Few things have been more mystified than insomnia. We are led to believe that any of a vast number of things can cause sleeplessness and that any of the myriad of remedies we hear about may be the one we need to sleep well again. In reality, things are much less complicated.
Insomnia simply means having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both. That’s it. As for what causes it, the list is not a long one – it’s either stress/anxiety, maladaptive behaviours or (which almost always is the case) a combination of the two. This said – understanding how insomnia and sleep anxiety develops is important as it shows us how to get back to sleeping well again.
Karen was never a great sleeper, but she also did not consider herself having trouble sleeping. She had a tendency to overthink and worry perhaps a bit more than her friends but she functioned well at work and had a great personal life. Then something happened. She lost her job or a family member, she might have had a health scare or she moved to a different city. Exactly what happened doesn’t actually matter – just that we know something threw her sleep off. And that’s normal. Let that sink in. Not sleeping well after a stressful event is entirely normal. If Karen lost one of her parents and went on to sleep great, now that would be unusual. It is what happens next that teaches us how insomnia happens.
After a few sleepless nights Karen realizes that she has a problem. She no longer can sleep. She identifies insomnia as a threat to her health and well being and decides to do something about it. She starts going to bed at the same early hour every night. No improvement. She starts keeping the bedroom dark. Doesn’t help. She starts taking herbal supplements. Nothing helps and she feels this proof that she really has a big problem. She doubles down on efforts to improve her sleep. Meanwhile it is deteriorating. She is spending 9 hours trying to sleep but only gets 4. She feels tired and anxious.
The insight – the initial sleepless nights were normal, Karen’s reaction to them are the actual culprit. Her efforts at getting more sleep is what is keeping her from just that.
Although everyone’s story is different, two things that we see with Karen that applies to all with trouble sleeping is that worrying about not getting sleep and trying to sleep more fuel the insomnia.
So how is this helpful to you?
If you don’t have much trouble sleeping, then the best thing to do is often the hardest – very little. Treat it like a hiccup or flue. It’s annoying but if you just let it be it will go away. The more you react to difficulties sleeping, the worse it gets.
If you’ve had a lot of problems and for a long time, trying to peel away at things you’re doing wrong is a great start. Spend less time in bed. Yes that’s right. Less time in bed. Question if things you are doing to get more sleep truly are helping you. Try less to sleep. Focus your attention on things you enjoy. Spend time with friends. All of the above will help shift attention away from insomnia. And without attention, insomnia cannot survive.
For anyone, no matter how mild or engrained your troubles sleeping are – don’t look to an outside source to make you sleep more. Medications are particularly problematic, because there is only one reason you would take a sleeping pill: to sleep more. If you take a medication and it doesn’t help, well then you feel hopeless. If it “works” things are even worse. Because what now is happening is that you start to believe that you cannot sleep and that you need a pill to do something others can do naturally. Your sleep confidence starts eroding. And this, not having sleep confidence, is a huge problem. Not only have you become dependent on a drug, when it no longer “works” your belief in your own sleep is shattered and the path towards sleeping well becomes a longer one. Not an impossible one. You can definitely go back to sleeping well again without any medications, but having transferred sleep confidence to an outside source it will take more time.
Alcohol and Marijuana
When it comes to alcohol and marijuana things are a bit different. Alcohol in itself is known to cause poor quality sleep and sleep fragmentation. That said, many have a glass of wine with dinner and sleep fantastic. So what should you be doing? Well here’s the thing – if you’re drinking any alcoholic beverage or use marijuana with the purpose of that making you sleep, that’s a terrible idea. You’re on the path towards losing sleep confidence and making your insomnia stronger.
I know this is a lot to digest and may seem different from what you typically hear. Read it a few times. Reflect upon it and I believe you will find truths here that will set you on a path towards sleep.
If you would like to learn more, please check out my YouTube channel/podcast Insomnia insight. If you have a question, please leave a comment and I will be super excited to get a chance to help you sleep better.
Daniel Erichsen – Sleep physician
Insomnia Insight Youtube Channel
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