Ep 11. Navigating Through Fear During Insomnia

Oct 10, 2023

 Have you struggled with feelings of fear or anxiety during insomnia?

This can look a lot like:

▪️ Panic at night lying in bed

▪️ Fear around bedtime

▪️ Low grade feelings of dread or doom

▪️ Anxiety that comes out of the nowhere

▪️ Anticipatory anxiety about late nights or trips

How to go about actually processing these emotions isn’t always clear.

In the episode I share a 3-step framework for HOW TO FEEL YOUR FEELINGS:

1. Awareness: Recognizing fear is the first step towards addressing it.

2. Compassion: Rewiring your brain from danger to safety through self-compassion. 

3. Creating a new experience: Our brains learn through experiences — then the experience changes, the pattern changes.

Tune into this episode for a deeper understanding of how to feel your feelings.

Who knew something so simple could be so revolutionary?!

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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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Navigating Through Fear During Insomnia

3-Part Framework

Today we are talking about how to approach feelings of fear when you’re going through insomnia. And of course, fear shows up differently for everyone, but I think what can happen on the recovery path is that once you understand insomnia a bit better and things make more sense and you know where the fear is coming from, then it’s like, okay, I get it but I’m really not really too sure how to work with this.

And I’m so happy to see more dialogue in the mainstream around actually feeling your feelings. But then, I also think, well, how do you do that exactly? How do you work with fear in a practical way? So today, I want to offer a 3-part framework that I think will provide a starting point on of how to navigate through some of these challenging emotions.

It’s important to emphasize right away that every person is unique, and every nervous system is unique with its own window of tolerance in terms of what it can process. So do always honor that within yourself because you are the wise advocate of your life.

But I think this 3-part framework will be helpful in terms of exploring HOW to feel your feelings.

Sensations of Fear and/or Anxiety

Okay, so how many of you out there have experienced or noticed feelings of fear or anxiety showing up around sleep.

This can look a lot like:

- Sensations of hyperarousal lying in bed. Maybe you have a rapid heartbeat, maybe you have twitches going on, maybe you feel a sense of dread or foreboding, perhaps there’s a flutter in your chest or a sinking feeling in your stomach. You can just feel yourself going into fight-or-flight.

- Or maybe you feel this kick in as you’re getting ready for bed. You might feel just fine on the couch watching TV but then the minute your intention shifts to going to bed, hyperarousal kicks in.

- For some people it shows up when there is an event at play like staying out late with friends or going on a trip somewhere. Even Sunday nights can produce anxiety in anticipation of not sleeping ahead of the work week.

These are all very common ways that I see fear and anxiety showing up for people.

Misguided Danger Signals

And the brain reacts this way because it perceives a threat, right? It thinks nighttime wakefulness is dangerous. So, whenever the possibility of that comes on the horizon, it triggers hyperarousal to alert you to the danger. It is ever so kindly sending you some alarm bells.

Over time, this conditioned response just kicks in automatically.

Now, here’s the thing…

We can’t just stop these instinctual fear responses and that’s by design. Because in situations of actual threat, we need these automatic reactions to kick in for our survival – we need our alarm systems to work this way. With insomnia, however, it’s almost like our alarm system has turned into an overprotective smoke detector that starts going off even when we’re just making popcorn. It misinterprets a little bit of smoke as an actual fire.

Nonetheless, we DO have influence over these fear reactions in how we respond to them. So, there’s the initial reaction which is the automatic fear program kicking in. And then there is the secondary reaction which is our response to that initial fear. Today I want to zero in on this second reaction.

And I think this is an empowering way to address fear because while the initial reaction may be out of our control, we do have the ability to guide and influence what happens down the road. We can teach the brain what constitutes a genuine threat and what is just a habitual response.

Which is the whole premise behind self-directed neuroplasticity.

Anxiety is Energy in Motion

Okay, so let’s use an example from one of my clients today. He was telling me about his fear. And I asked him when the last time was that he felt it. And he said that the fear tends to kick in when he gets home from work and parks his gar in the garage. To HIS brain, pulling into the garage is like a signal that bedtime is getting closer, and his brain has learned fear around bedtime and potentially not sleeping, so it starts sending some anxiety.

Now the first thing I want to say about anxiety is that it’s nothing more than energy in motion — it’s nervous energy moving through your body. It FEELS dangerous in the moment, but it’s not a dangerous thing to experience.

And it has nothing to do with who you are as a person — you are not your anxiety. It’s just something you’re experiencing in a moment.

So that automatic fear response kicks in and…

The natural reaction is to resist, right? We want to fight and escape this horrible feeling. And of course we do because nobody teaches us how to work with these feelings — if anything we’ve built a belief system around avoiding difficult emotions. They’re labeled as bad and unwanted, and we shouldn’t be having them if we want to be strong people!

Which I think is ridiculous because these can be very useful emotions and messengers from the body. Fear as an emotion is neither good nor bad, it’s just human. And this is important to consider because when we are judging our emotions or feeling shame about having them, we’re far less likely to want to feel them.  If we are judging anxiety, we’ll resist feeling anxiety. If we are shaming ourselves for feeling fear, we’ll resist leaning into fear.

The Two Paths — Resisting or Allowing

So the typical avenue that we take when faced with difficult emotions is to resist, avoid or distract ourselves from feeling them, right. We’ll do just about anything to outrun them. But what we resist tends to get bigger.

So the other avenue we have when faced with a difficult emotion like anxiety is to lean in from a place of allowing and acceptance.

And this can feel counter-intuitive at first, but it’s actually an effective way to not only rewire the brain, but build capacity for feeling some of these difficult emotions.

And this is the fork in the road that I think can trip people up a lot of times, myself included. Is just remembering when you’re in the thick of it, that we do have some options. And those options are usually something in between full resistance and full acceptance. It doesn’t matter where you are on that bridge, it only matters that you are aware that you are on it.

Okay, so what does that LOOK like actually?

So, let’s talk about that.

Awareness Is a Key Skill

The first part of this process is having an AWARENESS.

Awareness is such a key skill to build because we can’t address what we’re not aware of. So, approaching our emotions with mindfulness gives us a chance to respond intentionally to what is happening versus habitually.

And that looks like just noticing those moments when you are experiencing feelings of fear or anxiety. Dropping into your body and connecting to what that feels like. Get curious, notice how it’s showing up, what does it feel like. Is it flutter, is it below your neck or above your neck. Is it hot or is it cold, is it moving, or staying in place. Really listening to what your body has to say.

I will literally say to that part of me, “Okay, I am listening. I am here with you, what is going on?”

So having an awareness of the emotion and how it’s showing up is the first thing step.

The second part of the process is giving yourself COMPASSION.

The Biology of Compassion

Whatever fear or anxiety is showing up represents an aspect of you that has been through something difficult enough in to create the emotion, so lean into that with a little love, right? This part of you needs compassion and empathy.

You can think of it almost as you would a young toddler. When a toddler is learning to walk. It’s testing the waters and figuring out what’s safe and what isn’t. When the toddler falls down, we don’t respond with anger and blame, or put pressure on them to never fall again, right? Instead, we’re like, “Hey, it’s okay. Keep going. Because each fall teaches you how to get up.”

Emotions function in a similar way. When we expand our capacity to feel emotions, we can have bigger life experiences because we’re not trying to evade certain feelings anymore.

So, connecting to your fear (on purpose) from a place of allowing and curiosity will teach your brain that fear is a safe thing to experience. I often suggest placing a hand on the area where you’re feeling the sensation of fear and sending some love that way. Or you can say, “I allow this emotion to be here” and just feel the physiological release of that.

Okay, so the first step involves awareness. And the second step is about practicing compassion. Now let’s move on to the third step which centers on creating a new experience.

Create a New Experience

Our brains learn primarily through experience. So, when we’re leaning into fear and changing how we meet it, we’re already changing the brains interpretation of whatever is creating the fear in the first place.

We can also create a new experience by doing something different.

For example, if your usual routine involves lying in bed struggling to sleep, consider getting up and doing something else. Or, staying in bed but resisting the experience a little less. If your pattern is to avoid going to bed when you feel fear creeping in, try getting ready for bed and being with some of those emotions. If you have anticipatory anxiety about a special event coming up, write it down on paper instead of ruminating in your head.  If your instinct is to reach for your phone to distract yourself from unwanted emotions. Make a conscious decision to be with your feelings for a few minutes instead.

Interrupt the pattern and be with it in a new way.

Build Emotional Agility Over Time

When we do this consistently over time, we build emotional resilience while showing the brain that what it perceives as a threat, isn’t actually dangerous. We can guide these signals of DANGER towards signals of SAFETY, and one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to do that is to just feel your feelings.

It's a novel concept, I know!

Okay, so if all of this feels a bit foreign like you’re not totally sure where to start, that’s completely normal. We all just start somewhere and the most important thing to know is: you can’t do it wrong. There is no way to do any of it wrong. It’s all just an exploration of self and learning how to feel some of these emotions.

Thoughts and emotions are designed to move, they’re designed to flow. So the first step towards releasing them is just giving them permission to exist. Connect with them from a state of curiosity and compassion and allow them to be there so you can return to flow.

I hope this 3-part framework was helpful. I’m Beth Kendall and this is the Mind. Body. Sleep. Podcast. I’ll see you next time.

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