"Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain."
— Santiago Ramon Y Cajal
Before we dive into the fascinating role of brain retraining for insomnia, we must first understand what insomnia is. Because frankly, the traditional definition doesn’t tell us much.
The Sleep Foundation defines insomnia as: a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty with falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.
Okay, well, that much we can all agree on. But what’s driving the inability to sleep in the first place? This is something I could never quite figure out during my own unbelievable quest for sleep.
I see insomnia primarily as a fear of not sleeping. It's a pattern of anxiety that usually results from some sort of life event that rattles our faith in our own ability sleep. This evolves into a self-perpetuating cycle of trying harder and harder to sleep, only to experience more and more hyperarousal and subsequent difficulty with sleep.
It's a paradoxical affair at best.
The unintentional loop of trying harder, and sleeping less, establishes a perception of "threat" in the brain. Over time, it can become a conditioned response that flips on automatically whenever we desire to sleep.
This blog post explores how we can use brain retraining to overcome a learned fear response like insomnia.
But first, let’s take a closer look at the fundamentals of brain retraining…
Brain retraining is a highly successful modality that works through the principles of neuroplasticity. It brings together concepts of mindfulness, free will, and focused attention to gradually rewire habituated patterns in the brain.
I personally think it’s the most exciting thing since sliced bread.
Basically, what we’re doing is cultivating an awareness of the unconscious patterns that are driving our lives.
We’re taking the wheel from the reptilian brain and saying, “Thanks, I’ve got it from here.”
Brain retraining is about rewiring a danger signal, to a safety signal.
With insomnia, the brain gets wired into a fear pattern that affects our ability to sleep. Through education and awareness, we can redirect that pattern into a biochemistry that allows sleep to happen again.
It’s a lot simpler than you think!
There is a common saying in the field of neuroscience that goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is precisely what the brain retraining process is all about. It is wiring one set of neural pathways associated with fear and protection, to another set of pathways associated with safety and understanding.
Our brains wire through association. We are constantly creating links to our experiences and assigning meaning to them based on previous life events.
What happens with insomnia is the brain starts working off a misperception. It begins to believe that being awake at night is a danger to your survival.
So, how can we work with that in the context of brain retraining?
We don't need to train our brains to sleep because they already know how to do so just fine on their own!
Instead, we focus on the automated fear response that's getting in the way of sleep. Trying a bunch a things to fix sleep doesn't work because sleeplessness is an expression of the problem, not the cause.
The cause is the underlying fear and anxiety about not sleeping.
I help people change their relationship with sleep so it evolves from one of fear and worry, to one of trust and safety.
It's the long game out of insomnia, but it's the one that actually works.
So, what does that even look like?
Here are 4 areas of focus in the Mind. Body. Sleep. mentorship::
1. Awareness Through Education
Here’s the deal... you can’t change what you can’t see. So the first thing I do with my clients is give them the education they need to understand the problem. That way, they know what to look for.
You can be the most aware person on earth but when it comes to our own deceptive brain messages, most of us need help!
Working with our blind spots involves understanding what’s driving insomnia in the first place. The more we understand the true nature of the problem, the more we can work with it in ways that move us out of the struggle instead of keeping us in it.
2. Changing Our Thinking About Our Thinking
Sometimes when people learn how they might be unconsciously perpetuating the cycle of insomnia they feel horrible. Like they are to blame for having insomnia. This is NOT true.
You are not causing the automatic thoughts and or responses associated with insomnia, your brain is! We can’t control our unconscious thoughts no matter how smart, dedicated, or disciplined we are.
While it can feel frustrating to know that we are a part of creating insomnia, we are also the solution, which is deeply empowering.
Now, thoughts in and of themselves are not a problem. We have about 60,000 of them a day and most of them are just meaningless bits of information. They only become a problem when we judge them or become completely identified with them.
Through compassion and acceptance, we can work with our thoughts in a way that allows us to recognize them for what they are — just thoughts. Not the reality.
3. Responding In Helpful Ways
We work with the brains perception of threat by changing how we respond to it. This is how we massively influence its interpretation of what's happening.
So, it's not about sleep... it's about changing the brains interpretation of not sleeping. This is what leads to better sleep down the road.
Let me give you a simple example that almost anyone with insomnia can relate to:
Question: What should I do when I can't sleep?
Answer: With insomnia, we want desperately to avoid being awake. This is understandable because who really wants to be awake? When we avoid that which we don't wish to experience, our scared brains get the message that YES, this is very dangerous indeed! We unintentionally strengthen the association that keeps the alarm bells going off.
What if instead of fighting and resisting this scenario... we allowed it to be there? How would the brains interpretation of the event change?
If you can't sleep, try switching gears by doing something enjoyable at night. Or, if enjoyable feels out of reach, do something that makes the experience a little more tolerable. This can be anything from podcasts, to Netflix, to reading or just whatever feels nice and comfortable.
When we engage with the experience of sleeplessness differently, or adopt an attitude of indifference about being awake, the brain has no choice but to re-evaluate the threat. Over time, it will let go of hyperarousal and peaceful sleep can happen naturally again.
The brain takes cues from our behaviors to determine the level of threat in any given moment. When we become more okay with the situation, it does, too.
So, we teach the brain versus it ruling us.
4. Shifting the Focus
Insomnia thrives on focus and attention. So, I help my clients intentionally shift their focus off of insomnia and towards whatever's meaningful in their lives.
It's very normal to start hinging your entire life on the status of your sleep because insomnia tells you to do this all day long. There's a constant voice in your head that's worried about not sleeping. But the truth is, you can still do meaningful things even with insomnia.
Making life bigger than insomnia deprives it of oxygen and demotes its status in our lives. It takes insomnia off the pedestal.
When we prioritize life over insomnia, we take the power away from insomnia. As a result, old pathways die out, and new ones emerge and the brain begins to rewire itself out of insomnia.
The power of brain retraining in my own life cannot be overstated. It's helped me self-regulate my nervous system and heal from things like insomnia. At its root level, insomnia is a habituated fear response in the brain — therefore, the problem must also be addressed in the brain.
Otherwise we just keep spinning our wheels putting band-aids over the symptom of sleeplessness.
It's important to note, however, that we are inherently hard-wired NOT to change. The unconscious perceives change as a threat and prefers to stay in the comfort of familiarity. This natural tendency can make change difficult to embrace.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you move through the process:
Expect it to be rocky - This is completely normal for everyone and nothing has gone wrong!
Understand the origin - The survival brain protects you by keeping you safe in the known. It doesn't take kindly to change and that's by design.
Persistence - Stay focused on the process and keep living your life according to your values.
Practice self-compassion - Honor yourself for showing up and give all the parts of you that are scared the same love you would a child, friend, or pet.
By incrementally modifying our responses over time, we can transform our relationship to sleep.
As the fear slowly dissipates, we begin to trust our own ability to sleep again and insomnia becomes a thing of the past.
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice or treatment. My goal is to empower you with information. Please make all health decisions yourself, consulting sources you trust, including a caring health care professional.
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