What You Need to Know About Embracing Insomnia

By Robin Levick, MFT

Almost everyone will, at some point in their lives, experience insomnia.  It can present anywhere on a continuum from a mild, intermittent annoyance to a debilitating crisis.  We need sleep, and most people don’t get enough.  This post isn’t about severe or chronic insomnia, which should be taken very seriously. Insomnia can be a symptom of a mental or physical illness. If your insomnia lasts for more than a few weeks, or is impairing your ability to function during the day, seek medical attention. If you go for more than one night without any sleep at all, seek medical attention.  If you are experiencing chronic insomnia, you can look into sleep hygiene, medication, or seek help from a therapist.

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Those caveats aside, for those people who occasionally suffer bouts of insomnia, consider the following approaches to coping with it.  Unfortunately, insomnia is one of the things in life that we cannot triumph over by working harder. The most powerful thing you can do when you can’t get to sleep is take a stance of radical acceptance. This can help you avoid a cycle of frustration and agitation that is activating, not relaxing. Once you accept that you can’t MAKE yourself go to sleep, consider the following approaches to embrace the insomnia:

  • Don’t fight it:  So often we think we should be able to will ourselves to do things, but unfortunately we don’t always work that way.  The human organism is a complex system and sometimes our conscious “I” isn’t as in control as we would like. While this can be disconcerting, fighting against it won’t help.  See if you can relax and have a different relationship with your mind.  What is this insomnia about?  Are you anxious about something?  Maybe some decision or relationship or upcoming event is demanding some attention.  While you need sleep, maybe its OK to take some time to think deeply.
  • Practice mindfulness:  If you can let go of the frustration that you are missing out on sleep you need, and focus on getting as much rest as you can in the moment, you are practicing mindfulness.  Any number of techniques might be helpful: Do a progressive relaxation body scan, count your breaths, do belly breathing, or imagine that you are on a beach somewhere.  If you feel anxiety in your body, see if you can breathe directly into it. See if you can shift from doing this with the intention to produce sleep to doing this for the practice itself.  Research shows that meditation can produce a state of restfulness that is different than sleep, but one that has its own unique benefits.  This study showed that long term meditators need less sleep to achieve the same waking performance.
  • Journal:  It’s clear that watching TV or looking at your phone when you can’t sleep wreaks havoc on your circadian rhythm, so that’s the last thing you want to do when you can’t sleep. Spend some time writing or drawing instead and trust that while you aren’t getting as much sleep as you would like, you are doing something that is good for you.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night might be good for you: If you are waking up in the middle of the night, check out this article about how that time might be a wellspring of creativity and productivity.   Another source details the science that suggests night waking is actually you body’s natural rhythm, especially in the winter, and that night waking shouldn’t be called “insomnia” at all.
  • Treat it as a dream: Sometimes if you can relax, you will find yourself almost in a dream like consciousness even though you are not in REM sleep.  Dreams are fascinating transmissions from our unconscious, and thinking about them can help people integrate unconscious parts of themselves.  If a dream wakes you up, it might be helpful to write it down if you can’t go back to sleep, as it could be your unconscious telling  you that something in the dream needs your attention.

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