Trying to cure insomnia yourself is a challenge. Many people who try don’t know how to go about it and quickly lose heart.
In my experience, it helps you start by asking yourself the right questions because that way, you focus on what matters. It allows you to begin to observe aspects of your life that are crucial to your healing journey and that you might otherwise overlook.
What questions should you ask yourself when self-curing insomnia?
There is a specific sequence of questions that typically yield a lot of helpful information:
- What are you looking for when curing insomnia?
- What have you tried so far to cure insomnia?
- How has it worked?
- What has it cost you?
Let’s dive into each of the questions.
Question 1: What are you looking for when curing insomnia?
Most people who start any treatment to cure insomnia have the same goal: to make the pain go away associated with not being able to sleep.
That makes sense. No one wants to feel pain. And so your problem-solving mode of mind presents a simple solution: For you to feel better, the pain has to be eliminated. You think: “I will feel better when my insomnia is gone.”
Many culturally transmitted rules contribute to this kind of problem-solving agenda when painful, unwanted internal experiences emerge. We all grow up with advice like “Negative feelings are unhealthy” or “To be healthy, we must control or eliminate negative feelings.”
Your mind insists that difficult emotions are the problem
This rationality is so common in our lives that we follow it even when painful emotions are perfectly appropriate given our life situation, e.g., losing a loved one. Mourning is painful, and your mind will insist that these emotions are the problem and must be removed or controlled.
However, the truth is that following this kind of avoidance strategy in most cases makes the problem worse. The desperate attempt to stop insomnia amplifies the things that often caused it in the first place: It makes the difficult emotions more intense, the memories more intrusive, the disturbing thoughts more dominant, and the unpleasant physical sensations more insistent.
But if clinging to the attempt to get rid of insomnia is not working, then how to approach self-curing insomnia? The answer is: Begin with the end in mind.
Why you need to begin with the end in mind
If I’d take a guess and answer the question of what the outcome of a successful insomnia cure will be for you, then it’s probably getting back the energy to do all the things you like to do.
In other words, you feel that insomnia is the reason why you can’t do the activities you like to do, citing lack of energy or motivation as the cause of not doing the things you want to do. Thus, your goal is to control your sleep or eliminate your sleeplessness, which then would allow you to return to your normal routine.
This is a common stance that most people with sleep problems adopt. The thinking is that insomnia and a negative internal state are reasons why desirable behaviors are not occurring. Thus your primary goal is to remove the pain and feel better because then, and only then, can sleep occur, and you live the life you want.
Whereas what I want to invite you to do is to begin with the end in mind and try to elicit what you are genuinely seeking, and then do it – even if your sleep isn’t perfect yet!
Start living your life now!
If you start slowly living your life and do all the things you put on hold, you will not only live your life but also lessen your struggle with poor sleep. Because less struggle means less stress, less tossing and turning at night, less wasted energy, and, therefore, more ability to come back to your fulfilled life. And this, in turn, leads to the best conditions for natural sleep to develop.
So to finally heal, you need to live your life again. That is why I would like to encourage you to live the life you want instead of losing it in an endless struggle with insomnia. Right here and now by answering the following question:
- What would your new life look like if you didn’t have to devote all your energy to controlling your sleep?
- Would you spend more time with your partner or family?
- Is it starting a new career or your own business?
- Is it starting a family on your own?
- Do you want to go out with friends more often?
Whatever it is for you, it’s crucial that you get clarity about it. So it’s best to write down the things that come to your mind. Write down everything you can think of, even if it may seem impossible to you at the moment.
Question 2: What have you tried?
The next question is about exploring the strategies you’ve used so far to cure insomnia. Essentially, the question is, “If you want to improve your sleep, what have you tried to accomplish this outcome?”
It might sound easy to answer this question but what’s essential is that you stay non-judgemental and accept every strategy you come up with and avoid suggesting other strategies that you might find useful. Instead, try to take a stance of curiosity and interest towards your own experience, rather than being judgemental and giving yourself advice.
Explore your avoidance strategies and rules
Usually, there are two main functional dimensions to consider that will be important in selecting an effective approach later: First, you want to know the prevalence of your avoidance strategies (for example, getting out of bed to distract yourself). Second, you want to know what rules are driving these strategies (for example, the way to cope with insomnia is to distract yourself).
In general, the more prevalent the avoidance strategies and the more those strategies appear to be driven by rules rather than direct experience, the more you’re likely to be in need to control, suppress or avoid distressing private experiences. This might make it difficult for you to try an alternative approach.
Question 3: How has it worked?
Now we get to the point where you acid test your strategies.
Most people with sleep problems have tried various strategies to end their insomnia. The question is: “Is the desired outcome – aka sleeping better – indeed being realized, or is it still the same or even got worse?”
This step is not easy because you need to bring yourself in contact with the direct results of your behavior and your problem-solving mind. The goal is to take a step back and distance yourself from your mind to become aware that you may follow the wrong path. You may not even be aware that those rules exist and, therefore, might think there is no alternative.
Workability of your problem-solving mind
It’s essential to take your time on this workability question. Likely you begin to create some doubt about whether the problem-solving mind’s agenda is workable. And trust me, your mind won’t like this plan and will give you a lot of thoughts to stop. If that happens, don’t try to push these thoughts away; just accept them and continue.
When you’ve spent enough time on this – and only then – ask yourself the question: “Could it be that following your mind’s advice is the problem?”
Please note that this is not about gaining deep insights; it’s about making contact with the direct results of your behavior.
Question 4: What has it cost you?
The result you’re getting from your sleep struggle is often more impactful on your life than you may expect. Generally, dedicating time and energy to improving your sleep has costs, resulting in increasing restriction of life over time.
This is because your attempt to improve your sleep is also an attempt to gain control over unwanted, distressing private content, resulting in sacrificing valued life activities. However, remember, avoidance creates avoidance. The more you avoid things, the more you get into the habit of avoiding things.
The goal is to get yourself in contact with the cost of your helpful coping and controlling strategies to create the necessary motivation for change.
The cost of avoidance
The point is that the cost of avoidance isn’t always obvious to us. When we’re in the middle of a highly avoidant pattern of living, we lose sight of how much our current way of living deviates from our values and the possibilities for life.
The truth is that your quest to gain control of painful stuff is causing your sleep struggle. The more energy you put into trying to stop your insomnia, the more dominating it becomes.
Thus, the goal of this self-questioning is to bring you back into contact with the emotional costs of avoidance, including collateral damage, as the costs themselves begin to produce additional negative stuff that is also avoided.
However, it is not about rubbing your nose in the consequences of avoidance; it’s about helping you develop a healthy motivation to try something new: Approaching your insomnia self-cure with accepting how things are right now without trying to get rid of sleeplessness. It’s this accepting stance that will end your struggle and ultimately bring you back on the path to restful sleep.