March 16


My Struggle with Insomnia, Anxiety, and Chronic Pain

By Mashav Shelef

I really wanted to write about food, travel, cooking and my best recommendations about how to live a food-centered life. But I feel right now something else is taking priority to be written.

Yesterday (March 15th) marks a year since the shelter in place order came out in San Francisco. It’s been quite the year and I’m grateful that my family and myself are safe and sound. We’re even vaccinated now and life is getting back on track slowly. But I wanted to share some of my struggles this year since I’m sure so many people are dealing with some similar issues.

I’m suffering from chronic pain, insomnia, and anxiety. It’s been an ongoing struggle that I’m still dealing with and is affecting every aspect of my life right now.

Im so tired
I’m so tired all the time

The Backstory

I was always a bit anxious, and sometimes panicky. I just thought this is my nature and even considered it some kind of an advantage at times. I’m a planner, I like it when things are predictable, happening according to the plan, and I like to feel well prepared before embarking on even the smallest task or challenge. It’s really hard for me to deal with a change of plans, spontaneity isn’t my thing. You can imagine how Covid-19 had caught me off guard. 

Chronic pain is also familiar to me, I remember dealing with pain since my late teen years. It gets better, then gets worse, then after you turn 30 and had given birth, you just accept that it’ll always be there in some way.

But with insomnia – I never had sleep issues before in my life. And it’s devastating. 

I think it was the pain that first prevented me from sleeping well. I injured my lower back, multiple bulging lumbar discs, I guess from the changes in life due to the pandemic.

I used to have a totally different life a year ago. I took groups of people for guided food tours of the neighborhood, cooked dinner parties, and hosted team-building cooking events. I just restarted my pottery hobby and I was much more physically active. Then on March 15th, 2020 it all stopped. By May, I realized that things aren’t gonna be back to normal any time soon. I totally changed course in my career. You can read all about it in this post I wrote.

The vicious cycle

I was home more, in front of my laptop, sitting. Then the fires happened in California and the little that we did get to go outside also stopped abruptly. 

My body felt the change and wasn’t so happy about it. My back literally broke down one day when we were packing for a road trip. I couldn’t get up from the floor. It was a sharp and paralyzing pain. The trip was canceled. The pain was worse than ever. I wasn’t able to care for myself. Omer had to get time off of work to help me daily. When your body is off-balance, more issues start to arise. I injured my foot as well, and it prevented me from walking for more than a few minutes, which made the back pain worse.

And so the vicious cycle has begun: Pain -> Insomnia -> Anxiety – and these things have a tendency to feed off of each other. The pain woke me up at night, I couldn’t fall back asleep easily, it got me sleep-deprived which skyrocketed my anxiety and slowed down the healing of my injuries, which kept me up at night and so on.

Dealing with the physical injury is straightforward (but not easy): I went to all the doctors, scans, physical therapy, specialty doctors, switched to another physical therapist and another, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, and so on. This was a depressing time for me. I felt dependent, I couldn’t do anything myself without help. But when I found a good therapist I slowly got back to manageable levels of pain. 

Sadly, the sleep issues and anxiety only got worse. It all happened during a huge change in our lives – we were packing our entire life of more than 6 years in SF and moving cross country to NYC (with a few months stop in TLV). Moving is always stressful. Moving cross country is even more so, but moving cross country in times of covid, pain and sleeplessness, AND trying to start a brand new business after I had to give up my former business of 5 years, was nerve-wracking. You can imagine we didn’t plan for all these injuries and sleep issues when deciding on all these life-changing plans. 

Turns out insomnia is a much more complicated problem to solve than I imagined. I thought it was a phase and once some stress will be gone from my life, sleep will automatically improve. Looks like it doesn’t work that way, at least in my case. We finished moving out of SF, the pain is more or less under control, we have much more help with Leanna and the cat that was waking me up early is staying with a foster family these last few months. And still, it feels like my sleep is worse than ever. How can that be? It’s been so frustrating to say the least. It’s not like I expect it to resolve on its own, I tried numerous things already, some helped a little, some didn’t, some I’m not sure about just yet.

What I tried to get rid of my insomnia?

  • I went to see doctors – primary physician, ob-gyn, a sleep specialist – can’t say that it helped but I ruled out some other underlying condition.
  • I medicated myself with pain killers, sedatives, melatonin, and OTC sleep aids – helped but also caused some extra anxiety over which drug to take every night.
  • Weed. I tried tinctures, edibles, oils, CBDs, the most helpful was Dreamt, award-winning sleep aid from cannabis, vape pens etc.
  • I tried zapping my brains with electricity with Alpha Stim – it supposed to restore balance in the brain by sending a waveform between two electrodes clipped to your earlobes. I really wanted this to work, and it seems to work for a few weeks but then it all came back even worse.
zapping my brains
Zapping my brain with Alpha-Stim
  • I tried “brain waves” sounds – didn’t help me.
  • I suspected it might be a hormonal issue and so I changed my birth control – didn’t help.
  • I tried listening to “Sleep with me”, a podcast with this guy supposedly bores you to sleep talking about episodes of “The Good Place” and other boring stuff. Didn’t really work for me.
  • I went to a no-kids-girls-only relaxing vacation just to have the worst panic attack when I couldn’t even fall asleep or relax and felt like a failure.
  • I changed my pillow – I like my new pillow. Maybe it helped a little.
New pillow
New pillow
  • I went into a very strict sleep hygiene routine, some of it helped (like keeping a cool, dark and quiet bedroom, dim the lights in the evening and some of it kept me even more fearful and caused some nighttime panic attacks.
  • I cut off caffeine and alcohol – went down to 0-1 cups of coffee a day, switched to herbal teas after 2pm, and alcohol just 1-2 glasses over the weekend, before 8pm.
  • I used natural light and darkness to queue my body when to be sleepy
  • I started a CBT-I therapy – but was fired my therapist after only 4 sessions, since he wanted to combine with sleep meds. I will give this another shot once we’re settled in our new place in NYC.
  • I tried learning tools to cope with anxiety by listening to “The Anxiety Coaches” podcast – this has been super beneficial to practically deal with anxiety. I really recommend listening to her, she gives wonderful tips and a very healthy attitude.
  • Started writing a sleep journal – both recording my sleep times and writing down the thoughts that haunt me in the evening and nighttime. I think this helps as a way to clear the mind. I recommend this awesome app for journaling Diarium, and sleep app Sleepwatch (even though I have an apple watch I don’t wear it to bed because every little thing irritates me, so I just manually enter the times that I slept) .
  • I joined the S.A.F.E empowerment system for anxiety – somewhat helpful audio pods and emergency pods which I like having to treat and prevent panic attack. There’s a workbook I still didn’t fill up yet so hopefully there’s more to it.
  • I started an online meditation course by Live and Dare – I’m still on my 14 days trial and have big hopes for this program. So far it looks promising.
  • I tried using white noise
  • Probably other things I can’t even remember

What I didn’t try yet but considered?

  • Prescription sleep medications for daily use – with their side effects, I’m saving this as a last resort
  • Weighted blanket – not the thing to buy before a big move.
  • Hypnosis – didn’t have the chance yet

I started sharing my struggle with friends and family and found that many of them are either struggling too or have a loved one whose also struggling in a similar way. I get asked a lot of questions about this:

Why can’t I just use the nighttime to do stuff?

This is one of my biggest frustrations. The fact that I can’t go back to sleep, doesn’t mean I’m not tired. The other way around: I’m over-exhausted. Tired and sleepy are two different things. I’m so tired I can hardly do anything productive. Imagine how awful you feel when your sleep is disrupted by an alarm clock early in the morning when all you want to do is go back to sleep. This is how I feel, only I’m unable to go back to sleep. I can’t sit in front of my computer and start working, I can’t concentrate and read a book and many times I can’t even watch something on TV. The fact that this time is “lost” only makes it harder for me to just accept it. It makes me angry, disappointed, sad, and miserable.

Does it happen every night?

No, it doesn’t. It’s a sporadic “episode” that happens in very random unpredictable times. But after one night like this – chances are that it will happen again the following 1-3 nights. It started as one episode per month more or less, and now I have these episodes multiple nights almost every week. This is where anxiety plays a big role. Unpredictability is what feeds my anxiety. Every evening thoughts start creeping in. “Will I be able to fall asleep tonight?”, “What kind of drugs should I take tonight?”, “Will I regret not taking anything?”, “Is tonight gonna be a good or a bad night?”. 

another sleepless night
Another sleepless night

This unpredictability is also what makes it harder to treat – when I have a “good” week or even 2-3 weeks with decent sleep, I feel like I may be cured. When I first started the CBT treatment I had a good couple of weeks and I felt ridiculous filling up these sleep journals with a very good 80%+ sleep efficiency. It felt like there was nothing to treat. But when it comes back again, it’s like a slap in the face. I just started getting my life back together and now this happens all over again?

the day after shot - feel and look aweful
Good morning – your Insomnia is back!

How does insomnia affect my day-to-day life?

This is a tough one. It affects everything. Physically everything is harder. I can’t do my PT exercises, my body aches, I get migraines, it’s a struggle to walk in the slightest uphill. Mentally it’s a big load. I feel fussy, unfocused, can’t concentrate, and can’t make decisions – even the smallest decisions like which route to take or what to eat for lunch are difficult. It affects my mood. After a few nights of less than 5 hours of sleep, I get depressed. Negative thoughts are on my mind constantly. I cry uncontrollably and can’t even tell why. My work is greatly affected as well. I’m unmotivated, creativity is impacted if it’s even there, it’s so much harder to focus and get into a workflow. I get discouraged easily and I’m lacking direction. My goals aren’t met and it affects my self-esteem. My relationships are suffering too. I don’t have as much patience and peace-of-mind to deal with a 3.5-year-old person who needs me more than ever, and I’m angry with Omer for being able to sleep. Or, if he isn’t sleeping I’m angry about that too. Everything he says or tries to do to help is not right and driving me nuts. Sometimes I wonder why does he even take all this shit from me, I wouldn’t if I were him. 

Then, when I sleep for 2-3 nights in a row, I go back to normal: I’m happy, optimistic, positive, loving, chatty, fun. It really changes who I am. And I don’t like my sleep-deprived me.

happy mashav and leanna
I want my happy-me back

The sleep paradox:

Sleep is so important. I know that well. Probably too well. I read the “Why We Sleep” book before I had any sleep issues. I used to urge people to read it too. Now I don’t. I think it’s a fascinating subject, but please don’t read it if you have anxiety tendencies. Trying harder to sleep will only make it harder. Accepting that sleep may or may not come seems like the key. So it seems that only when you don’t care about whether you get enough sleep or not, you’ll actually be able to get the sleep you need. So essentially, ignorance is bliss in that case, I suppose. I can’t unlearn what I already know about the importance of sleep and now, knowing how significant sleep is to my life, prevents me from being relaxed enough about it and falling asleep easily. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Now what? 

I’m still struggling, every day and night. Even though my sleep isn’t better yet, I feel like I’m on some sort of a road to recovery. I have to keep in mind that just like with pain, recovery is not a straight line, it’s a process. I learned a lot about myself in this process. I think the most important things I need to learn are: how to accept, let go, control my emotions so that they don’t control me, and being okay with being uncomfortable. It’s all in my mind. Mindfulness and meditation keep popping up every time I seek a solution. I can’t ignore it anymore. I have to give it a real try, even though I find it a really hard practice. I also want to try and be more kind to myself, whatever that means, and remember that this too shall pass and with the right care, it will eventually resolve somehow. I’m really grateful for the support I get from Omer and my parents, they’re the reason I have the means and motivation to deal with this thing. This journey feels so lonely sometimes and having someone by my side is crucial. 

somebody help me
Somebody help me

If you’re struggling with the same stuff yourself, share your experience and what worked for you. I will update this post with developments in my own recovery. 

Mashav Shelef

I’m a trained chef, a food writer, a culinary traveler, a food explorer and a mom. My mission in life is to inspire and motivate people by helping them experience life through food.

Mashav Shelef

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  1. Mashav, it is heartbreaking to know that you are in such emotional pain. Sleeplessness is awful,
    exhausting and depressing. While I can’t recommend techniques that you haven’t already tried and used, I want to tell you that you are in my thoughts and I’m hoping you will get through this soon with the love and support of your family and all of us who consider you a friend.

    Best, Eileen

  2. You're amazing for sharing your condition and for sharing all the information you gathered to cope with it. You're one of the strongest women I know, and I'm positive you have what it takes to deal and come out even stronger at the end of this journey to wellbeing.

  3. Mashav I was so sorry to hear of your struggles and situation! I too have sleep issues but nothing like yours. I wish you the best.
    We miss your similing face in our chef group. Joni is now in Seattle and Andea is moving to Utah and Garbo is in Petaluma. We are dwindling! But still keeping busy.
    Take care and hope you find some answers soon.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Johanna!
      I’m already missing the group myself, I’d have to find a brand new chef group here in NY.
      Stay safe and best in your cheffing business!

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