Sleep, while still a mystery in many ways, is less complicated than we make it out to be. And when it comes to long-term patterns of sleeplessness, there really is a very easy explanation.
Insomnia is simply: a learned fear of not sleeping.
It’s true there are 1,001 things that can affect sleep, or disrupt sleep, but when it comes to chronic patterns of insomnia, we’re simply talking about a fear of being awake at night.
There is usually an “initial event” that precedes insomnia. The initial event can be anything: a surgery, a divorce a medication reaction, a death, basically anything that disrupts sleep for a period of time. We don't always know what the initial event is that triggers the fear.
My initial event occurred at around age 8 when my parents decided to make a permanent change to the family’s sleeping arrangement.
At the time, they were sleeping in the upstairs attic bedroom while I was happily situated on the main floor across the hall from my brother. (Typical 1940’s story and a half in Minnesota.)
The decision to switch bedrooms felt like the absolute end of the world to my 8-year old brain. You see, at that age, the attic seemed like it was a mile away from the rest of the family. Plus, it was FREEZING up there. I didn’t like going upstairs at all let alone sleep in the room.
Pleading got me nowhere, and after pulling out every stop my young mind could come up with, I was relegated to the upstairs bedroom
Now, don’t get me wrong, my parents are great people. They were in no way trying to make my 8-year-old existence as dramatic as I perceived it be. And truth be told me, later in life, that bedroom became a teenager’s haven. But at the time, I felt absolutely devastated.
Sleep didn’t come easily in my new bedroom. I would lie awake at night long after the rest of my family fell asleep. I felt far away from everyone. Even the family cat, who'd slept with me for years, stayed downstairs with everyone else.
Most of the time it was so cold that I'd just stay under the covers, but sometimes I'd sneak downstairs in the dark while everyone was sleeping.
I felt very alone and separated from my family.
So, wakefulness became quite the unwanted experience in my life. Which is how "not sleeping" became hardwired as a threat in my young brain.
After a few nights of lying in bed feeling the torture of being wide awake while the rest of my family was sleeping, my brain promptly decided that not sleeping was a bad thing.
When the brain determines something is a threat, it goes into a heightened state of alertness, often referred to as hyperarousal.
Hyperarousal interrupts our natural sleep drive.
I don’t remember going weeks and weeks without sleep at age 8, but the seed had been planted. My brain filed “not sleeping” into the hard drive of my survival system and from then on, anything that threatened sleep kicked off a cycle of fear that triggered insomnia.
Insomnia became a serious problem during my teen years. By this time, my fear of not sleeping had turned into a well-rehearsed, conditioned response.
Unsurprisingly, things come up in a young life that can affect sleep. Sleeplessness occurs occasionally throughout life, there’s really no way to avoid it. Most people, when they experience short periods of disruption, don’t find it particularly earth shattering.
My brain, however, perceived any disruption to sleep as a very serious threat. Remember, early on, it linked wakefulness with feelings of isolation and fear. (Not to mention arctic temperatures).
So, literally anything that came onto my survival radar as a potential threat to sleep would send me straight into hyperarousal. At the time, I just thought all of this was random. I had no idea my brain was in super-power ninja mode, working diligently to keep me safe based on information it took in at age 8.
And of course, those cycles of insomnia lead me to trying harder and harder to sleep.
For most things in life, trying harder equates to a more desirable outcome. Not so much with sleep.
The harder we try to sleep the more elusive it becomes.
Every time we try something new to sleep, we send a message to the brain that sleep is a problem. Something we need to fix. We unintentionally teach the brain that not sleeping is a threat.
Remember, any threat, real or perceived, kicks the brain into hyperarousal which is what causes insomnia.
All the things I tried throughout life to sleep actually further cemented my brain's belief that not sleeping was indeed, a very serious predicament.
Not one of the doctors, sleep technicians, acupuncturists, herbalists, naturopaths, or any other practitioner clued me in to the impossibility of forcing sleep. In fact, any effort to control sleep leads to greater hyperarousal and frustration around sleep
Still, For decades, I had cycles where I would sleep well…. until I wouldn’t. Again and again this happened.
Every once in a while, I would take a drug or implement some sort of sleep hygiene measure and sleep really, really well. Almost like my brain experienced a “reset.”
Makes total sense that I would credit whatever “thing” I did for the sleep I experienced.
But it’s never the thing that makes us sleep. Because nothing can do that. At best, the thing we do or take temporarily removes the barrier to sleep, which is hyperarousal.
No matter what I did though, insomnia always came back.
Because in the background of my survival system, my brain was still running the program that “being awake” was a threat. In fact, after years of devoting such a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money towards better sleep, it was more convinced than ever that not sleeping was a very, very bad thing.
The drug, supplement, or pillow that we believe is responsible for sleep works by virtue of delegation. When we take or do something to sleep, we give up control. We think, "thank goodness, I don't have to do anything to try and sleep, this will take care of it." So it's in the space of not trying to control sleep that it actually does come.
By delegating the task of sleep to the drug, supplement, or pillow, we let go of the worry, stress, and preoccupation about not sleeping. But until we address the underlying fear of not sleeping, insomnia will come back any time sleep is threatened.
Sleep is really about letting go. Letting go of the fear of not sleeping and understanding that your brain is just trying to keep you safe based on the information it's holding. You can look at it as a fear just like any other fear....
A person might have an early life experience with a dog, so they become fearful of dogs, or perhaps there's a fear of heights, or airplane rides. Whatever the case, those fears can be overcome. Your body knows how to sleep and that's never going to change.
I hope this provides some clarity about what insomnia really is and how it develops. Got questions? Send them my way, I enjoy hearing from you.
Love + sleep,
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Come follow me on The Holistic Sleep Coach Facebook page where I offer loads of sleep insights and neuroplasticity love.
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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