." The silence was broken by a whimpering. Libby, at 19 the youngest in our group, was sobbing. "I feel really anxious," she blurted out.

I was on the inaugural Time To Dream sleep retreat at Rockliffe Hall, a five-star hotel set on a restored 18th-century estate on the banks of the river Tees in County Durham. Leading our group of a dozen doughty souls, ranging from chronic insomniacs to those with more humdrum sleep disorders, was Guy Meadows, a sleep expert with the air of a young Tony Blair, who practises at the London Insomnia Clinic in Little Venice.

Meadows, 33, who has been studying human physiology for 14 years, nine of which have been devoted to sleep research and the prevention of sleeping disorders, was not short of energy himself, having recently become a father and been part of a charity team that swam the Channel. "It's amazing," he said of the raisin exercise, "that something like that can..."

"Freak you out," said a now-composed Libby, who normally gets one to three hours of sleep per night.

Having observed that her reaction was "quite common", Meadows explained that the exercise was designed to raise "awareness levels" and was part of an approach to insomnia based on Buddhist-inspired mindfulness.

It's about learning to live in the moment," Meadows says. "Mindfulness is very much about 'now'; noticing what is happening in a non-judgemental, accepting manner. You choose how you respond to your experiences rather than be driven by habitual reactions. You have probably worked out this relates to insomnia: invariably, our reactions are strengthening the very thing we are trying to lessen. What I want us to do is to learn not how to beat or overcome it [insomnia], but to sit with it. It's about learning how to let go, which sends your body clock a new message."

I had come to Rockliffe with my psychotherapist girlfriend, who, like me, suffers from chronic insomnia. As we all sat in a crescent shape, armed with Mindful Sleep Therapy Workshop folders, other mental and practical exercises followed, along with diagrams and pictures on a whiteboard, to enable us to differentiate between "the thinking mind and the observing mind". The exercises ranged from Mindful Breathing: focusing, eyes shut, on our breath – with Meadows counselling: "If your mind wanders off, thank it, but bring it back and observe it" – to the playful, interactive Passengers On The Bus, in which the group formed two lines, representing welcome and unwelcome memories, emotions and thoughts and were encouraged to acknowledge and work with them, so that the metaphorical life-bus could continue heading in the right direction. Insomnia was personified on the whiteboard as a cartoon monster, but Meadows' message was anything but childlike.

"By developing the observing mind, you can learn to work with the thinking mind in a way that can help it to calm down and feel like it is switched off." It seemed by distancing oneself from your self, you could examine your thoughts like an impartial observer and give your malfunctioning psyche a long-overdue service. But there was a warning note. "As soon as you start to use mindful breathing as a tool to help you to sleep, you are once again trying to sleep and hence pushing it further away." It seemed recalibrating one's mind was no easy business.

Between 10 and 25 per cent of the UK population suffer from some form of sleep problem, according to Meadows. My own problems range from difficulty dropping off to waking up in the early hours and lying in bed, unable to get back to sleep. I have tried various relaxation techniques, including tensing and relaxing my muscles, swimming, a whiff of bedside lavender. Others had tried reading, acupuncture, a shower, a hot milky drink or alcohol.

Such coping mechanisms are all very well, but all they offer is "short-term comfort", Meadows maintains. "A glass and half of wine can knock you out. But the next night, the mind goes: 'Oh no, I know that trick'. Generally, in the long term, they don't provide a solution and become part of the problem. Sleep is a natural process – you can't force it. Ask a good sleeper what they do, they say: 'Nothing'."

Meadows also uses acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), an offshoot of cognitive behavioural therapy. "The best way to achieve your goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully and seeing and accepting things as they are," his Insomnia Prevention Plan advises. "With patience and regular practice, movement towards your goal will take place by itself." Maintaining a healthy sleep/ wake cycle by going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time and sticking with a wind-down routine were helpful, as was preserving the sanctity of the bedroom "for rest, sleep and sex and that is about it".

Meadows' non drug-based approach won over the sleep retreaters. Libby, who had tried herbal and non-herbal medication, said: "I feel it's something I can take home."

Arthur Sowerby, 58, from Stockton-on-Tees, has tried yoga, CDs and books. He said: "It was excellent. It's a way I have never thought about looking at insomnia before. It's given me some ideas and fresh hope to resolve it after 15 years of very poor sleep."

His fiancée, Penny Cox, 57, added: "You get fixated on methods – you need to break the pattern." For my own part, having not slept well the first night, I awoke refreshed the following day and went Nordic walking among Rockliffe's 375 acres, led by the hyper-enthusiastic sports therapist, Peter Bell.

Later, I unwound in the spa with the 90-minute Ila Dream Time treatment, a holistic massage combining a body scrub with Himalayan salts, organic essential oils and soothing Dream Time Journey music, incorporating Chakra healing. The session was rounded off in the relaxation lounge where, as I lay on a sound-wave therapy bed, my senses were further sedated by rainforest music piped in on headphones. There was also a 20-metre pool and thermal bathing including a hydrotherapy pool, a steamy calderium and a reinvigorating igloo.

Since returning to London, I still often wake up several times during the night and struggle to nod off. Bad habits, such as eating late, probably don't help. Having a new set of tools to help improve my sleep is reassuring, but applying them clearly requires resolution and commitment.

My girlfriend, who suffered two sleepless nights, has since enjoyed four weeks of "good, normal sleep, admittedly with the aid of Nitol", but has also regressed. She said: "My sleep got better because I stopped worrying about stresses in my life. But because my sleep got better, I started not doing it [the plan]." The result has been a return of insomnia, with frustration and panic at not falling asleep culminating in one sleepless night, followed by another when she resorted to a sleeping tablet and subsequently felt exhausted.

Her verdict? "It requires a lot of self-discipline. You have to have strong mindfulness energy to be balanced enough to ride the challenges that threaten to make you unsettled. It's not a quick-fix. My gut instinct is it's a fantastic approach, because the thing that causes insomnia is trying to make yourself sleep and worrying about it, and he [Meadows] is saying: 'Don't do that – don't try and make yourself sleep'."

The next Time To Dream sleep retreat is 20-21 February 2011 and costs £375 per person, based on two sharing a room. The programme includes Guy Meadows' sleep workshop, Ila Dream Time treatment, meals and use of the spa. Additional nights £95pp bed and breakfast (; 01325 729 999).The writer travelled with East Coast from London Kings Cross to Darlington (; 08457 225 225).

Basic sleep hygiene

* Respect the three functions of the bedroom: rest, sleep and sex.

* Maintain a healthy sleep cycle by going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day, even on weekends.

* Avoid short- term methods of getting to sleep, such as a glass of wine or prescribed medication.

* You may be used to it, but sleep studies show that background noise still disturbs sleep. Mask the sounds of traffic, barking dogs or loud neighbours with a fan or CDs of relaxing sounds.

* A light snack before bed can help promote sleep. Try relaxing snacks such as a turkey sandwich or a small bowl of wholegrain cereal. KANYIN SANUSI