When I was struggling with insomnia, I went to all kinds of doctors looking for answers. I would go to my appointments, pour out my story, and hope every time that this was the doctor that was finally going to be able to help me. This was the doctor that would understand the profound toll insomnia was having on my life and on my health. Doctor after doctor, sleep study after sleep study, my optimism would rise, and I would feel hopeful.
And each time, those hopes were dashed. Some doctors were compassionate, most were indifferent; none helped me get to the root cause of insomnia or even explained why my brain felt jacked up 24/7 when all I wanted to do was SLEEP.
That jacked up feeling, being tired and wired at the SAME TIME like your brain just wont turn off, is known as hyperarousal. And my friend, it is seriously the worst.
In my previous blog, I did a deep dive into the definition of hyperarousal and what it means to be tired yet wired. It’s important to understand this frustrating brain state because it’s a core feature in all models of insomnia. Something is causing your mind to go into overdrive, you might as well understand what that something is.
In this blog, I go one step further and talk about stress, our perception of stress, and how you can rewire your brain to feel calm again in 3 actionable steps.
The chief mechanism and the foundation of our survival system is the fight-flight-freeze response.
Hyperarousal is simply a prolonged fight-flight-freeze response.
We need our fight or flight response to be on its game because it’s the part of our brain that keeps us safe. Which is pretty important if you ask me.
The flight-flight-freeze response evolved out of the survival needs of our early ancestors who lived with the dangers of the time (think cave dweller protecting hard-earned food from hungry bears or tigers). Once a threat is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals into that body that allow us to deal with whatever is at hand. Once the threat passes, different hormones are released, tension dissolves, and the brain goes back to its normal, peaceful state.
Except for when it doesn’t.
In the case of hyperarousal, the fight-flight-freeze response goes into overdrive and STAYS there. Like a light-switch perpetually flipped to the ON position. The brain continues to perceive danger even when there is none. A hyper-aroused state can be relatively mild or, in the case of unrelenting insomnia, particularly severe.
Even minor events become a threat as senses become acute and the body is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, and the body becomes tense anticipating whatever action is necessary to protect you or your loved ones.
Because the switch just doesn’t turn off, it becomes difficult for the brain to wind down and relax. It remains hypervigilant on the lookout for any sign of threat or danger.
As the brain becomes more and more focused on survival, sleep starts to feel impossible, at least for any length of time.
I used to marvel at people that could sleep on airplanes… Even when I had near perfect sleeping conditions, I would still wake up at the slightest sound or sliver of light. Everything had to be just right for any chance at sleep and even then, my sleep was so shallow I could hear a feather drop.
Until I started reframing stress…
Did you know that science has a hard time coming up with a definition of stress that everyone can agree on? This is because stress is largely based on perception and it’s entirely unique to an individual. What’s stressful for one, is no big deal for another (e.g. some people love public speaking and can’t wait to get up in front of a crowd; others would literally rather die than speak publicly).
Stress is more complicated than many of us realize but I think it’s safe to say that the word “stress” has some negative connotations. Research focuses mainly on the negative impacts of stress especially on our health and well-being. I know first-hand that stress can quite literally start attacking the body. I don’t hear anyone saying, “I can’t believe how much I LOVE stress!”
But what if we could actually love stress… just a little?
What if the secret to handling stress is changing our perception of stress itself?
Stress is a natural part of the human experience. It’s impossible to avoid stress!
When I’m working with clients, I often say, “it’s not about the sleep, it’s about your relationship to sleep.” What do you believe about it? What does it represent for you? If you were sitting at a conference table having a meeting with sleep, what would it say? What would it look like? Who would it be?
So… what if we take a similar approach to how we think about stress? What if our beliefs about stress are more impactful than stress itself? If we don’t see stress as a “bad” thing, maybe it won’t have the negative effects we fear it will.
Our stress response is based on our ability to cope with whatever life throws your way. I think reframing our relationship with stress itself and the role it plays in our life, is the ultimate approach to managing it well.
Watch this Ted Talk to learn more. It was an absolute game-changer for me and inspired my desire to start redefining stress.
Now that we’ve done an overview of hyperarousal, let’s talk about neuroplasticity, my all-time favorite subject.
Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to change and rewire. Our brains aren’t fixed as we once thought, they have the magnificent ability to make new neural connections throughout life.
The fight-flight-freeze response is largely an unconscious process. It’s triggered by something that the subconscious determines is a threat. But the evidence that the subconscious is working off of to make that determination could very well be antiquated and no longer valid. So, it’s not always accurate. The fight-flight-freeze response isn’t something we can “shut-off” or get rid of, but we can make this unconscious process conscious and rewire the brain.
There are many ways to rewire the brain and calm the stress response. Part of my thesis on self-directed neuroplasticity involved finding the common themes among current brain retraining modalities on the market. We found three things that they all in common.
Easy, 3-step process to rewire your brain:
1. Just notice – If you do nothing else, do this! Pay attention to cues that you are feeling anxious or distressed (e.g. racing mind and heart, sweating, shortness of breath). Become the curious observer of your mind. What are you thinking in that moment? What are you feeling? Being consciously aware of what is happening inside of you helps break the pattern and bring you into the present moment.
Remember, stress is all about perception. You get to decide what is truly stressful and what is just an unchecked, automatic response that could use a little updating. What your brain perceived as stressful at age six might not apply anymore. So, when you’re noticing, ask yourself, what evidence is my brain working off and is it really true?
Noticing what is going on in your mind is the most powerful step you can take towards changing your brain.
2. Redirect – If you find that whatever you are noticing isn’t helpful, replace it with something that is. This can be done through things like tapping or thinking of a something you love. Perhaps focusing on your breath. Replace the unhelpful thought with a better thought. For example: if you catch yourself ruminating, (one of the cognitive distortions associated with hyperarousal), you might say to yourself, “that’s not me, that’s just my brain.” Whatever way of redirecting works best for you.
The important thing is to switch gears in the brain.
My personal go-to is to simply say, out loud or in my head, “I am safe. I am calm. I choose to be here.” This particular phrase works really well for me. (I learned it from Grace Smith, one of my favorite hypnotists.) But if there's something that works better for you, go ahead and use it!
3. Do this consistently – Consistency is a key component in the rewiring process. The goal in becoming a neuroplasticity ninja is to create new neural pathways in the brain. This is done through repetition. Creating new neural pathways requires a lot of energy (literally more glucose) so often, in an effort to conserve, the brain will resist. It prefers the path of least resistance. But if you keep going, noticing and redirecting, your brain will eventually have no choice but to rewire as the new neural pathways become stronger than the old ones.
Just. Keep. Going.
Remember, telling yourself NOT to think a certain thought doesn’t generally work. But asking yourself how true something is, reframing the situation, and replacing the thought, does.
Use the 3-step process to rewire your brain throughout the day. Because when it comes to insomnia, what we do during the day is just as important as what we do at night. Insomnia isn’t just a night time problem, it’s a 24-hour condition.
Calming the brain throughout the day sets you up for good sleep at night. Not to mention it allows you to manage your mind and take control of your life...
So, to recap our 3-step process:
1. Just notice
3. Do this consistently
Learning to recognize triggers and redirect them consistently to rewire your brain is empowering. Because taking responsibility for your own experience puts you in the driver’s seat of your life so you can build resilience to stress.
Even more importantly, rewiring your brain throughout the day brings you out of a state of hyperarousal and into a state of calm. Which allows finally, for that deep, sweet sleep you so richly deserve.
Cheering you on,
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.
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