Life Begins hopes horse whispering can cure her insomnia
I’m an erratic sleeper, and it’s been getting worse as I hit perimenopause. I have trouble falling asleep, then wake at an ungodly hour, plagued by anxious thoughts or – more annoyingly – snoring husband.
Escaping the snores was a strong reason to book The Sleep Retreat at Lucknam Park. I assumed it would be a cosy experience; a bit of yoga, a gong bath, some meditation, nothing too taxing. I didn’t expect to be facing my deepest fears and hugging a horse. Nor did I expect to have a crap night’s sleep – and understand why that was a good thing (bear with me).
The Sleep Retreat at Lucknam Park is run by Fiona Lamb, hypnotherapist at Harley Street’s prestigious Hale Clinic (pictured below). It’s two nights, but I am only here for one. There are four of us retreaters, smart, hard-working women between the ages of 40 and 60. Fiona is young and serenely calm, but it was her own anxiety and insomnia that led her to retrain as a hypnotherapist; she gets it.
After a blissful afternoon in the spa and a three-course dinner, Fiona gives us an introductory talk about how to change our mindset around sleep.
She explains that there are four brainwave states: Beta is our everyday awake mode, Alpha our daydreaming, creative state. Theta is where we meditate and dream, and Delta is deep sleep. If we resist letting go, it may be down to a deep-rooted fear which we will explore in tomorrow's workshop.
Before bed, we have a Sound Bath, run by Tallulah Rendall. There are no actual baths - we simply lie under blankets, bathing in deep, resonant sound waves from gongs and prayer bowls. The vibrations ebb us gently through Theta and Delta states. Tallulah also sings, her voice beautiful and mournful. Utterly relaxed, we head to bed clutching a goody bag of pillow mist and ESPA bath and skin products. By the time I slip between the luxurious sheets, I am ready to pass out.
But … something happens. I can’t sleep! Not falling asleep on a sleep retreat?! Typical! I check the clock – 1am, 2am... Tomorrow I have a five-hour drive home in the dark. All those signs along the roadside: Tiredness Kills! I am going to literally die if I don’t sleep!
Taking deep breaths, I remember things Fiona said in her talk.
1. Try telling yourself, “All is safe in my world right now.”
That’s true. I am tucked in a cosy bed, not stranded in the open savannah.
2. “Let go of the idea that you need so many hours sleep and that you won’t be able to function. Tell yourself instead: “Things are always working out for me.””
Again, true. There are many examples where I’ve achieved things on little sleep. We are often more resilient than we give ourselves credit. I listen to Fiona's meditation app Mind Detox, and eventually, begin to drift off.
Unblocking the fear
I skip 8am yoga and feeling poleaxed with tiredness, tell Fiona about my three broken hours sleep. It turns out I’m not alone: we’d all slept badly.
“Great,” Fiona says, to our surprise. “Now we can work on your blocks.”
Our hypnotherapy workshop is a revelation. After pinpointing the fears that keep us awake, Fiona performs hypnotherapy on each of us. When it comes to me, I close my eyes and let her voice lead me to a relaxed Theta state. She asks me to say three words that describe how I feel about my fear of driving. “Weak, old, scared,” I say.
She then asks where I feel the fear in my body, and to describe its shape and sensation. I describe a cold blade cutting into my stomach.
“Can you think of a time when you felt a cold blade cutting your stomach?” she asks.
Out of nowhere, I recall two traumatic operations to remove a tumour during and after my daughter’s caesarean birth. We go further back, to when I was a young, scared child; Fiona helps me to say what the child needs to hear. Known as ‘Inner Child Work’, this can be extremely powerful therapy.
As I return to the present, Fiona invites me to say, “My body is strong. I survived.” I feel tears streaming down my cheeks. I realise I have been obsessing about my health lately. Yet this year I’ve been horse riding and wild swimming: not the actions of an old, weak, scared person at all.
That, says Fiona as my tears flow, is unblocking the fear.
The moment I open my eyes, I feel as though I’ve slept a full eight hours and am ready for anything.
Could tiredness really arise from our attitude rather than the amount we sleep? Or is hypnotherapy merely a powerful catnap?
After a three-course lunch, we head to Lucknam Park’s Equestrian Centre where Dawn Cameron, the stable manager, gives a demonstration of Equine Therapy. Alone in a training ring with a frisky stallion, we are expected to make the horse run away from us, then eventually tame and control it – just like Robert Redford in the movie. Dawn makes it look so easy, but I don’t believe I could actually do it: why would a horse obey little old me?
On my turn, I stand alone in the ring very aware of the dapple-grey stallion careering around me. As Dawn instructs, I make myself big, strong and loud so that the horse knows who is boss. Never mind feeling awkward; I throw the rope towards him and holler as he thunders around the ring, my adrenaline peaking.
Then comes magical part. The horse begins to slow down, his ears twitching towards me, a sign he is ready to join me. I turn away and wait. And wait.
Suddenly, his giant head appears at my shoulder. I walk slowly around the ring not looking at him, but feeling his muscular presence at my back, hoping he won’t stampede. After a while, I turn towards him and he lets me rub and stroke his magnificent head.
Many therapies nowadays cure anxiety by forcing you to access your inner strength – jumping into ice cold lakes, for example.
Equine therapy has that element, plus an intense trusting moment of acceptance between yourself and a wild animal that is hard to put into words. My basic fear was first transformed into exhilaration followed by a deep sense of control and calm.
Later, I drive home still elated; four hours zipped past. I remember how much I love driving, the freedom of the road. I feel like I’ve had an adventure rather than a retreat. That night, I sleep so deeply, I don’t even hear the snoring.
Now, if I wake or struggle to sleep, I use Fiona’s techniques to access my inner strength and, feeling safe, eventually drop off.
I am a good sleeper – I just needed to be reminded.