You’re going along, feeling hopeful, because life is finally starting to feel fun again. You're sleeping well and the nightmare that is insomnia is behind you now. You're not even completely sure what worked, you’re just glad it’s over.
(In fact, for everything you’ve gone through, you deserve to sleep great for the rest of your dang life!)
And then, seemingly out of the blue… it comes back. The insomnia is back and you’re devastated. The last time you went through this, it was seriously awful - hellish even. How can it be happening again?
Maybe you’ve had cycles like this for years... periods of decent sleep followed by periods of insomnia. It’s like your brain either wants to sleep all the time or not at all.
What's worse, there’s no way to predict when these cycles will occur, so you hesitate to plan anything for fear of being stuck in one of the bloody insomnia stretches. Slowly, you start building your life around insomnia and the status of your sleep.
Let us not forget the loop of self-blame: What did I do wrong? How can I fix this? What did I do to cause the sleepless nights again? You scan through every aspect of your life looking for reasons sleep left, and you try desperately to recreate the formula that brings it back. Hopelessness and anxiousness set in because what if this is your situation forever?
I feel you. This was my life for a long time.
But here’s the thing…
This happens to nearly everyone who's had chronic insomnia. It's not unusual at all. Speed bumps show up along the way, even after sleeplessness resolves. It's a super natural part of the healing journey, and an excellent time to deepen our understanding of how the brain works.
The important thing to remember is: Absolutely nothing has gone wrong. Nope. The brain is just doing what the brain does and that's completely normal. Speed bumps do not mean you're regressing, in fact, I would say it's just the opposite!
In this blog, I talk about why insomnia comes back and what you can do about it.
When insomnia comes back, it’s simply because the brains safety system is perceiving some sort of threat. Something has come onto its radar that represents a danger to you. Most likely it's something that threatens sleep, but it could be anything that kicks the brain into a fight or flight stress response.
Remember, the brains number one job is to keep you safe - survival is the driving force of our species!
Sometimes, the threat to sleep is obvious like a new baby, or a major health scare. Perhaps a new puppy is joining the home, or maybe you’re changing jobs. And sometimes the threat is beneath our conscious awareness and we have no idea why the brain is sensing danger.
Whatever the case, it’s picking up on something that triggers old patterns of fear about not sleeping. This, in turn, causes hyper-arousal which is the culprit behind insomnia. (Hyper-arousal is simply a heightened state of alertness - you can read more about it here.)
It makes sense that the brain would do this because I'm guessing that in the past, insomnia wasn't a super fun gig for you. Perhaps it was even a little traumatizing. (I definitely have some battle scars from my experience with chronic insomnia.)
As a means of survival, the brain remembers this stuff, believe me, so it's going to be on the lookout for anything that could ever threaten sleep again! Your amazing brain is not going to let something like THAT slip by its radar unnoticed. Plus, the more emotionally charged a previous event, the more the brain files it away as a future threat.
I daresay, however, that not only is experiencing a speed bump completely normal, it presents something of an opportunity.
Let me explain.
When we start sleeping again, or experience a "reset" with sleep, it's reassuring to at least know that our brains DO know how to sleep. So that's encouraging. But then, when insomnia returns, especially after getting a taste of normalcy, the disappointment seems almost worse. Palpable, really.
When insomnia comes back, it really is a sign that your brain is doing exactly what it is designed to do (which is look out for threats and let you know about them). We need this part of our brain to survive in the world. The brain is plastic, and can change, so if you're willing to experience a speed bump, it's an excellent time to teach your brain that there really is nothing to fear.
Remember, insomnia is just a learned fear of not sleeping. So even though you got past insomnia once, there is still some residual belief or memory in the brains safety system that's picking up on something it perceives as dangerous, and it's trying to send you a signal (cue the hyper-arousal).
But, (and this is where the rubber meets the road) are you really in danger? Or... is your brain just working off of outdated information that doesn't really apply anymore? Our brains are pretty amazing, but sometimes they're a little misguided.
This is the time to just notice your brain and say hmmm... 🤔 Become a curious observer.
No need to judge, or label, or change anything, just notice. Be willing to listen to the message. Your brain believes something is up, so it's sounding some alarm bells.
You can even have little conversations with your brain; mine go something like this:
"Okay, brain, I see you're in super-power ninja mode here, but I'm okay. Thanks, by the way."
"I hear you brain but we are a-okay."
"I am safe. I am calm. I choose to be here."
Listening to the brain, and gently redirecting if necessary, tells the brain that you are safe. That whatever concern it has isn't a threat after all. (Neuroplasticity at its finest 😁 ) When we feel a sense of safety, fear dissolves, and sleep naturally comes.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind during a speed bump...
When insomnia comes back, it's so tempting to start going down rabbit holes again. The Google trap, the sleep efforts, the problem-solving... at least they help us feel like we're doing something.
But it's actually the 'doing something' that perpetuates insomnia. Because no human being on earth is powerful enough to force sleep!
When insomnia comes back, congratulate yourself on being one step closer to recovery. Speed bumps are a normal part of the recovery process and you did nothing wrong to cause insomnia to come back. Your powerful brain is simply looking out for you.
You can neutralize whatever fear the brain is creating by consciously noticing it and gently redirecting if necessary. You don't need to avoid it, or problem-solve, just tune into the feeling and say, "hmmm."
Let the brain know you got the message so it can let down its guard and come out of hyper-arousal 😊 The path out of insomnia isn't linear, and there will be nights that challenge and test your courage. But speed bumps become fewer and fewer over time, and eventually, even if they do come, you'll be more inclined to go, "a-ha, there's my amazing brain again!"
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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