Ep 19. Sleep Optimization vs. Insomnia

Dec 25, 2023

Finding true help for insomnia can feel daunting.

Mainly because there are TWO different conversations going on in the sleep world:

  1. Sleep optimization: This conversation focuses on improving sleep for people who don'thave insomnia, typically through lifestyle changes and sleep hygiene practices.

  2. Insomnia: This conversation addresses the underlying conditioned fear and anxiety driving chronic sleeplessness. 

The stark contradiction between these two conversations makes it crucial to understand the differences between them.

Tune in to this information-packed episode to discover:

  • The importance of understanding the ROOT CAUSE of insomnia
  • What separates sleep disruption from insomnia
  • Why sleep hygiene is a waste of time
  • Why focusing on sleep even MORE doesn’t help insomnia
  • How relying on external interventions can erode trust over time

Gaining a better understanding of these two conversations is key on the path back to sleep freedom. And trust me, once you grasp the distinction, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.

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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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Is Sleep Optimization Fueling Your Fear? Choosing the Right Path to Rest

Hello everyone, I’m glad you’re here because today we are breaking down what I feel are two entirely different conversations going on in the sleep world.

The reason I want to do this episode and feel it’s so helpful to have an understanding of these two distinct conversations is because they tend to contradict one another. So understanding the difference between them will save you a lot of valuable time and money and also the potential heartbreak of trying so many things to help your sleep.

Reflecting back on my own experience, I wish I had been able discern the differences that I’m going to share with you today because it would have helped me identify what information was genuinely helpful for me, and which wasn’t.

So what’s the deal with these two conversations…

Definition Revamp

Well, I think the definition of insomnia as a whole could use a little update, right? A little refresh. Because the traditional definition of insomnia doesn’t really tell us much.

It usually goes something like:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for longer than 3 months
  • Not being able to fall asleep at night no matter how tired you are.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back to sleep.
  • Un-refreshing sleep or feeling like you can't get into a deep sleep. 

All if these describe the characteristics of someone experiencing insomnia, but what’s going on beneath that? What’s actually driving the long-term sleeplessness?

THIS is the question that kept me spinning for decades looking for something that made sense.

The Two Conversations

The way I see it in terms of these two conversations is that there is the sleep optimization conversation, and THEN there is the insomnia conversation.

And these are two different things.

So, what does that even mean?

Well, let’s take a look at the sleep optimization part of this first, since that’s the predominant conversation going on in the sleep universe.

The Sleep Optimization Conversation

The sleep optimization conversation is geared towards people who do not have insomnia, or at least insomnia in the way I view it which is a conditioned fear or anxiety about not sleeping.

So, the first group of people I see in the optimization category are the folks who are burning the wick at both ends, right? People who just aren’t making enough time for sleep in their lives or aren’t prioritizing sleep enough to create a healthy balance in their lives. They tend to have a hard time slowing down and just like to go, go, go. Teenagers or young adults often fall into this category. So, addressing certain lifestyle factors becomes a part of getting back on track and these people often benefit quite a lot from the sleep optimization conversation.

The second group of people I see in the optimization category are the biohackers. These are folks who are very knowledgeable about health and wellness and want to optimize sleep the best way that they can. A lot of times they are very fitness oriented and want to maximize their edge with better sleep. These people can also benefit from the optimization conversation but there IS a caveat which I’ll explain in a moment.

The last population of people that I see in the optimization category are the people who are experiencing long periods of sleep disruption. And this can be due to things like chronic pain or chronic illness. Maybe they are struggling with shifting hormones or imbalances. Maybe they have sleep apnea or blood sugar imbalances, or perhaps a new baby has arrived in their lives. This group just isn’t getting their best sleep due to whatever circumstance they’re dealing with at the time. These folks might also benefit from some optimization in terms of maybe pain management or functional medicine or working with someone to balance hormones. But they can ALSO fall pretty to the same thing the biohackers do.

But before I explain that, you might be wondering what differentiates sleep disruption from insomnia? And how do you know which one you have?

The Difference Between Sleep Disruption and Insomnia

Sleep disruptions or disturbance can happen periodically throughout life, and this can be due to a short- term circumstances like a noisy building or a temporary heat spell, or longer-term factors like a back injury or hormonal changes — there are so many things that can cause disrupted sleep.

But the big difference that I see between someone experiencing disrupted sleep and someone who has insomnia lies in the emotions attached to it.

So, someone experiencing disrupted sleep even for extended periods of time, and who does not have insomnia is generally frustrated or perturbed, but it doesn’t extend much beyond that, right. This is how I am now. For example: If I’m in a really loud hotel room next to an ice-maker and I can semi hear it all night, I’m annoyed, but it doesn’t turn into anything bigger in my mind — there’s no prolonged emotional impact and I just carry on with my day the next day.

For someone with insomnia, the emotions are much different. There’s a fear of not sleeping in place so there’s a greater sensitivity around anything that could affect or impact sleep. Our window of tolerance becomes much smaller for what we can shrug off, and not sleeping feels very threatening because we’re afraid it’s going to send us into another insomnia spiral. So, disrupted sleep can easily create a lot of fear, hopelessness, and anxiety.

When I used to stay at hotels, I would start worrying about if I was going to be next to an icemaker before I even got to a hotel. I was always strategizing how I was going to stay ahead of any potential threats to my sleep because sleep felt so fragile to me.

So, if you’re wondering how to know if you’re dealing with long-term sleep disruption or insomnia, I would say that if this podcast episode is even remotely interesting to you or you find my blogs helpful because they are speaking directly to you, then you are probably dealing with insomnia. Because if you didn’t have insomnia, none of this would likely resonate and you would probably be pretty bored by it.

But this can be really helpful to know because wasting your time in a conversation that doesn’t really apply to you can just keep you spinning in more of what you don’t want which is exactly what I’m going to talk more about next.

So, how DOES the optimization conversation contradict the insomnia conversation and why is it helpful to pull these two apart?

Well, let’s look at the 3 main ways I see this being unhelpful for people with insomnia.

Contradictions Between Conversations:

The first thing I want to say is that is the vast majority of information out there is going to focus on sleep hygiene. And while sleep hygiene can be really helpful towards optimizing sleep, it isn’t going to do much for insomnia. Because this is sort of like getting a cavity — you can do a lot to prevent decay with dental hygiene, but once you’ve got a cavity, a new approach is needed.  

1. More Focus and Attention on Sleep

The first way I see the optimization conversation contradict insomnia is that it encourages us to put MORE focus and attention on sleep. And this can be dicey because focus is the fuel for insomnia. Trying to sleep, researching sleep, tracking sleep, these are all ways that we put more attention on sleep.

Without attention, insomnia dies.

When you think about it, the last thing that people with insomnia need is more optimization because they’ve already optimized their sleep to the point where it’s become a big focus in life. So, it’s actually shifting the focus OFF of sleep and everything about your sleep that teaches the brain it can come out of hyperarousal.

2. Implies Sleep is Controllable 

The next big way the optimization conversation counters insomnia is that it implies that sleep is controllable. Now this is a really a big one because remember, sleep is a passive process, it requires nothing from us. Ask any good sleeper how they sleep so well, and they won’t have an answer for you because there’s no effort — no inherent understanding of why you would even need effort.

So, the optimization conversation starts us down the road of control transforming what is an innate biological process into something we must actively attain. Gradually, this reshapes our orientation to sleep, so it becomes something we must DO versus something that just happens.

What truly becomes problematic in this scenario is when sleep hygiene measures do actually work, as they often do in the short term. Because now we have given the thing, or whatever external intervention we’ve used all the power, and we begin to believe that this is what will make us sleep.  But it’s not solely the external intervention that facilitates sleep; it’s our confidence in the intervention and the letting go of the struggle and paves the way for restful sleep.

We step out of the ring because we no longer feel the need to fight. So then of course, sleep comes.

But then when the intervention stops working, we find ourselves on this eternal merry-go-round searching for fixes which creates a tremendous amount of heartache and suffering and really never leads to long-term change.

The third way these two conversations contradict each other is by perpetuating an erosion of trust in one’s own ability to sleep.

3. Eroding Trust in One's Own Ability to Sleep

Constantly seeking ways to fix our sleep sends an invisible message to the mind that we are somehow broken or that something is inherently wrong with us.

I can give you a very different current example of this in my own life…

So, Chat GPT has been out for a while. And for anyone not familiar with ChatGPT it’s an artificial intelligence database or language model that can create very human-like conversational dialogue. And I am very resistant to the idea of AI for a lot of reasons that are way outside the purview of this podcast, although maybe not, but I can assure you that Mind. Body. Sleep. will be keeping it human for the foreseeable future and every interaction that you have with me, or my team will be 100% human because frankly, I just like humans and like knowing I’m interacting with a human.

But anyway, back to chatgpt… so, I put off looking at Chat GPT for a long time and didn’t create an account until just a couple of months ago because I wanted to experience it first-hand and see what it could do so I could have a more informed opinion about it.

So, I created an account, and I can’t remember what I put into the search box, but it was some kind of piece of writing that I had already done and then I put something like: “make this better.” And frankly I was shocked that it spit out something that I think was quite a bit better in a matter of what seemed like 1.5 seconds.

Then the rest of the day, everything I was writing I was putting into Chatgpt and asking it to fix it.

Okay, now here’s the thing… I have always viewed myself as a decent writer and I enjoy writing and most importantly, I TRUST my writing. And I think this comes through in my writing and in my experience of it.

In an extremely short time (we are talking a few days), I started NOT trusting my writing. I planted a seed of doubt in my own ability to write and started putting my faith into ChatGPT. And this did not feel good to me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it created some fear because I don’t want to lose trust in myself in this way.

So, going outside myself to fix myself knocked me out of my trust. Because I was sending a powerful message to my unconscious mind that maybe what I was writing wasn’t good enough? Maybe I needed this language model to fix it?

Now for all the people who are probably going to email me about how off base I am about chatgpt, I totally realize there are multiple perspectives on this, and understand that it is the intention with which you use a tool like chat GPT that matters most, which is exactly how I view tools for sleep or nervous system regulation — it’s always about the underlying intention. So, I totally get that.

I think this leads nicely into my final point about these two conversations because a lot of times, people will ask me, well how do I know which conversation I’m in? How can I really discern that?

Discerning the Difference Between Conversations

Well, the first thing that I think can be helpful is to notice when the conversation is focused on making sleep happen because this is just more wheel spinning — sleep is passive and we can’t force it to happen. Versus, what could be getting in the way of sleep happening which is typically our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

And the second thing I’ll offer is to notice when something is rooted in fear and pulling you outside yourself and your trust. If it’s an external solution that’s being presented as the ultimate fix or key, then I don’t think this will be super helpful in the long-run. Because ultimately you are the answer and the fix and the key — everything you need to sleep is already within you, you’ve just got a conditioned arousal response going on.

I had a client the other day who has been through multiple programs for insomnia and is doing quite well, and she gave me the ultimate compliment without even knowing it. She said: “You know, with other programs, I just stayed in them because I was waiting for that magical key to drop, that next clue or piece of information that was going to fix me. But in your program, I’m not doing that. I’m just getting the information and applying it to my life.”  

And of course, this made me tear up because I knew this client had taken her power back, she was no longer looking for a fix, she was looking for a guide which is exactly what I am.

Wishing you all a prosperous and purposeful New Year. I’m Beth Kendall and this is the Mind. Body. Sleep. podcast, I’ll see you next time…

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