You go to bed… You’re dog tired… In fact, you’ve never been so tired in your life…
And then BAM, your brain flips on. It’s wide awake. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve never been so ALERT in your life. You lie there, thoughts racing, coming up with things so irrelevant to anything going on in your current reality that you wonder where your brain even comes up with this stuff?
You start thinking about everything that happened during the day. You might start worrying about everything that could happen tomorrow. Your mind may even wander back in to the archives of the past and pull out some pretty interesting doozies.
I remember pondering this particular gem during my decades-long stint with insomnia:
What was the name of that girl in the sixth grade who showed me how to wear a bandana that one day out on the playground during recess in the month of April?
My brain wouldn’t let me sleep no matter how tired I was. In fact, as night time rolled around, my brain seemed almost irritated that it was time to shut down. It acted like an exhausted, over-tired child that wanted to keep playing. It was downright baffling.
And then, just to take the craziness to a whole new level? I remember actually getting up out of bed to start looking for said bandana. From the sixth grade… that I so crazy about.
WHY, for the love of Pete does this happen?! And night after night, no less. Why does the brain zig when all you want to do is zag?
I will tell you...
Your brain is confused. It’s ramping up when it should be ramping down. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, both governed by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), are increasing at night instead of decreasing.
UP instead of down.
Even though your body is bone-tired, your brain is on high alert. It’s like hitting the gas pedal and pulling the emergency brake at the same time!
There are some seriously contradictory processes going on.
What’s even weirder is that even if you DO sleep - it’s completely unrefreshing. Like you’re awake and sleeping at the same time. Your nervous system is on guard for no apparent reason and you wake up feeling like you just flew a jumbo jet from New York to LA.
Am I right?
This frustrating state of consciousness, being simultaneously wired and tired, is now so prevalent in our fast-paced world that it’s earned its very own catchy nickname: “T’wired.”
Rubin Naiman, Ph. D (read his brilliant essay) coined the term and describes it as, “the body and mind being pulled in two directions at once.” The rhythms of rest and activity are upside down and turned around. Wakefulness is no longer followed by rest (or at least true rest) and vice-versa.
There’s only one position and that’s ON.
This precarious brain state is more formally known as hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is a key component in all models of insomnia. It is a relentlessly turbocharged sense of wakefulness that follows you throughout the day making you feel like the energizer bunny even though you haven’t slept well in weeks.
I personally felt like I was hooked up to a permanent IV full of caffeine and adrenaline.
There are also many physical sensations associated with hyperarousal. A racing heart or trouble breathing aren’t uncommon. Body temperature regulation may be off. You might notice a heightened sensitivity to everything: foods, lights, sounds, smells. Hormones may be wacky further impacting sleep. You may startle easily and have frequent feelings of doom or anxiety.
I experienced all of the above while in the throes of insomnia and it was like living in a paradoxical minefield. Feelings of fear would alternate with feelings of excitement often meeting in the middle in the form of a panic attack.
It was a strange sense of torture having an exhausted body and a wired mind - true sleep felt like something from another planet.
Trying to WILL yourself to sleep just exacerbates the problem because it sends a signal to the brain that it's time to go into “problem-solving” mode. This turns the brain ON at night when what we really want to do is turn that sucker OFF!
We want to wind down instead of rev up. Which is why we must consider both the day and the night when we talk about chronic insomnia.
The good news is that you can move out of a state of hyperarousal and into a state of calm no matter how long you’ve had insomnia. Balancing the nervous system may take some time, but it can be done.
I know because I did it.
There is a fundamental concept to keep in mind when seeking balance:
What we do during the day is just as important as what we do at night.
Traditional notions about day and night, light and dark, suggest that the two are separate and unique from each other. When in reality they are intimately connected because one greatly affects the other.
This is a bit of a shift in the way we think about insomnia.
Historically, insomnia has been considered a night time problem with spill-off effects that occur during the day.
Research shows, however, that night time patterns are actually an extension of the brain-waves that are present during the day. So, hyperarousal occurs night and day, like a bidirectional highway.
There are many things that can trigger hyperarousal... An ongoing, stressful situation in life. A trauma that comes to the surface and remains in the nervous system until it's worked through. Often, hyperarousal starts in the developing brain early in life due to childhood trauma.
Whatever the case, we now know that insomnia is a 24-hour experience.
But that doesn't mean we can't get this ship back on track!
I’m a big fan of teaching people about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is simply a big word for the brains ability to change. When you understand how your brain works, you can self-direct the changes you want to make in your life. It’s super empowering.
But before we talk about the brains amazing ability to change, let's look a bit closer at the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
There are two parts of the ANS:
So we've got the "fight or flight" and the "rest and digest." Both are important for different reasons.
These two branches are in a constant balancing act. You might think that if you’re not in any kind of danger (e.g. bears or tigers coming at you) that the parasympathetic branch would automatically kick in.
But that is not always the case.
Sometimes, the sympathetic branch, the branch activated by stress and anxiety, gets stuck in the ON position.
It perceives danger even when there is none. (The key word being perceives.)
The fight, flight, or freeze response becomes dominate which throws off the functioning of its counterpart, the parasympathetic rest and digest.
Over-activation of the sympathetic branch, especially over time, leads to hyperarousal in the mind and body which in turn, creates insomnia.
It becomes the new normal.
What we want to do is start calming the nervous system throughout the day.
Once you understand what is happening in your brain and you start healing your nervous system, keep this in mind...
After months or years of insomnia, it can be easy to lose hope and begin to think that normal sleep will never come. That is completely understandable.
But please know in your heart of hearts that you are not broken.
Your brain isn’t broken, your sleep isn’t broken, nothing about you is broken. Your brains survival system is designed to keep you safe and in alignment with the information it’s holding.
Whatever state your brain is in evolved because it was useful for your survival at some point in time.
Your brain is working off of old, outdated information it took in years, or even decades ago. But we can give it new information, kind of like doing an update on your laptop. This is called rewiring the brain.
Check out my next blog where I talk more about how to use neuroplasticity to rewire your brain and feel calm again.
Until then, remember, your body knows exactly how to sleep. It has the blueprint and that’s never going to change.
Cheering you on,
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
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