The Sleepless Season

The Sleepless Season

The main trouble with insomnia is that it perpetuates itself. The longer it goes on, the more desperately you crave a good night’s sleep. The more you find yourself thinking if I could just get one good night’s sleep, all my problems would go away. Unfortunately, that encourages the insomnia to continue rather than driving it away.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I suffered a particularly nasty bout of insomnia but I learned a lot from it. I always search for the source of my insomnia. I used to get out of bed to write down thoughts which bothered me. That usually allowed me to go to sleep. But when you spend a week struggling to determine the source of your insomnia, you discover a lot about what bothers you on a daily basis. During my search, these were the sources I found for the sleep killer.

Poor Sleep Hygiene/ Mixed up Sleep Cycle
The first place to look when insomnia strikes is sleep habits. I’ve written about this at length. In the hustle and bustle of the modern world, it’s easy to get into the habit of staying up a few extra minutes for this task or that task. Eventually we pile on so many, there just isn’t room to fit it all in a single day. Likewise, it’s easy to get into the habit of staying up a few extra minutes to squeeze all the relaxation you can out of the day before the new list of tasks strikes in the morning. Given the advent of TV, the internet, and artificial light, it’s not surprising we spend all hours of the night active. And if you’re a night owl like me, it’s a particularly dangerous habit.

Luckily, this is an easy thing to fix. Find a list of the best sleep hygiene habits and try to stick to it. Find the amount of sleep that works best for you. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Cut the computer out of the last hour before bed. Take some time to read before you go to sleep.

But what if you’ve ticked off every item on the good sleep habits list and still can’t manage a full night of rest? That probably means your sleep cycle isn’t the trouble.

Personal Pressure
Lack of sleep summons a strong sense of hopelessness. We get the sense that we are powerless, that some force greater than us is punishing us and that, no matter how hard we struggle, we can’t break free. Unfortunately, it may be the struggle that causes the issues. The longer you go without sleep, the more pressure you put on yourself to get some. Even over the course of one night we can compound our sleep problems. The most common mistake we make is to count the hours; if I fall asleep now I can still sleep for five hours. If I fall asleep now I can still sleep for three…

You can try turning the clock away from the bed, but that might not help. Many insomniacs convince themselves that a good night’s sleep will cure their woes. It’s a sort of cosmic reset; one good night sleep liberates you from the darkness.

Except that it doesn’t. For one, the pressure you put on yourself to achieve that goal is likely to keep you awake. For another, you can sleep just fine for one night, but return to insomnia the next. You start to tell yourself you have to sleep for two days to break the cycle. Or X days. Or a week!

It’s better to let go of your anxieties. Remind yourself how much you manage even when you haven’t slept. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably learned to cope with life as a zombie from time to time. Focus on the positive aspects of your day. Remind yourself that lack of sleep didn’t stop you. Remove insomnia’s ability to paralyze you, and it will fade.

Turning Molehills into Mountains
Where does all this personal pressure come from? If you’re a high-anxiety person, you probably don’t have to look any further to find the source of your sleepless nights. If you worry about every little thing, it’s probably common not to sleep the night before a big trip, a job interview, the start of a new job or a big move. I’ve always been this way. My husband, on the other hand, can sleep at the drop of a hat, even during most stressful transitions of our life. He’s an expert at letting things roll off his shoulders. More than that, he doesn’t let his anxieties crawl under his skin.

If you’re like me, on the other hand, even small challenges feel huge. Which is a problem; because then the big stuff turns into a nightmare. Recounting all your problems is a prime way to keep yourself awake at night. Especially if you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do to make the problems go away.

Perspective is important. If something is out of your control; let it go. Accept that you can’t do anything about it and focus on the things you can do. Usually that’s enough to return your sense of control. Try to remind yourself of all the difficult things you’ve already done that seemed impossible before you accomplished them. When I get in a tizzy, I like to remind myself that I moved across an ocean. I may have spent a month living above a pub, but I sure as hell succeeded and managed to have a fabulous time on top of it.

There’s a quote making the rounds that offers the perfect perspective: it’s okay to have a meltdown, just don’t unpack and live there. Let small problems be small. Deal with big ones as they come, and remember that parts of the universe are always going to be beyond your ability to control. Roll with it.

Giving Up
If I can’t sleep, I might as well get some work done… Possibly the most damning thought for insomniacs. While it’s true that doing something light, like reading, might help you fall asleep, getting up to start your day, clean the house, or do a work-related task isn’t going to tire you out; it’s going to wake you up.

But it goes deeper than that. I think a lot of insomniacs believe there’s no way for them to get a better night’s sleep. They see others drifting off with an effortless ease and it’s hard not to feel envious. We begin to think there’s something wrong with us. We aren’t capable of sleeping with such ease. We just aren’t made to sleep a full night. We have to suffer the sleepless hours so that other people can partake of the mystical ‘sleep bank,’ entry to which is limited every night.

This is a form of self-hate driven by negative inner voice. You can learn to sleep well. Even if you always struggle. Even if there will always be sleepless nights, you can overcome the hurdles. Because muddling through on a few hours a night isn’t all there is. You aren’t broken. An increasing number of adults suffer insomnia on a regular basis; because the stresses of our daily lives linger when we lay down to sleep. Keep trying. Keep searching for the answer. Keep laying in bed doing a breathing exercise, relaxing your mind, letting go of your fears. Sleep will come, with time.

An Eternal Cycle of Negative Thinking
All the factors above lead to one place; an endless spiral of critical negative thinking. I was shocked to find myself in this place. I criticized myself for silly little mistakes. I berated myself for not being able to accomplish all of my goals, even if they were outrageously ambitions. And while other people encouraged me to look at all the fine things I had done in any given day, week or month, I could only focus on the things I hadn’t done, or the mistakes others had forgotten.

Perfectionism can be a bitter pill. Set the bar for yourself too high and you will never reach it. Self-doubt is the loudest voice in the vaults of our mind. It doesn’t take much for it to seep inside the brain in the quiet hours when we’re trying to let it all go. If you find you consistently fail to sleep and none of the sleep hygiene tips do you any good, look inward. Find the real source of the problem. Climb out of the hole.

There’s nothing more liberating than realizing the world doesn’t have to be as stressful as it feels at the moment.

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