Ep 26. Hyperarousal and the Expectation Effect

Apr 02, 2024

This week I’m breaking down the Expectation Effect and how it can lead to hyperarousal.

Do you catch yourself thinking things like:

“I understand all of this logically, so why am I still not sleeping?”

“I didn’t go to bed until I was sleepy, but then I still didn’t sleep. Why is that?”

“I normally sleep well on the weekends, but this week I didn’t. What’s going on?”

Hyperarousal can stem from expecting something about our situation to be different from what it actually is.

In this episode I first talk about acceptability thresholds:

  • What they are
  • Why we create them
  • The two most important things you need to know about them

Next, we look at how expectations create a lot of resistance to what is — keeping us stuck in the cycle of hyperarousal.

Lastly, we explore how to meet this natural challenge and why expectations aren’t even necessary at all.


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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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How Expectations Amplify Hyperarousal


Hello everyone, how’s it going. I’m so glad to be here with you today. I am recording this in front of my favorite picture window.


I live in this really small condo, but I absolutely love this little space so much because it’s got this giant window in the living room and just the way the windows are in this condo, it’s always light in here. So, I’m always sort of grounding myself all day with this window, I’ll look out the window during my calls, I’ll look out during my podcast, my gaze just naturally goes to the view outside the window.


And you know, I remember the first time I walked into this space, my friend Tris owned it (I’m not sure if Tris listens to the podcast, but just in case she does, I’m giving her a shout out). But anyway, she landed here after coming through a hard time in her life and I came to her housewarming party. And I was still really sick with Lyme disease at the time. And I think back to how much effort it took just to walk up the stairs into the building and all the things I do now that I can so easily take for granted until I think back.


But anyway, I walked in here and just immediately loved it. And it’s not a fancy place, it’s like a 1970’s building with really outdated common areas and it’s nothing special, but the feel of this layout and the feeling I had right away when I walked in, was something that I took a moment to notice. And I remember thinking at the time, you know, am I ever going to have a place that feels like home again. Because I had been renting for years trying to get my health back and putting everything I had towards that. So anyway, in 2020 Tris decided to head out of the city and she told me she was selling. And I didn’t buy it at first, but then circumstances happened just right that I ended up buying it and I have really loved living here. I created MBS in front of this window, I recorded the curriculum in front of this window. And I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here, because I want to move to warmer weather, but I’ll always remember this window cuz I absolutely love it.


Okay, so that was a really long story about a window. But I think the moral is to notice the simple things in life and how much joy they can bring.


Identifying the Expectation Effect


Alright, so today we are talking about a common pattern that I see show up on the recovery path and it’s something I call the Expectation Effect. This effect arises from expecting something about our situation to be different from what it actually is it.


So, what does that even look like?


Well, a lot of times I’ll hear my clients say something like:


“Beth, I understand all of this education logically, so why am I still not sleeping?” Or…


Or maybe it’s something like:


“I’ve been doing xyz for a while, so insomnia should be gone by now.”




“He/she got better in X amount of time, so why aren’t I?”


Or sometimes I hear…


“Beth, I had a really good day and didn’t even think about sleep but then I still didn’t sleep. So what’s going on here?”


The Nature of Acceptability Thresholds


These are just a few of the ways that I see the expectation effect show up during insomnia. And all of these usually stem from some sort of acceptability threshold in the mind, right. Some sort of internal line in the sand that has been drawn around what is considered okay and acceptable, and what is not. And there are a couple of things I’d like to offer on acceptability thresholds.


  1. The first one is that we all create thresholds of acceptability in some way, shape, or form based on our own lived experiences. And we do this for a bunch of things in life beyond just sleep.


One person might think that making anything less than making $100k year is unacceptable. For another person, that number might be 50K, and for another, it might be a completely different number.  


We see this in our romantic lives as well… if he or she calls before Thursday, then this is good. But if they call on Friday, then that is bad.


With insomnia, this looks like:


"I can one night without sleep, but not two..." Or,


"If I don't get at least 5 hours of sleep tonight, there is no way I'll be able to function tomorrow."


Acceptability thresholds are a way that we unconsciously try to gain some control over the situation, right? We naturally create parameters around what is okay and what isn’t.


  1. Now, the second thing I’ll offer about acceptability thresholds is that they are completely arbitrary. Meaning, the only importance they hold is the meaning that we assign to them. So, we are not beholden to these thresholds, and we can change them at any time. Which is a lot of what I help people do in the mentorship.


Expectation-Induced Pressure


So, the reason I mention the concept of acceptability thresholds and is that a lot times, they can lead to the expectation effect.


When we have a lot of expectations about what “should” be happening, or what recovery should look like, or what should be happening with our sleep, this can up the stakes, right? This can create some pressure for a certain outcome to fit into whatever threshold of acceptability has been created in the mind. And isn’t it just so interesting all the ways we try to control life based on our perspective of what it should look like.


But any time we put pressure on sleep, even unconsciously, it can cause some hyperarousal. And this is what keeps sleep from happening, right?


And for anyone new here, my definition of hyperarousal is simply a heightened state of alertness. When we’re in a state of expectation, this can create hypervigilance and alertness around what is an inherently passive process.


And then we can feel heavy and disappointed when sleep doesn’t come.


What we’re really wanting to do with insomnia is let go of some of the pressure and show the part of the brain that has learned fear around not sleeping that things are actually okay. That nothing dangerous is occurring and that there’s no pressure.


So, expectations can create a lot of resistance to what is. And it’s that resistance that keeps the flight or flight response activated and us in the struggle with sleep.


Now, if you’re recognizing certain areas around sleep that you might be doing this, again do not blame yourself because forming expectations is a natural tendency for all of us — we are all walking prediction machines. Sleep is just one of those things, I mean one of few things in life, really, that doesn’t require anything at all.


Because it's already a perfectly designed system within us. It’s all the efforting around sleep that turns it into an achievement versus just a biological process.


So, how can we work with this? How can meet the expectation effect?


Navigating Expectations with Self-Compassion and Acceptance


Well, the first thing is to just notice when this might be happening. Because it really can be subtle. For example:


Maybe it’s Friday night and historically you’ve always slept better on the weekends when you don’t have to get up for work the next day. But then if sleep doesn’t happen by a particular time, there can be some worry about that because there was some expectation that it was going to go a certain way, so then hyperarousal ramps up.


Or, maybe you have a magic bullet sleeping pill that you feel like you can always count on no matter what. But then if you take it, and you don’t get the same result that you normally would, this can lead to some heightened anxiety around sleep.


Now, the tendency is to think that something has gone wrong. Or we’re getting worse, or something is terribly broken with our brain. But it’s really just some expectation beneath the surface that’s ramping up hyperarousal.


So, by meeting this with the pillar of self-kindness and understanding that your brain has developed some fear around not sleeping so of COURSE it’s started to impose some expectations around sleep— can help bring some safety back into the situation. And also, the pillar of acceptance, right? Noticing when you might be in a state of resistance with sleep and then dropping into just a little more acceptance that there really is nothing that you need to do or be.


And I think this leads to the bigger picture of understanding which is recognizing that we HAVE started to put expectations on sleep. Because this is the shift where sleep becomes an external goal outside ourselves, versus something that just happens within ourselves.


When I think about sleep now, I don’t have any expectations of it either way. I’m not trying to predict it or create it or manage it, it’s just something that happens without a lot of thought.


Thanks for tuning in to this talk on the expectation effect. If you’ve found the podcast helpful, please consider leaving a rating or review. Your feedback lets me know I’m on the right track, and it sends the podcast in the direction of whoever might need it.


Until next time, I’m Beth Kendall and this is the Mind. Body. Sleep. podcast. See you soon. 

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