There are many ways to think of insomnia that help you understand what’s really going on. You can think of it as trying to control something (sleep) that like a bar of soap gets more and more slippery the harder you try to hold on. You can think of it as a problem that is made worse by problem solving. Or, you can think of it as a series of botched jailbreaks, where every time you tried busting out, you ended up where you started.
This last way of looking at insomnia, as an attempt to escape, is very helpful because it teaches you in a very practical way how to get back to sleeping well. But to do that, you have to understand what it is you are trying to run away from.
Insomnia is defined as “habitual sleeplessness”. In other words, sleep isn’t happening and this has been going on for a while. And it is this, sleeplessness that you are trying to escape.
When you make sure you’re avoiding spicy food at night – you’re trying to get away from sleeplessness. When you turn your electronics off early in the evening – you’re attempting to dodge a sleepless night. The thing you’re running from is sleeplessness.
Now this is all very understandable, we all want to have less of something we don’t like. The problem though is that there has been a bit of a misunderstanding. A bit of a mix-up in that ancient alarm system we call the amygdala.
The amygdala is there to keep us safe from tangible physical threats, and a great way to do that is to run and hide. It’s very important to have a functioning amygdala when we are about to cross a railroad track or the fire alarm goes off. Because you really can escape being hit by a train or hurt by fire. But when sleeplessness pops up on the amygdala radar, things get prickly.
As you can’t actually run away from sleeplessness, it appears as if sleeplessness is a really big problem and the amygdala tries even more to run away. Making the problem seem even larger. And suddenly you have “habitual sleeplessness”.
Now, having explained how insomnia happens, here’s the insight that will help you get past it without effort: Sleeplessness is just another word for being awake.
Think about it for a minute. Being sleepless really just means not sleeping which is the same thing as being awake. In other words, here’s the big one: What you are trying to do is escaping wakefulness!
All this time, everything you’ve done is to try to avoid, resist and run away from being awake. And ironically, by trying to be awake, that’s exactly what has happened. You’ve been “habitually awake” if you will.
So, what to do? Make wakefulness your friend.
It may sound like too simple of a fix to a problem that has had you all up in arms, but it really isn’t much more to it. Teach your amygdala that being awake is not a threat or a problem and surprising as this may sound, beautiful sleep will start coming your way.
Now you may wonder, how do I make wakefulness a friend? Same way you treat any other one, show them a good time!
When it is bedtime or even in the middle of the night, do something you enjoy. Read a great book, binge on that Hulu show, play some banjo or write a novel.
Wait a minute, you may say, isn’t that going to make me wake up even more? If that thought popped into your head, you’re in good company! Almost everyone that has had trouble sleeping reacts with some variation of this question. But if you think about it, you already know the answer.
It is your trying to escape wakefulness, the mix-up in your amygdala where being awake was being identified as a problem, that got you into a fix the first time. So even if yes, you may be more awake for a night or two, you’ve started to make wakefulness your friend.
And when a foe becomes a friend, when you truly look forward to being awake, even at an inconvenient time, you will sleep better than you ever imagined possible.