If you have insomnia, you may have tried just about everything possible to overcome your insomnia, such as
- You have bought a new mattress and installed blackout blinds in your bedroom.
- You have either gone to bed earlier or later, hoping to find out when is the ideal time for you to sleep.
- You have also made various attempts to exhaust your body either through exercise or by using relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, or muscle relaxation.
- Not to mention the effects on your diet: coffee, alcohol, and sweets are severely restricted.
This lifestyle undoubtedly also has a strong influence on your social life. Perhaps it even goes so far that you avoid meeting friends in the evening not to jeopardize your strict sleep-related routine.
In short, you have turned your life upside down in the hope of finally finding restful sleep, but nothing seems to help. And in the end, it all boils down to a visit to the doctor, who will most likely prescribe you sleeping pills.
It’s time for a radical new approach to cure insomnia
If only a part of these statements sounds familiar to you, if you have already followed countless pieces of advice on insomnia, but still find yourself lying wide awake in bed all night, then you know the confusing feeling of frustration, anger, and anxiety. And you may think that nothing in this world can help you to finally get some restful sleep.
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This is exactly what I have been thinking all these years that I suffered from chronic insomnia. But then I discovered a radically new approach to insomnia that finally cured it: accepting my insomnia instead of continually fighting it. I learned to be willing to be awake at night and consider my unhelpful disturbing thoughts not as the literal truth, but as a pure product of my mind. And this was the turning point to be able to sleep again finally.
What Is the Difference Between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?
As you may know, the traditional, non-drug approach to insomnia treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT (or CBTI, the I standing for insomnia) is to eliminate insomnia symptoms by challenging your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions that could be the cause of your sleep problems. The focus is on “cognitive restructuring,” on disputing and changing your negative thoughts.
Behind the need to change negative or distorted thoughts and transform them into positive and rational ones is the belief that it’s faulty thinking habits that shape our emotions and behavior most, not suppressed memories.
However, paradoxically with this focus, the adverse effects of your painful thoughts, feelings, or sensations often don’t disappear but instead show up more often and become more intense.
Be willing to accept to lie awake at night with your worries and fears is based on a different therapeutic approach: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is based on the assumption that the attempt to suppress or avoid pain or suffering does not reduce it, but on the contrary, increases it.
With ACT you learn to non-judgmentally notice and accept your unpleasant experiences
Unlike cognitive behavioral therapy, ACT does not teach people to control their thoughts and feelings but allows them to accept and develop an entirely new conscious relationship to their experiences.
Instead of avoiding, eliminating, or changing negative experiences, ACT focuses on non-judgmentally noticing and accepting “that we are having unpleasant emotions and thoughts and then working to reduce their role in our lives instead of trying to get rid of them,” as Steven Hays, one of the founders of ACT, describes it in his excellent book A Liberated Mind – The Essential Guide to ACT.
Behind this approach is the realization that pain and suffering are a natural part of our lives, that they appear and disappear on their own, like clouds passing by in the sky. Any kind of avoiding negative experiences leads to additional suffering.
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In terms of insomnia, this means that it is not primarily your sleeplessness that makes your problem worse, but your constant struggle with insomnia to get rid of it. That’s why the willingness to be awake in bed at night, is the crucial first step towards natural sleep.
Accepting insomnia does not mean resignation
If you suffer from insomnia, you may now think: Why should I accept my insomnia? And what should it look like anyway, consciously choosing to be willing to stay awake?
These are precisely the questions I asked myself at the beginning. And it’s important to note that ACT totally approves that one wants to eliminate the pain and suffering associated with insomnia. No one likes to lie awake all night and feel exhausted during the day.
Therefore, accepting insomnia does not mean that you’re resigning. That would suggest maintaining the stagnant condition in which you are stuck now. That’s not the goal of acceptance in the ACT approach.
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Acceptance is much more understood as actively choosing to be willing to accept and not fight against your insomnia, as this is the most helpful way to approach your problem in your current situation and to regain control over your life.
We need to return to sleep as an instinct-based act
Let’s look at what sleep is for a normal sleeper: It’s an everyday activity that he or she pursues without much thought. They go to bed and usually fall asleep after a short period of quiet wakefulness.
But if you ask a person who suffers from insomnia what they do to fall asleep, they will give you a long list of all the things they do to wind down.
This comparison is illuminating and shows that the key to curing insomnia is to return to what sleep is: a natural, instinctive act we are all born with.
Therefore, if you have insomnia, the secret back to restful sleep is to accept your current experience and to (re)learn to do nothing, instead of to establish extensive sleep rituals and thus putting sleep, or your sleeplessness on a pedestal.
Acceptance is a skill that requires training and patience
I admit that the approach of acceptance may sound simpler than it actually is. It is a skill that does require some training and, more importantly, patience.
The reason for this is that our mind is programmed to find solutions to our problems. When we can’t sleep, our first thought is: “How can I solve this problem and get rid of the sleeplessness quickly?” This leads to all the above mentioned, unhelpful coping strategies.
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However, all kinds of strategies for falling asleep can backfire if the efforts involved lead to increased arousal.
Why you shouldn’t try to fall asleep
Remember that sleep is an unconscious process that naturally fluctuates due to various external and internal events (e.g., stress at work, relationships problems, financial concerns, or the death of a loved one).
Goal-oriented activities are always connected with the effort to reach a specific goal and, as such, create tension between your current state and your desired state, a tension that dissolves when the goal state is reached.
Such goal-oriented activities work in many external world contexts, such as finding a new job, selling your house, or learning a new language. However, if the goal is related to your inner world, such as achieving a relaxed mental state to be able to fall asleep, then these kinds of goal-oriented efforts and the tension that they create are counterproductive and make it difficult to achieve the desired goal.
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For example, if you engage in relaxation or mindfulness exercises to try to fall asleep faster, these efforts will likely create feelings of tension and arousal, which keeps you awake. Consequently, you may become even more frustrated because you are not reaching your desired goal, which further increases tension and arousal, and sleep gets pushed away even more.
Mindfulness – be present and welcome your thoughts
Although a solution-oriented approach often doesn’t work for insomnia, it’s often our first reaction because this is how our mind works. It identifies a problem and immediately delivers potential solutions to get rid of the problem, et voilà, your nightly struggle with insomnia gets kicked off.
To escape this vicious cycle, it’s necessary to gradually train ourselves to let go of the fight against insomnia. An essential step in this process is mindfulness training. Mindfulness means to live in the present and to welcome your present thoughts, both positive and negative. It teaches you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
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This non-judgmental approach helps break the cycle of anxious thinking and ruminating that keeps you awake. You learn to calm your mind, to feel less tense, paving the way to restful sleep.
How to start ACTing to cure your insomnia?
Here are three steps of how to start to improve your sleep using acceptance and mindfulness techniques:
- We have learned that insomnia is a problem where control strategies are bound to fail. So the first step for you is to identify all the various methods and techniques that you have used to improve your sleep.
- Then assess these methods how they have worked in the long term to help you sleep better, not only for one or two nights of good sleep. You will probably identify quite a few control strategies that have not worked. It’s time to stop using these methods.
- The next step is to acceptance of your thoughts and emotions, both negative and positive ones. If you’re new to this concept, a useful approach is to sit every day for 10 to 15 minutes to mindfully notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go. For example, imagine you’re sitting by a river where fallen leaves are floating past you. Each of these leaves is one of your thoughts that pop up in your head. You look at this thought without changing it or pushing it away, and let it pass you like the leaf in the river.
Again if something harmful or unpleasant shows up, don’t suppress it or try to get rid of it. Instead, observe the experience with openness and curiosity in a non-judgemental way.
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It’s about learning to carry these experiences lightly, without giving them any more attention than they deserve. This helps you to detach yourself from challenging thoughts and reduces their dominance in your life.
Start training your mindfulness muscle by doing this simple meditation exercise during the day first. Once you’re more familiar with the process, you can also use it at night when you’re awake.
Remember, it’s not about getting you to sleep instantly
It’s important to note that the primary goal of these techniques for treating insomnia, including mindfulness exercises and acceptance techniques, is not to get you to sleep instantly.
The primary goal is to learn new skills, which is a process that takes time! But I can assure you that your willingness to experience your sleeplessness and give up your struggle with it will improve your sleep in the long run.
If you’re curious to learn more about using these tools to cure your insomnia, click here to check out my popular online training The DIY Insomnia Cure. There you will learn all the details about the most effective natural ways to improve your sleep.