Ep 30. The #1 Tool for Insomnia Recovery

May 27, 2024

Today’s episode focuses on the most powerful tool we have at our disposal when it comes to recovery.

And no, it has nothing to do with sleep hygiene, sleep rituals, or subjecting yourself to a rigid sleep restriction protocol.

But it has EVERYTHING to do with getting to the root of insomnia.

Tune in to learn:

  • How we can intentionally shape our brain’s perception of danger
  • Why long-term success requires getting to the root of the problem
  • The role of neuroplasticity and how it applies to insomnia
  • How we can use our mind to change our brain
  • Why you’re way more powerful than you think

This empowering episode will give you practical examples and insights into how to rewire the fear response that causes insomnia.

Related Episode Links & Resources:

Episode #1: Redefining Insomnia: My 3 Core Philosophies

Episode #16: How to Use Indifference to Overcome Sleep Anxiety

Book Recommendation: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

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Full Transcription 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.

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How to Rewire the Fear Response


Hello everyone, super warm welcome to the podcast. I hope you’re all doing really well.


The Most Powerful Tool for Overcoming Insomnia


Today, we’re talking about the most powerful tool you have at your disposal for overcoming insomnia. Some of you may already be familiar with it, but you might not fully understand how it works or why it’s so effective for long-term recovery


And I’m going to talk about this tool specifically in the context of conveying safety to your hyperarousal brain.


And what is the hyperarousal brain you might ask?


Well, hyperarousal is the mechanism that turns on in response to danger both real or perceived. And in the case of insomnia, or the way that I approach it, we are working with a fear of not sleeping which has become conditioned over time.


Insomnia and Perceived Danger


So even though there’s nothing particularly dangerous about going to bed at night, or waking up at night, the brain has started to interpret this as a threat to your survival. This activates the stress response and explains why sleep becomes a disappearing act the minute you hit the pillow no matter how sleepy you were on the couch.


And believe me, I lived with this bizarre hyperarousal response for most of my life, so I understand how insanely frustrating it is, especially when there are no outward signs of fear and anxiety, which is definitely the case for some people.


Well, let’s be real, it’s frustrating whether you have obvious hyperarousal symptoms or silent hyperarousal, it’s all a pretty bizarre thing to experience.


Now most approaches for insomnia focus directly on sleep itself. So, the primary focus is on making sleep happen. And sometimes there’s some short-term benefit to these approaches but they don’t usually work long term for insomnia because ultimately, they’re not addressing the root of the problem with is the conditioned arousal response that’s getting in the WAY of sleep.


So that’s what I help people do is rewire the fear response that’s getting in the way of sleep, and we do this by looking at the primary drivers which is typically our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions about sleep. Going at it from this angle is really what allows you to get beyond it for good, so you don’t have to keep spending so much time, money and hope on things that really aren’t serving you long term.


Neuroplasticity and the Role of Safety Messages 

So, one of the things that I talk about in my program in terms of unlearning this perceived danger response is sending messages of safety.


And what’s truly amazing is that, thanks to the principle of neuroplasticity, our brains are changeable. This is a core philosophy of my approach which you can learn more about back in episode #1. But we have the unique ability as humans to facilitate this change, meaning we can use the mind to change the brain, and this is the process known as self-directed neuroplasticity. (Which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite topics.)

And I’m going to tie this in in just a moment.


But the name of this podcast is the #1 tool for insomnia recovery. So what is that exactly? And how do we use it to shift a danger response towards a safety response, and teach our hyperarousal brain that it doesn’t need to keep firing this fight or flight response at night when we want to sleep?


The Tool: Your Responses


Well, that tool is our responses. Your response to insomnia is by far the most powerful tool you have at your disposal when it comes to overcoming insomnia.


So, what does that even entail? Well…


How do you respond to your thoughts?


How do you respond to your emotions?


How do you mentally and emotionally meet the experience of insomnia?


Typically, with insomnia, we’re just reacting on autopilot based on the information we have. And this is why an accurate understanding of the problem is so important because it creates the foundation for how to respond in a more helpful way.


In fact, education alone will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you because your awareness of the problem changes so completely that it just organically shifts how you respond.


Changing Your Response


Now, changing your response to insomnia doesn’t necessarily equate to more effort, it actually means less. I think when I talk about responses, all of my type A high-achievers go right to pressureville, right. A lot of us who develop insomnia tend to be very focused, goal-oriented people, so our minds go straight to the idea of responses as doing more, trying harder, going into battle — just tell us what we need to DO.


But it is actually the OPPOSITE of that, my friends! It is about doing less, it’s about taking this off your plate, and trusting more. It is about self-compassion and understanding your own brain. These are the kinds of responses to insomnia that open the door for sleep to come.


You don’t have to take responsibility for your sleep because your body already knows exactly how to do this all on its own.


Okay, so what does all of this look like in practicality? Let’s apply an example and look at how responses play a role in the recovery process.


Let’s just say you have a bad night, or you have a bunch of anxiety thoughts rolling in during the day, or you had to take a sleeping pill.


Is the response to these scenarios something along the lines of “on NO,” or is it more like, “oh well?”


One is going to confirm danger, and the other is going confirm safety.


Because remember, insomnia is driven by a perception of danger, right? The brain is trying to look out for you based on the current information it has. It’s a total act of love on behalf of your survival system. Which is not a big deal — our brains can develop fears around so many things: flying, heights, water, dogs, graveyards, crowds, public speaking, the list is pretty much endless.


I still have fears in my life even though I don’t have insomnia. No biggie.


But we can give our brains NEW information. And that’s where responses come in.


Now the thing to understand here is that if we respond to these hyperarousal messages of danger that our super amazing brain is sending us with more fear, doubt and worry, and tell ourselves things like:


“It’s hopeless, nothing is ever going to work, I’m the worst case out there, my brain is broken, there’s GOT to be something physically wrong with me” (these are all very normal thoughts to have when you’re in a tough stretch), this can reinforce the danger response.

So, we are unintentionally confirming the brains perception of threat.

Versus understanding where the brain is coming from, it’s just trying to keep you safe based on its perception of danger, right? But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate.  So, I can give it new information. “Oh well.” “whatever” “there’s my brain at it again.”


And if you want to learn more about cultivating an attitude of indifference during insomnia, you can go back to episode #16 where I do a deeper dive into how to acknowledge your brains messages without getting overly fazed by them.


But “Oh no,” and “Oh well” are very different responses in terms of teaching the brain that it can let go of this fight-or-flight response.


The Goal: Reshaping Perception of Danger


Because remember, the goal isn’t necessarily better sleep, right? Sleep can’t really be a goal because it’s a passive process, although it’s obviously a very welcomed byproduct of this work. But what we’re shooting for is reshaping the brains interpretation of danger, because the hyperarousal that stems from that is what’s getting in the WAY of sleep.

This is such an important distinction to understand.

So, a lot of times people will say, "But Beth, there’s no way I can apply this when I’m in extreme states of fear or panic." And they're absolutely right—you can't. In those moments, your brain is telling you to fight or flee, which requires a different approach. I’ll discuss this more in a future podcast.


But for many of life’s scenarios and situations this concept can be applied and it’s often applying it to your life during the day that will transfer to a less reactive experience at night.


And I’ll add, there’s no such thing as perfection in this process, and you cannot do any of it wrong. Whenever you’re in doubt, drop into self-compassion. Because this is truly one of the most powerful ways to guide your brain towards a sense of safety.


I think one of the best representations of this concept is in this wonderful Buddhist teaching called: The Two Arrows


The Two Arrows Teaching


There are two arrows, the first arrow is the bad thing that happens. And the second arrow is how you respond to that. And you control that second arrow and whether it hits you or not, and whether you suffer from it.


And this teaching has always stuck with me because we do have control over how we perceive certain situations. As horrible as the first arrow is, and a lot of that is out of our control, we still have control over how we respond to it and how things go from there.


So if we attach ourselves to the pain of the first arrow, continue to think and focus on all the things that have gone wrong, and dwell in the bad luck of the first arrow, we just invite that second arrow straight in.


But if we pause, maybe breathe a little, give ourselves a moment to reset and choose a different response, we can save ourselves the pain of that second arrow.


The famous philosopher and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl frames this idea so beautifully with his quote:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”


And you haven’t read his book Man’s Search for Meaning, I highly recommend it, it will change your life.


But our power is in that space and that’s the key to avoiding the second arrow and it’s also how we wire the brain out of insomnia.


As always, thanks for joining me today. Please do leave a rating and review for the podcast, that helps me out a lot. Until next time, I’m Beth Kendall and you’ve been listening to the mind. body. sleep podcast. Bye for now…

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