Sleep, in and of itself, is a blissfully simple act. Wakefulness drives sleep and sleep drives wakefulness, so as long as we spend time awake, we will also spend time asleep.
When it comes to insomnia, however, things get a little dicey. Because everything we think we should do for insomnia, just ends up perpetuating insomnia. It's a little confusing.
Add in the fact that insomnia is pretty much the grandaddy of all paradoxes, and things really get mind-bending. Its paradoxical nature requires a paradoxical approach, which is why I wrote this blog.
To overcome insomnia, a shift in thinking is usually needed.
As a sleep coach (who had insomnia for 42 years), I consider myself an expert in all the different ways a person can approach insomnia. In my experience, very few of these actually work. Or create lasting results, anyway. The seven key mindshifts I'm going to share with you are the same ones I coach my clients on every single day. I believe they'll support you on your insomnia recovery, too.
Let’s get going!
When you're in the abyss of insomnia, it's hard not to get sucked into the idea that more and more is needed to produce sleep. As we pile on more rules, more rituals, and more sleep hygiene, it becomes an unintentional obsession:
If I do 'XYZ' and take 'ABC' in the right order, at the exact right time, in the perfect environment, I will MAYBE, hopefully sleep tonight.
This doesn't work. It's an outdated approach and if it worked, you probably wouldn't be reading this right now!
I invite you to open your mind to a new way of thinking. Consider that there's more than one way to think about insomnia. Plant the seed and set the stage for a new possibility.
A willingness to think differently is the beginning of the transformation.
When you understand what insomnia really is and what causes it, you’ll never fall prey to it again, or at least in the same intensity.
I totally understand why you might feel hesitant to think about sleep differently, especially if you’ve already tried a bunch of other things. Lord knows I used to get my hopes up every time I tried something new, only to feel heartbroken when it didn't work out.
But a willingness to consider insomnia in a new light, outside conventional thinking, might just move you out of it for good.
So, what is insomnia exactly?
The traditional definition of insomnia goes something like:
Okay, well, this doesn't tell us much except that all of these involve desperately wanting to sleep, but not being able to.
Not surprisingly, I view insomnia differently…
Insomnia is a survival mechanism expressing in the form of a fear. A fear that occurs because somewhere along the way, your brain determined that not sleeping, or the consequences of not sleeping, was a threat to your safety and well-being. It’s the brain’s way of keeping you safe.
Insomnia is simply: a learned fear of not sleeping.
When we have a fear of something, it creates hyperarousal which is a heightened state of alertness. The state of alertness is what keeps us from being able to sleep. You can read more here.
Hyperarousal presents in many forms: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, hypnic jerks, heart palpitations, hallucinations, chest pains, racing thoughts, un-refreshing sleep, hot flashes, or panic attacks.
The fear of not being able to sleep drives hyperarousal, and hyperarousal keeps us awake.
Over time, as the brain learns to associate fear (and subsequent hyperarousal) with going to sleep at night, it becomes a conditioned response, something that happens on automatic without us even realizing it.
The good news is that, just as the brain can learn fear, it can also unlearn fear, no matter how long the fear has been in place.
I work with clients to help them unlearn the fear. To show the brain that not sleeping isn’t the threat it perceives it to be. We unlearn the fear and teach the brain to feel safe again.
When you have a fear, it can be crippling sometimes because we don’t always understand where it’s coming from. We just respond on automatic and then get mad at ourselves for being irrational or reactive afterwards.
But here's the thing...
The brain always has a good reason for doing what it’s doing. If it’s sending signals of fear, or anxiety, it’s doing so because that’s what it believes is in the best interest of your survival at the time. With insomnia, the brain keeps sending signals long after the threat has passed, which is how we learn long-term patterns of sleeplessness.
One of the ways we can bring our brains out of survival (the basis for hyperarousal) is to understand what’s causing it in the first place. And the way we do that is through education. When we know what’s happening to us, and why, things become clearer. Which automatically make them less threatening.
I love the way my friend Alina uses the fear of flying as an analogy for understanding insomnia:
Imagine you know nothing about aerodynamics or how a plane stays in the air. Every time you board the plane, you panic because you don’t trust the plane or the pilots for that matter. It's all just a mystery in your mind.
But then, let’s just say you learn about planes and how they stay in the air. And then you happen to meet a pilot and he explains how extensively trained he is for any given situation. And then you learn the real statistics on air travel and how safe it really is.
Suddenly, things aren’t such a mystery anymore because you understand them. And when you understand how things work, it takes away a lot of the stress and worry.
It’s the same thing with insomnia… When you learn how sleep works, and you educate yourself on the brain and why it creates fear to protect you, the panic starts to dissolve.
Learning leads to transformation.
Here is a fundamental truth about sleep: it is a completely passive process. No one on earth is powerful enough to force sleep! Sleep happens on its own terms, in its own time.
In fact, the more we try to sleep, the harder it is. As the desire for sleep increases, so does the pressure, which leads to more hyperarousal and subsequent insomnia.
It’s a vicious cycle.
Shifting the goal from getting better sleep to understanding our response to sleep, puts you on the path to recovering from insomnia. Because when our response to not sleeping improves, so does our sleep!
Sleep can never be the goal because it's a goal-less endeavor. Turning sleep into a goal just creates pressure, and pressure creates hyperarousal and ongoing insomnia.
There is a much easier way...
When faced with insomnia we naturally seek a variety of fixes - supplements, routines, rituals, the proper mindset. However, all of these are just well-meaning attempts at controlling sleep.
There is no rule or ritual or mindset that induces sleep; only our own body can do that. These measures may have some influence on sleep, but they will not ensure sleep over the long haul.
Even though we can’t control sleep, we can control how we react to the state of our sleep. And when you think of it, the way to let go of control is to be willing to have less control.
This can be rather difficult whilst in the throes of insomnia because not being able to sleep makes us feel particularly out of control. Of COURSE, we would want to fix our situation more than anything (those paradoxes again). But the more we try to control sleep, the more we will struggle.
Part of letting go of control is recognizing our attempts at control. This often comes in the form of sleep efforts.
Striving, in most aspects of life, is an admirable trait. If we stick with something, and apply fortitude, it generally leads us in the direction we want to go. If only this were true with sleep!
When it comes to sleep, striving can actually be detrimental. The more we strive for sleep, the more likely it is to elude us.
We can hardly be blamed for trying harder to sleep when we’re surrounded by experts everywhere stressing the importance of sleep, the detrimental effects of no sleep, and the epidemic of people experiencing chronic insomnia. Googling insomnia (while going through insomnia) is enough to put anyone over the edge. (Read more here on why I recommend a Google detox.)
So, what are sleep efforts exactly?
Sleep efforts are anything we do with the intention of producing or protecting sleep.
Okay, so what's the big deal about that?
Well, sleep efforts unintentionally teach the brain that not sleeping is a problem. In an effort to fix the problem, we inadvertently reaffirm the problem. (Paradox GALORE) Every time we implement a new sleep hygiene measure or do something with the intention of it making us sleep, we further hardwire the fear of not sleeping into the brain.
The effort itself actually lowers the likelihood of sleep because sleep can’t be forced or controlled. It's a passive process that happens in the absence of effort – when we’re not trying.
Being aware of sleep efforts is important, but there's one last mindshift to consider...
Thoughts and beliefs are an integral part of the brain's operations. Beliefs are like organized filters that create the script to our lives.
The body follows the mind, so it’s worth paying attention to what’s going on in your mind!
When I had insomnia, I really thought my brain was broken. After struggling with it for so long, I didn’t even think it was possible to get better. Insomnia pretty much ruled my life.
This was reflected in my thoughts and beliefs about the situation. After decades of collecting evidence that supported these beliefs, my perception of insomnia was that it was pretty much ruining everything around me.
I gave insomnia a lot of power.
Looking back, I realize that my beliefs were just well-rehearsed programs. Yes, insomnia is truly awful, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. But… even when I was in a cycle of insomnia, I still had some amazing times. I was still fairly productive, and I had a lot of exciting things going on in my life.
I didn’t see those things then, but I do now.
Then there were the beliefs I had about sleep itself:
“I have to get 8 hours to feel decent tomorrow.”
“I have to sleep a certain way for it to count.”
“If I don't get enough sleep, I'm going to have a bunch of health problems.”
All of these beliefs were untrue, yet I made them true in my life because that’s how my brain perceived the situation.
Working with a coach can be priceless because a coach can show you your mind. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to discern what your own beliefs even are simply because we’re so tied to them.
Exploring your thoughts and beliefs about sleep can uncover some interesting clues about what’s driving insomnia.
Nothing removes fuel from the fire of insomnia faster than taking your attention off it. Because insomnia thrives on the focus we give it.
Shift your focus off of insomnia and live your best life possible, even if your sleep isn't perfect 🧡
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
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.
- Why there's no mystery to insomnia
- The most important thing to know about sleep
- 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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