Have a difficult time falling asleep? Someone said you have insomnia (inability to sleep)?
Here are some important things that I learned over the years while working with people who have sleep problems.
It is very rare in my opinion to have primary insomnia. That is, a condition in which no underlying psychological or physical problems contribute to sleeping problems. There are variations in life in the need for sleep. Often, earlier in life we need more sleep and as we age we require less. But having a difficult time falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early is almost always related to stress, anxiety, depression, or a physical ailment. Sometimes, the stress causing the sleep problem can be subconscious.
I tend to think about sleeping problems as more of a symptom for something going on in our life rather than the cause of mental suffering. There is no doubt that difficulty sleeping for whatever reason soon becomes a problem in itself. Then people tend to focus on their ability to sleep and usually a vicious cycle begins.
So, what to do if you have sleeping problems?
- Eliminate medical reasons. Get a checkup. It’s your primary care physician problem to worry about it. Get it done and out of your system. Make sure nothing physical is contributing to that (e.g. back pain, too much alcohol, too much weed, too little exercise, acid reflux, etc.)
- Practice sleep hygiene and follow the general tips often given by physicians, psychologists, etc. For example: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/sleep-hygiene
After you got those out of the way, it is time to examine some very important considerations about sleep.
Ask yourself: “how does one fall asleep?” There is no answer to that question. We simply do not know. There are scientific explanations, and identified hormones and chemicals associated with the phenomenon of sleep, but clearly it is not just a physical process. You can decide not to fall asleep (sometimes) whereas sometimes you simply can’t keep your eyes open. Thus, consciousness is definitely implicated in the process of sleep.
Can you will yourself to sleep? I never could. I don’t know anyone that on a cue, can say “sleep now” and they will sleep.
The term “FALL asleep”, actually really describes what happens. People just fall asleep. It is beyond their control. We can all do things that will increase the likelihood that we will fall asleep (e.g. lying in bed, drinking a warm cup of milk, reading a boring book, driving the car at night on the freeway), but we cannot actually decide on sleeping on a cue. If we could, the world would not have jetlag and sleeping pills.
If you will think about it, you will notice that you cannot actually remember the moment you fall asleep. That moment is beyond your grasp. We also cannot usually remember the moment we wake up. It is also beyond our grasp. It is not a decision we make to wake up. We simply do (for many different reasons.)
The futile attempt to focus on WANTING to sleep RIGHT NOW, actually prevents us from falling asleep. That increased focus on WANTING to sleep, focus our attention, increase the search for sleep, and in almost all cases, prevents sleep to FALL on us.
Think about sleep as something that happens to you rather than you making it happen. Almost like searching for a word you cannot remember. Only when you let it go would it suddenly appear in your mind.
So what can you do?
Distract yourself. Focus on something other than sleep.
That is why counting sheep was invented. While you count sheep, you are not thinking about sleep, you are not focusing on sleep, and sleep can finally descend on you.
Distract yourself in way that will be facilitating for sleep.
Playing a shooter video game is not, watching an action movie is not, working and focusing on something productive is not.
Do something distracting and boring so that your mind can release, relax, and sleep will fall on you.
Examples: count sheep, read a boring book, get out of bed if you can’t sleep and stretch.
Sometimes, you might not fall asleep. You might wake early in the morning or in the middle of the night and not fall back asleep. It is not fun but it is alright.
The problem is not with not falling asleep, the problem begins with our interpretation of it.
Many people would actually like to function with less sleep. They will have more hours in the day to do the things they want to do. The problem begins with thoughts such as:
- I’m going to be tired tomorrow if I don’t sleep
- I must sleep
- I should be sleeping
- What’s wrong with me
- I will be unhappy if I don’t sleep
- I wouldn’t be able to function if I don’t sleep
Although it is true that you might be more tired tomorrow if you cannot fall asleep right now, it actually takes a very significant lack of sleep to stop functioning. As someone who was in the military, I can attest that I was able to function just fine for 5 months with sleeping 4 hours a night. It wasn’t fun. I would have slept a lot more if I could, but I was able to function just fine.
Those thoughts mentioned above, create mental and emotional suffering that also increase your agitation and focus on sleep and in return prevent you from FALLING asleep.
So, when these thoughts arise, simply accept that you cannot sleep. Even if you don’t want to.
- It is okay not to sleep sometimes.
- It is okay to have problems in life.
- It is okay to be tired.
- You are allowed to have problems, including sleep problems.
And then once accepted these new thoughts. Ask yourself “What can I do right now?”
Possible answers: I can read a book, I can take a shower, I can drink a warm cup of milk, I can go for a walk if it’s too late to go back to bed, etc.
Lastly, I opened up with speaking about how rarely a sleep problem emerges without any underlying reasons. Go talk to someone. Start with a friend or a family member. If that didn’t help or you have not found what is going on, go see a professional.
Most of the time, resolving underlying stress, anxiety, or other emotional stressors, will resolve your sleep problems quickly.