Is insomnia sucking the joy out of your life?

Is the idea of good sleep alien to you? Here is some advice that will help you sleep soundly

“How do people go to sleep? I’m afraid I’ve lost the knack.”
—Dorothy Parker

Concept of Insomnia / loss of sleepWhen you’ve lain in bed for hours, tossed and turned until your body aches, glanced at the clock more times than you can count, tried every mantra, meditation, and visualisation you’ve ever learned to no avail, insomnia has you in its clutches.

Hopefully, it’s a passing phase prompted by external circumstances like an impending exam, a recent breakup, or financial problems. Most people go through periods of difficulty sleeping. But one in ten people struggle with sleeplessness night after night, month after month, sometimes for years, beset by chronic insomnia.

Sleep is fragile

Sleep is remarkably fragile, despite its persistence and universality. All manner of conditions can fray its fabric, and little works to restore the weave once it’s lost. Heat, cold, good food, bad food, solitude, company, noise, silence, new love, the loss of love—you name it—can banish sleep from the bedroom.

There are many things we can do to sleep better, or a little longer. We can cool and darken our bedrooms, establish a regular sleep schedule, avoid stimulants, alcohol, and electronics before bed, take calming teas, supplements, or medications, and learn to control our catastrophising thoughts. These are good things to do, but they rarely crack the nut of habitual insomnia.

When hyper-arousal becomes the norm, rather than the exception, it’s nearly impossible to get good sleep

Too awake to sleep

One of the most surprising discoveries to emerge from 21st century sleep research is that insomnia is not just a problem with sleep; it is a disorder of our waking lives as well. Scientists have learned that people who struggle with ongoing insomnia tend to live in a state of hyper-arousal characterised by higher body temperatures, faster heart rates, stronger high-frequency brain waves, increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, and lower levels of melatonin 24 hours a day, whether they are awake or asleep. These folks are remarkably quick and sharp, but their nervous systems run on high alert as if living in a war-zone. Simply put, they are too awake to sleep. In fact, many are somewhat awake even when sleeping!

Eons ago, in our evolution as human beings, our bodies developed the capacity to mobilise in the face of danger, enabling us to respond quickly and forcefully when necessary. If your child runs out into traffic, you need that ability to charge out and grab him or her out of harm’s way immediately. It has an obvious evolutionary advantage. Once your child is safe, your heart will hopefully stop throbbing, your breathing will slow down, and the stress hormones coursing through your blood will return to normal levels.

However, if you are genetically inclined towards anxiety, have experienced long-term stress, repeated traumas, or life-threatening insecurities, your body may gradually lose the knack of calming down, even when resting. The brain simply stays busy and the heart keeps racing regardless of what is happening. When hyper-arousal becomes the norm, rather than the exception, it’s nearly impossible to get good sleep.

Even if you aren’t predisposed towards anxiety, and haven’t experienced major traumas, the pace, pressures and insecurities of contemporary life in the 24/7 global economy may be pushing you into hyper-arousal without your knowing. We are surrounded by bright lights and street noises throughout the night, encouraged to consume stimulating foods and drinks, rewarded for being alert, quick and aggressive, and often required to work longer hours.

Each of us needs to experiment with lifestyle changes, observe the results, and adapt accordingly

No quick fix

How can our bodies remember how to relax enough to sleep under these conditions?

One thing is certain: there is no quick fix. We have to cultivate our abilities to calm down, let go, and go within to counteract the tendencies to gear up, grab on, and get ahead that are so encouraged in our society. Lowering arousal levels is a gradual process that requires many small shifts in the ways we go about our days and nights as we weed out old habits that interfere with sleep and develop new ones to restore calm.

The process is also very individual; there are no standard answers. What helps one person may not help another, or in some cases even make things worse. For example, a family pet may be soothing to one family member and stressful to another. Each of us needs to experiment with lifestyle changes, observe the results, and adapt accordingly.

Money in the bank and locks on the doors can help, but there is nothing like the comfort of relationships

Here’s what you can do

Here are some things that have helped others:

  • Develop a meditative practice that you can do on a regular basis. That can be something as simple as walking to work, listening to music before bed, even closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths a few times a day. Or you could join a weekly meditation group, take a yoga or t’ai chi class, or sing in a choir. Many of these activities involve breathing more fully, which works to calm down the nervous system.
  • Practise putting aside your worries, even if you plan to pick them up later. Anxiety is the enemy of sleep. Make a list of what you need to address later, fold it up, and tuck it away. Our unconscious minds mull over our problems while we sleep, and often pose solutions the next day that we couldn’t figure out on our own. A friend of mine likes to imagine that all her anxieties are written out on a large chalkboard; when she lies down to sleep, erasers wipe them away. Napoleon used fall asleep by seeing himself pushing away his concerns as if closing the drawers of a bureau, one by one. When I was a child, I was so anxious about taking tests that I often couldn’t sleep beforehand. Finally, one sleepless night, I had a fantasy that I was an eighty-five-year old grandmother looking back over my life. Did I care how well I did on that math class in third grade? No! Realising that the things that worried me at the time were insignificant in the big picture enabled me to relax and get some sleep.
  • Make a point of spending time with people whose company you enjoy. You can comb and braid your children’s hair, or read them bedtime stories, join a soccer team, go out dancing or play cards with friends at the club. We need trust and a sense of safety to unwind. As social creatures, we derive that sense of safety from the people who care for us, look out for us, and have our backs. Money in the bank and locks on the doors can help, but there is nothing like the comfort of relationships.
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  • Finally, if you can’t sleep, get up and do something. Read, draw, email friends, water plants, have a cup of tulsi [basil] tea or warm milk, whatever. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens used to take long walks when they couldn’t sleep. My grandmother typed Braille books. Doing something will distract you from the effort to sleep, and probably help you to fall asleep later. Besides, it is fine to sleep in stretches of a few hours at a time. Naps are efficient forms of sleep. The key is to remain calm and trust that the sleep you get, however little, is enough.

Remember: climbing back off the ledge of insomnia takes time. Every little step you take to calm your nerves, day after day, night after night, gradually restores the peace that enables sleep.


This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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