Do you ever wake up and wonder if you even slept at all?
Do you feel like your body is sleeping but your brain is awake?
Do you feel like you’re in some kind of weird limbo state; half-asleep and half-awake?
If so, this episode is tailored specifically for you!
One of the most bizarre aspects of my own insomnia experience was the seeming inability I had to fall into a deep sleep. My brain wouldn’t let me cross fully into sleep no matter what I did.
Hypersleep is a common phenomenon, but without understanding what it is, it can feel pretty scary.
Finally, after decades of feeling like I had a broken brain, I understood what was going on and that made it SO much easier to get beyond.
Join me in this episode and discover:
Once the paradoxical mystery of this hypersleep fades, sleep becomes deeper and you can get back into life.
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Full Show Notes & Transcription HERE.
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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP:
For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights.
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Today, we are diving into the topic of paradoxical insomnia, also sometimes referred to as sleep state misperception (though I'm not super fond of that terminology). But lately, this topic has been coming up a lot in my coaching calls and within our mentorship program and it played a significant role in my own battle with insomnia, so I wanted to provide some insights and perspectives that will hopefully make this perplexing sleep state a little less confusing.
So what I’m talking about with paradoxical insomnia is this feeling of never really being completely sure if you slept at night or not. Sleep feels really shallow, you’re slightly aware of your surroundings all night, time sort of takes on a new dimension like you wake up and you can’t believe it’s been 4 hours because it feels like you’ve been awake the whole time, yet you wouldn’t have guessed it’s been 4 hours. Maybe you wake up in the morning, but you feel like you didn’t sleep at all and then you question how that could be because wouldn’t you know if you were just lying there for 7 hours?
It's a very bizarre thing to experience.
When I was going through it, I felt like I could never quite cross that bridge into deep sleep. I would be in these lighter stages of sleep all night, but my brain just wouldn’t let me fall fully asleep — my conscious awareness was still online. And I remember thinking so many times… how do people get robbed in the middle of the night? Because I was always sleeping so lightly that I could seriously hear my cat walk into the room, so I definitely would have known if someone was breaking in to my house and I was so confused as to how people could sleep SO deeply that they wouldn’t even know if they were being robbed.
I also felt like my eyelids were closed but my eyeballs were open underneath, and they were just moving back and forth the whole time so a lot of times I would wake up and feel like I’d been hit by a truck and honestly felt worse than if I had just stayed up all night and done something useful.
And then of course, I would tell my doctor or therapist about this strange twilight zone phenomenon and they would have no idea why this would happening and I would search all the books and the internet for some sort of understanding that would explain this half-sleep situation and I didn’t find anything which just freaked me out even more and the mantra in my head became: “Am I ever going to sleep deeply again?”
So then of course, my brain was looking for: “Am I sleeping deeply, am I sleeping deeply, am I sleeping deeply…” So there was a whole lot of monitoring for confirmation that I was sleeping deeply.
I want to immediately reassure anyone currently navigating this that you are not crazy and you're not alone, and what you're going through is actually quite common during periods of insomnia or while on the recovery path.
Later in the episode I’m going to give you some perspective on how you can work with this sleep state, but first let’s go over a little Sleep 101 to better understand why this phenomenon occurs in the first place.
So, the ONLY thing you really need to understand about sleep is that there are TWO key factors going on that are going to significantly affect its outcome. And those two factors are:
Sleep drive is essentially your body’s need for sleep - it’s the driving force behind sleepiness at night. And the only thing that creates sleep drive is WAKEFULNESS. So the longer you are awake, the more sleep drive you will have and the greater the urge to sleep.
Now, the second component in this equation is hyperarousal. Hyperarousal represents a heightened state of alertness. There are lots of things that can cause hyperarousal like wonder, curiosity, or excitement. We’ve all experienced it the night before a holiday or a big trip or a new job.
Most people with insomnia have plenty of sleep drive, especially if they’re not spending large amounts of time in bed trying to chase sleep. Which is why we work from the hyperarousal standpoint in the Mind. Body. Sleep. program. Conditioned hyperarousal is the primary factor driving the pattern of insomnia.
Now… what can happen during periods sleeplessness is there tends to be a lot of focus and attention on sleep — Maybe you’re analyzing a lot, wondering what’s going on, trying to unravel the mystery of it all. We’re keeping tabs on it, we making decisions based on it, everything sort of leads back to sleep in some way, shape or form.
And of COURSE we do this because our brains are problem-solving machines and this approach makes sense and works quite well for many other areas of life.
Okay, so what does this have to do with this semi-conscious, twilight zone state of sleep? WHY is it happening?
Well, the first thing I want to say is that even people without insomnia do experience this super light half sleep especially when something big is going on, something important special event or job interviews or whatever big deal is going on in your life.
So, this is a normal thing to go through; I still experience it myself from time to time.
Now, what’s happening during this hypersleep state (I love this term that Daniel Erichsen uses) is that we ARE sleeping but there’s ALSO some hyperarousal going on in the background and THAT’S what’s creating this light, superficial sleep.
So, it’s sleep MIXED with hyperarousal — there are two contradictory processes going on which is why it feels a lot like driving with the gas and the brake down at the same time.
One of my clients said it perfectly the other day, he said: “It feels like sleep drive and hyperarousal are having a conversation all night.” — I thought that was so spot.
Again, this isn’t particularly unusual, and it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Because the brain has learned some fear around not sleeping so it tends to monitor everything that’s going on about it, it wants confirmation that you ARE actually sleeping and then it will keep you slightly awake to let you know about it; it’s like it just wants to keep tabs on everything about it.
So that is what is going on. You don’t have a broken brain; you’ve just got an extra powerful guard on duty trying to protect you and we can work with that.
Coach Richard in the mentorship used this guard analogy in the community and I thought it was so good.
So what can we do? How can we work with this state of hypersleep in a meaningful way?
Well, the first thing is just understanding that it’s normal and nothing has gone wrong. From a biology standpoint it makes sense that you would be sleeping but also have some of these stress hormones going through the body. It just means that your safety system is working quite well.
Also, I think the simple realization that your body can be asleep even if your brain is signaling something different can be a relief. Hyperarousal doesn’t have to be GONE to get sleep.
But what we want to do is put take that guard off duty, right? Tell him his services are no longer needed and he can go home and watch Netflix with a lifetime severance.
So how do we do that? Well, we befriend hypersleep. We show the guard that in fact nothing dangerous is happening. It’s very normal to have sleep like this when you’re unlearning insomnia. Basically… we’re just allowing it to be there, we’re taking ourselves out of the struggle You don’t need to fix it or do anything to make it go away – you can just soften into the understanding that is normal and as hyperarousal comes down so does hypersleep and sleep gets deeper.
Then the guard sees that hey, they’re not as worried about this anymore — they seem a little more okay. They’re not trying to fight it or figure out what’s going on. Maybe nothing dangerous is happening after all. Maybe I don’t need to stay up all night anymore to alert them to danger.
Let’s just put that watch guard right into retirement because they’ve earned it.
Now, in my experience, when it comes to hypersleep, if you wake up and you’re wondering if you’ve slept, then you most likely have. I have had many people swear they’re not sleeping but then they’re partners confirm that they in fact are, and I used to experience this as well where I was sure I wasn’t sleeping but then I would be dreaming so hyperarousal wasn’t preventing sleep entirely, it was just giving me a lighter than I would’ve liked.
So just to recap:
Paradoxical insomnia is a sleep state where we feel awake but we’re actually sleeping. This is usually a lighter state of sleep because hyperarousal is preventing us from sleeping more deeply. This happens because our brain is still a little convinced that there’s a threat going on so it’s staying on guard to keep an eye on things.
But over time as we work with an accurate understanding of sleep and build more awareness of our thoughts and perceptions around sleep, things start to shift more towards safety and okayness and then pretty soon that guard gets bored and goes home and sleep becomes much deeper.
I rarely experience this in my own life anymore and I used to have weeks to months long cycles of hypersleep.
Thanks for listening everyone, I hope this was helpful. Please do leave a rating or review the podcast, that helps me out a lot…. I’m Beth Kendall and this is the mind. body. sleep podcast.
I’ll see you next time.
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