When it comes to conversations about insomnia, one might think we were at war. This isn't all that surprising, since we generally approach health problems as adversaries. We fight disease, combat infections, kill germs and go to battle with our symptoms.
These kinds of fighting words are integral to the sleep disorders culture, as well. We've had it with the scourge of insomnia. We're fed up with being worn down and ready for a fight. But, how might such a warring posture toward our insomnia symptoms affect us?
People with chronic insomnia frequently experience great frustration and even anger at their symptoms. Many will admit to secretly hurling expletives at their nighttime wakefulness. They toss and turn, get up, get back down, think hard about why they can't sleep and try as hard to stop thinking. They struggle intensely with a mind that just won't stop. And in the end, too many take off their gloves and reach for sleeping pills.
A combative attitude toward nighttime wakefulness inevitably backfires. It increases adrenaline and heightens our arousal, triggering a vicious cycle of frustration and even greater wakefulness. We simply can't fight our way back to the peace of sleep.
Obviously, one of the most common effects of nighttime wakefulness is daytime sleepiness. Given the demands of modern life, the intrusion of sleepiness into our days is as unwelcome as the disruption of wakefulness is to our nights. Many battles in the war against insomnia are also fought on this front. Millions of people regularly struggle with untimely urges to sleep. With the help of coffee, energy drinks, high glycemic foods and sheer will power, they mount a determined campaign against that dreaded daytime sleepiness.
How might chronic daytime skirmishes with unwanted sleepiness affect our relationship with the sleepiness we so covet at night? Sleepiness is like a needy puppy. Even if persistent, it is gentle and fragile. And, it can easily become quite skittish. If we habitually rebuff our sleepiness by day, we establish a conditioned defensive posture that can readily generalize to our nights. Many of my insomnia patients experience this as they try to fall asleep. They'll sense sleep gradually drawing near, but then suddenly, as if frightened, it just shies away.
Our unexamined reactions to insomnia -- our clashes with nighttime wakefulness and daytime sleepiness -- are actually well-intended efforts that have gone awry. We end up suffering from a kind of psychological friendly fire. But there is an alternative. Instead of fighting symptoms of insomnia, we can learn to cultivate a non-violent approach to help heal our sleep. This is not about a passive resignation to our symptoms, but an active practice of giving up the fight that seriously exacerbates them.
It's helpful to understand that varying degrees of wakefulness and sleepiness can naturally co-exist. Waking and sleeping are not, as is commonly believed, mutually exclusive states. Even when we are deeply asleep, subtle elements of waking may be present. Similarly, when we are wide awake, wispy residues of sleep can linger about. It's perfectly normal to become aware of wakefulness at times during the night. In fact, there is evidence that a stretch of middle of the night wakefulness may be natural. Nighttime wakefulness is not our enemy.
Neither is daytime sleepiness. It's absolutely normal to experience some sleepiness during our waking hours -- especially in the mid-afternoon, a time when we are biologically inclined to nap. In fact, gentle fluctuations in our energy throughout the day are also normal. Try tuning into and riding these natural waves of activity and rest.
Practice mindfully greeting daytime sleepiness with complete acceptance. When possible (without compromising your welfare, of course), let yourself momentarily surrender to it. Fall freely into the sleepiness, allowing your body and mind to just droop. When we intentionally stop fighting to stay awake, it can result in a surprising gentle and buoyant rebound of energy.
Likewise, practice mindfully greeting nighttime wakefulness with acceptance by letting go of any judgments that may arise about it. In doing so, in giving up the fight, we are more apt to notice that sleep has not ventured all that far away. A non-violent approach allows sleepiness to peacefully co-exist with wakefulness. This practice also helps us re-establish a positive association or better friendship with sleepiness, rendering it much less skittish at night.
If daytime sleepiness or nighttime wakefulness becomes protracted or relentless, by all means, see a sleep specialist. A non-violent approach to insomnia is not about submission to it. It's a powerful postural shift that can be used in tandem with a number of highly effective cognitive-behavioral therapies to improve sleep.