Understanding Chronic Insomnia: How You Get Stuck In Sleeplessness

Are you struggling with your sleep and confused why it is so difficult for you to have a good night’s sleep?

To better understand your sleeplessness, let’s do a little exercise. The following case example may not apply directly to you; it may also be an exaggeration at one point or another. Still, it illustrates a typical process of how chronic insomnia develops.

Step 1: What are your predisposing or risk factors?

Imagine you are a manager in an IT company responsible for several employees. You enjoy your work and leading an effective team. You work a lot and get up quite early in the morning to go to the office. At the same time, you try not to come home too late in the evening to have still time and energy for your spouse and your two children.

In general, you sleep well and feel well-rested after about seven hours of sleep. Occasionally you find it difficult to switch off from the day, especially when you have a new important project. During these nights, your mind is busy, and your body is tense with energy as bedtime approaches. Usually, a little reading calms you down, and soon after you have turned off the light, you fall asleep.

In this example, we can describe your predisposing characteristics as follows: You are a person striving for success with traits of a “type A personality,” ambitious and competitive with a very active mind, high levels of energy, and a strong need for control.

What are other examples of predisposing or risk factors?

Other examples of predisposing or risk factors are:

  • being a poor or light sleeper all your life
  • being more sensitive and overly responsive to stimuli or events
  • worrying a lot
  • having increased levels of alertness or impulsivity
  • suffering from chronic pain
  • having a depression or anxiety disorder
  • experiencing hormonal fluctuations
  • having an overactive mind/a tendency to overthinking
  • constantly feeling a strong urge for physical activity

Exercise: What are your predisposing factors? Write down all the factors which may put you at a higher risk of developing insomnia.

Step 2: What are your precipitating factors or triggers?

Suddenly major restructuring activities are pending in the company you work for. One of the measures being discussed is to outsource the entire IT department. This would mean that you and your employees would lose their jobs.

Understandably, this outlook worries you, and your sleep is rapidly deteriorating. Several weeks of uncertainty follow, during which you have trouble falling asleep and often wake up at night. Although you still have the opportunity of sleeping about seven hours a night, you sleep only about four hours on average.

What happened? The threat of losing your job and the related worrying and stress triggered your sleeplessness. It might go away as soon as you have clarity about your job future. It could also be that your sleep will improve before that, as your brain’s natural adaptability sets in. Either way, you now have insomnia, a completely new experience for you.

What are other examples of precipitating factors or triggers?

Other examples of precipitating factors or triggers are:

  • parenting / having a baby
  • relationship problems
  • divorce or breakup
  • death of a loved one
  • job loss (or promotion)
  • workplace conflicts
  • moving
  • financial problems
  • health concerns/problems
  • aging
  • hormonal changes (e.g. onset of menopause)

Exercise: What are your precipitating factors or triggers? Write down what has triggered your insomnia.

Step 3: What are your perpetuating factors, your coping strategies?

After four weeks of uncertainty, you receive the good news that your IT department is not affected by the outsourcing, and apart from some minor adjustments, you can continue working with your team.

Chronic insomniaBut here’s the deal: Although you are feeling more relaxed after receiving this news, your sleep is not improving. You still have trouble falling asleep, and most nights, you wake up at 3 am with a mind going a mile a minute. You keep thinking about work and other problems; you even start catastrophizing and thinking of worst-case scenarios.

Sometimes you get up, eat something, surf the Internet, or even start working on the computer. But when going back to bed, you continue tossing and turning, not being able to slow down your thoughts. Only in the last hour before the alarm clock rings, you may fall into a light, restless sleep.

During the day you’re very tired. At the same time, your mind is very active but rather in a wild and uncontrolled way. You find it difficult to focus on anything, and you are more forgetful. In front of your family and colleagues, you try to put on a good face, but your spouse notices that something is wrong, because you are not relaxed and more irritable than usual.

Your sleep has been bad for weeks, and then for months. That means your insomnia has become chronic. Of course, you’re doing what we would all do: You’re trying to get rid of it.

What are your strategies to beat insomnia?

Here are some common coping strategies that you may have been using in trying to get rid of your sleeplessness:

  • You may follow every advice that can be found on the subject of insomnia and become familiar with every sleep ritual you can think of.
  • You may buy a new mattress and install blackout blinds in your bedroom.
  • You start to go to bed either earlier or later, hoping to find out when the ideal bedtime is for you.
  • To control your daytime fatigue, you start sleeping in at the weekend.
  • You also make various attempts to either exhaust your body through exercise or to find rest with the help of relaxation techniques such as yoga.
  • Not to mention the effects on your diet: coffee, alcohol, and sweets are now severely restricted.
  • Or you gradually start drinking more coffee in the office in the hope of getting more energy and concentration.
  • You may also start avoiding meeting friends in the evening not to jeopardize your strict sleep-focused routine.

This list of common coping strategies to beat insomnia is not exhaustive; the Internet is full of countless advice on how to sleep better. However, although you’ve probably tried several methods, your disturbed sleep continues. You are increasingly confused about what’s going on. You begin to feel anxious before going to bed in the evening, worried about the effects this lack of sleep might have on your work and body. In other words, you got stuck.

Exercise: What are your perpetuating factors, your practices, or coping strategies for your sleeplessness? Write down all you do in trying to fight your insomnia.

Did any of the methods help?

Once you have completed all three steps of this exercise, ask yourself: “Did any of these strategies help me improve my sleep in the long run?” If the answer is “Yes”, then it’s a workable strategy.

But unfortunately, more than often, the strategies we’re using in trying to get rid of our sleeplessness aren’t as helpful as they promised. In fact, if you rely too excessively on those methods, they can even backfire on you and become one of the main reasons why you get stuck. Or in other words: what you think is the solution becomes the problem.

The good news is that understanding why you got stuck also shows you the way out. Discover how to best approach your sleeplessness in these articles:

Or go directly to my online course The DIY Insomnia Cure where I teach you all you need to know to end your insomnia struggle today.

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