Ep 6. Unmasking Hyperarousal

Sep 06, 2023

Have you ever wondered WHY, despite sleeping better, you can actually feel worse than you did before you were sleeping?

When I had insomnia, I felt either wired (but tired) OR like a complete zombie.

There wasn't a lot of middle ground.

Which made zero sense whatsoever!

Today, we’re taking the mystery out of this upside-down characteristic of insomnia. Tune in to hear more about:

  1. Unmasking hyperarousal: I’ll demystify the term and show you how it relates to the process of sleep.
  2. Why it’s so normal: Discover why feeling more tired despite better sleep is such a common experience for many.
  3. How to make it a part of your recovery process: This shift in perspective will keep you moving in a good direction.

By the end of this episode, you’ll have a clearer understanding of this strange struggle and why it can actually be a sign you're on the exact right track.

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Full Transcript Below 👇🏼

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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP:

For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights.

DISCLAIMER: The podcasts available on this website have been produced for informational, educational and entertainment purposes only. The contents of this podcast do not constitute medical or professional advice. No person listening to and/or viewing any podcast from this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of the content of a podcast without first seeking appropriate professional advice and/or counseling, nor shall the information be used as a substitute for professional advice and/or counseling. The Mind. Body. Sleep. Podcast expressly disclaims any and all liability relating to any actions taken or not taken based on any or all contents of this site as there are no assurance as to any particular outcome.


Why You Feel More Tired Now That Your Sleeping 

Today I’m going to talk about this sort of upside-down characteristic of insomnia where you feel more tired once you’re actually sleeping, and less tired when you’re not sleeping. Which of course is the complete opposite of what you would expect to feel making it a very strange to go through.

Now, there are a couple of ways that I see this show up for insomnia:

Two Presentations

The first way is it’s just a part of how insomnia presents for some people. I was one of those people so I’m pretty familiar with what this looks like. For me there would be these cycles of feeling either completely wired but tired, OR wanting nothing but sleep, like all I wanted to do was sleep. So, there wasn’t a lot of middle ground in terms of consistency — it was kind of this all or nothing presentation.

When I was going through those wired cycles, I felt like the energizer bunny. Like I had this image of that bunny that keep playing the drums after everyone else has conked out in that commercial. But my brain just wouldn’t conk out. I couldn’t take naps and I just felt like I had this IV drip of adrenaline coursing through my body. But I could still feel the tired somewhere underneath all this activation, so it was really bizarre. I was always like: “How can I still be functioning, and really fairly well given I haven’t slept in so long?”

Conversely, when the cycle would break, and I would start sleeping, I wanted to sleep all the time, like I could be in the most exciting place on the planet and all I wanted to do was sleep. I remember one time I was on a trip to Italy with a friend and I was in one those cycles and I was seeing all of these incredible things and it was truly one of my favorite places and we be in the Coliseum which is really something to behold, and in the back of my mind I was thinking: “Oh, this is amazing, but how much longer till I can go back to sleep?” Like I could have slept right there on the coliseum floor during the tour.

So, none of it made any sense whatsoever.

The other way I see this show up is as a natural progression on the recovery path. So, my clients are sleeping better but they’re feeling more tired than they were before they started sleeping which can feel a little concerning. So, I wanted to explain what is going on here and why it’s actually quite normal.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and nothing that I say here should be taken as medical advice, I’m just sharing my personal thoughts and experience, so always do make sure to check in with your doctor for professional medical advice.

Unmasking Hyperarousal

Okay, so what exactly is going on with this upside-down nature of sleep during insomnia? Why would we feel MORE tired once we start sleeping?  

Well, not surprisingly, it has to do with our good friend hyperarousal. 

Hyperarousal is the fight or flight response that’s generated from a fear or anxiety about not sleeping. So, it’s the mechanism that keeps sleep from happening, sort of like a roadblock.

What can happen when you’re going through insomnia is there are lot of stress hormones coursing through the body. The nervous system gets into this hypervigilant state. Maybe you notice that you startle easy or your clenching your jaw a lot. Or maybe you find yourself physically bracing against a threat that isn’t even there. I used to feel like my body was vibrating and I had this river of cortisol running through me. You just feel very activated, like the switch is flipped on but it doesn’t turn off.

And this is why you don’t feel sleepy or feel like you’ve lost your capacity to feel sleepy – it’s just activation and hyperarousal in the nervous system.

But underneath the hyperarousal is your sleep drive – the natural drive that you build to create sleep and sleepiness. So, there are two contradictory processes happening at the same time — sleep drive and hyperarousal, and that’s why it feels like you’re driving with the gas and the brake down simultaneously. 

Now at some point, hyperarousal levels start to come down. And when that happens, our true fatigue levels become obvious ‑ more exposed. So suddenly we feel like we’ve been hit by a bus.

It’s this unmasking process that reveals the underlying exhaustion that hyperarousal was covering up. Now our actual sleep drive is more noticeable.

There Must Be Something Else Going On...

When people get to this point on their journey, it can feel upsetting or disorienting. And I think that’s mainly because it is so far outside what you would expect. It doesn’t really make sense that you would feel more tired once you start sleeping. So, it’s pretty normal to jump to: “Well, there must be something else going on, maybe I have a thyroid issue or some other kind of imbalance.” And definitely do rule that out just for peace of mind.

But almost always it’s hyperarousal coming DOWN so sleep drive can naturally come forward.

A Normal Part of Recovery

And I think the most helpful thing to know is that it is very normal, and I actually view it as a positive sign because the body is recalibrating, right? The brain is starting to sense less danger and come out of hyperarousal.

There’s a little more safety around the experience of sleep.

So having an understanding of this phase of the process and attaching it to recovery will help you move forward. We definitely don’t need to fight against this feeling and when we don’t, we normalize it and show the brain that hey, this too is okay — nothing has gone wrong.

A lot of times this can be an invitation or communication from the body to get a little more sleep and that is perfectly okay. Give yourself all the self-care that you need while you’re moving through this stage.

How Long Does It Last?

My students will often say, “Okay, Beth, that makes total sense, but how long does it LAST?” And the answer to that is I don’t know. Because everyone is different, and not everyone goes through this part of it.

But here’s the thing…when you become okay with it taking however long it takes, it no longer takes that long.

Always a paradox in the sleep world.

I hope this episode was an informative one…

This is Beth Kendall and you’ve been listening to the Mind. Body. Sleep podcast…

I’ll see you next time.

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