Why sleepiness disappears the moment your head hits to pillow

Have you ever wondered how something that was right there, something that felt so tangible and strong, could simply vanish into thin air?

You were literally forcing yourself to stay awake just another hour, head bobbing, eyelids heavy but the second you decided to turn the lights off, your sleepiness went poof. 

This is one of the most common phenomena that seem weird when you have trouble sleeping.

In reality, there’s no mystery as to what happens.

Let’s start with another example of when a feeling disappears very suddenly.

Imagine that you’re out camping with your friends. It’s been a long day and you feel tired. You’re just hanging out around the campfire waiting to have one more hot dog before calling it a day. Suddenly, a Grizzly bear charges hops out from behind a tree and charges at you. At that very moment, your fatigue is no more. It has vanished.

The reason you don’t find this the least surprising is that you expect the experience of a charging Grizzly bear to have a very alerting effect on you. Going to bed, well that’s an entirely different matter. Isn’t it?

Not really it turns out. 

Our brains have one core mission – to keep us safe and alive. Identifying threats is one way it does just that. And when a threat is identified, it deploys a fight or flight response to make sure nothing happens to us. The only problem is that it can get confused.

When it comes to insomnia, the misunderstanding that has occurred is that sleeplessness has been incorrectly tagged as a threat. Something that can harm you and should be avoided. And the brain treats all threats with the same approach: the fight or flight response. 

When you’ve had trouble sleeping, the mere act of going to bed, turning the lights off or even thinking about sleep makes the brain go into the mode of self preservation. It’s gearing up for an anticipated struggle and that, that’s the reason why your sleepiness disappears the moment you want to sleep. 

This is an important illustration of the most basic truth when it comes to sleep – the more you want it the less you get. When you want to stay awake on the other hand, in the evening some hours before bedtime, sleep comes easy. 

So what to do?

Education is the key.

When you understand how sleep works the mystery starts to unravel. When you see that sleeplessness is a perceived threat that cannot actually harm you, you stop worrying. When you have no doubts whatsoever, when it’s completely clear to you why you’ve had trouble sleeping, sleep will come your way. 

And a great start is understanding why sleepiness seems to vanish at night!