I understand completely a person's desire to get past chronic sleep issues and on to a productive, more balanced life as fast as humanly possible!
When we have a problem, we fix it. Preferably quickly.
But when it comes to insomnia, the fix-it approach ultimately backfires.
Putting effort into fixing something makes perfect sense for many of life’s problems - the more effort we put in, the better the outcome. If you want a specific result, just keep at it, and eventually you'll get there, right?
Not so much with sleep. Sleep is one of those things that actually responds paradoxically to effort.
The harder we try to sleep, the harder it is. The more elusive it becomes.
That's because sleep is an entirely passive process - it happens in the absence of effort. A lot like breathing or pumping blood. Our bodies know how to sleep just fine on their own, it’s our problem-solving minds that get in the way!
The only thing that produces sleep is sleep drive, or our body's biological need for sleep. And the only thing that creates sleep drive is wakefulness.
Sleep is to wake what dark is to light. Like a bidirectional highway, sleep produces wakefulness and wakefulness produces sleep.
It’s a beautifully uncomplicated process. We can easily complicate the process, however, by applying sleep efforts....
A sleep effort is anything we do with the intention of producing sleep.
Knowing that sleep drive, or wakefulness is the only thing that produces sleep, you can see why trying #allthethings becomes problematic. We love our essential oils, supplements, and meditations - I’m personally in love with my new blackout shade, and my best friend swears by her QVC pillow.
But none of these things actually produce sleep.
If you’re already a good sleeper, these types of efforts can be fun, and create a good association with sleep. (I'm ALL about a rockin' sleep sanctuary!)
But they still don't produce sleep.
If you are in a pattern of sleeplessness, whether it’s full-blown chronic insomnia, or just the beginnings of having a hard time sleeping, engaging in all kinds of sleep efforts tends to backfire!
Because here’s the thing…
“…not only do sleep efforts not produce sleep, they produce insomnia. Either by taking you down the path of confusion, the path of frustration, or both.” – Dr. Daniel Erichsen
Let's look at some of the reasons sleep efforts and fixing sleep tend to make things worse.
1. It sends a message to the mind that your sleep is broken. In an effort to "fix" sleep, we send a powerful message to the mind that we are broken. Or, at least our sleep is broken. But here’s the thing... your sleep can’t break! Your sleep isn’t broken, your brain isn’t broken, and neither is your circadian rhythm! You cannot lose your ability to sleep.
2. Your faith in sleep lies in something outside yourself. Let’s say you try the latest and greatest sleep supplement out on the market. And you do actually sleep better. You believe it's responsible for giving you the better sleep you desire. Well, now you’re in a tricky spot because: a) you believe there really is something wrong with your own ability to sleep (the latest and greatest sleep supplement confirmed it), and b) your own sleep confidence erodes making sleep even more vulnerable.
Plus, what happens when the supplement/drug stops working? Continually looking to outside sources to produce sleep creates a never-ending cycle of sleep efforts.
3. Your brain produces more of whatever you focus on. Your focus creates your reality. If you’re focusing on fixing insomnia by engaging in all kinds of sleep hygiene rules, listening to podcasts on sleep, creating a perfect sleep environment, etc. this sends continual messages of insomnia to the brain. So, what does the brain do? It works super hard to provide more insomnia for you!
Focusing on insomnia creates more insomnia.
4. The brain interprets not sleeping as a "problem." When we set about fixing our sleep, the brain starts perceiving wakefulness as a problem or a threat. A temporary period of sleeplessness becomes bigger and more powerful because the brain begins operating in a stress loop about sleep.
The sleep hygiene mantra is everywhere, you can’t escape it. If there’s one thing Google knows a lot about, it’s sleep hygiene!
Unfortunately, sleep hygiene fuels insomnia because it complicates a beautifully uncomplicated process. Remember, nothing produces sleep except wakefulness. Anything else we do to fix sleep turns it into a "problem" and creates anxiety about sleep.
Once the brain determines that not sleeping is a threat, it goes into problem-solving mode. Problem-solving triggers the stress response and the stress response (hyper-arousal) is what keeps us from sleeping.
It’s a bit confusing, I know. Because usually, trying harder, or implementing measures to improve something results in getting MORE of what you want, not less!
Maybe this will provide some clarity…
Whenever you have insomnia, you can blame hyperarousal.
Hyperarousal is simply a prolonged fight-flight-or freeze response.
Most often associated with worry and anxiety, hyper-arousal is also caused by things like: curiosity, excitement, or wonder.
Hyperarousal ranges from short-term or acute when it’s related to a particular event, or, it can more generalized over time when we experience prolonged periods of stress in our lives. We don’t always know what triggers hyper-arousal in the brain.
Fixing sleep leads to hyper-arousal ---> hyper-arousal causes insomnia.
You can read more about hyper-arousal here.
For the record, I am not against doing things that contribute to a rejuvenating sleep experience. I sleep well now and pretty much do #allthethings myself. I love a good bath, wonderful bedding, a dark room… I invest in things for sleep that I enjoy.
The key here lies in intention.
I know none of these things produce sleep. I do them simply because I enjoy them! I'm confident in my innate ability to sleep, and if I do have a stretch of insomnia, I know it's temporary and there’s usually some sort of message my body is trying to tell me.
When things happen in life and stressors come up, it's normal for sleep to get disrupted. The brain is amazingly adaptable and it processes information in whatever way is needed to help us through various situations.
Unfortunately, it's difficult for most people to do nothing when disrupted sleep occurs, because we're not educated on the true nature of sleep and we're heavily conditioned to "do something" when sleeplessness happens. So we worry, and change our behaviors, and basically do anything we can to get sleep.
We unconsciously encourage our brains to create insomnia.
Sleep comes when we understand that it happens in the absence of effort. When we’re not trying to force it. (I realize how counterintuitive this feels.)
When it comes to fixing sleep, the exact right action is no action. That IS the action!
You don’t need to fix your sleep, my friend, you can just have it 🙂
Love + support,
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Visit me on The Holistic Sleep Coach Facebook page where I offer loads of sleep tips and neuroplasticity love.
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Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
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- Why sleep hygiene doesn't work
-How to create a "sleeper's identity"
- The ONE (and only) thing you need to sleep
-Why most sleep programs miss the mark
- The biggest myths about sleep
- How to end insomnia for good
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