Why Trying To Directly Improve Your Sleep Is The Wrong Approach For Curing Insomnia

Anyone who studies insomnia in more depth comes across traditional approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), which is designed to help you identify thoughts and behaviors that hinder your sleep and replace them with those that promote healthy sleep.

In other words, these approaches to treating insomnia are primarily about changing your actions or thoughts that may interfere with your ability to sleep well, while developing habits that promote healthy sleep patterns, including

  • stimulus control – using the bed only for sleep and sex, and not reading, watching TV, or doing anything else, and
  • sleep restriction – only going to bed when you feel very sleepy to set strict limits on the amount of time you spend in bed each night. If you have not fallen asleep after about 20 minutes, you are to get out of bed and do something else relaxing.

Direct versus indirect approach for insomnia treatment

In general, that means that cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) directly addresses the factors that disrupt your sleep. It’s an approach in which you try to control your behavior to set the right conditions for healthy sleep to emerge. 

And there is no question about it that to improve your chance of sleeping well at night, you need to learn how to practice good sleep hygiene on a regular basis.

However, this kind of direct approach may fail when dealing with your internal experiences, your thoughts, emotions, and sensations because those are not so easy to control. In fact, trying to control your thoughts, feelings, and sensations can make things worse because your mind perceives those attempts as a threat ramping up your fight-or-flight response keeping you more awake (I’ve written another blog post about why control strategies don’t work so well which you can find here).

 

If you suffer from insomnia, it might be more effective to choose an indirect approach that doesn’t try to change your sleep directly. And the linchpin of this indirect approach is acceptance, so to accept what you experience when you have trouble sleeping. 

Why should I accept poor sleep?

I know, accepting what’s going on inside of you may seem paradoxical at first sight because aren’t those disturbing thoughts and emotions exactly what you keep awake? Yet this willingness to accept poor sleep experience leads to fewer struggles, less agitation, and consequently peaceful, beneficial sleep.

The key to this indirect approach is to change your relationship to your current situation. The emphasis is on accepting and allowing your sleep to be as exactly as it is, rather than directly trying to change it. 

What means acceptance in practice? 

The acceptance process comprises two significant steps: first, being aware of your internal experience, then seeing if you can just allow whatever is happening to be there without trying to evaluate it or change it. 

Acceptance is a crucial skill that your need to practice because it’s not our natural tendency. Rather, it’s natural to want to change what we don’t like. But sometimes, we can’t change it, and then the most reasonable thing to do is learn to accept it. 

By practicing acceptance, you will notice an improvement first in the quality and later in the quantity of your sleep. You will also notice that you have more alertness and energy during waking hours and better cognitive abilities.

Acceptance by putting yourself on a pause

To be able to accept things as they are, you first need to become aware of what’s going on inside you. Sounds logical, but all too often, we are so caught up in our thoughts and doing that we don’t consciously notice our internal experiences. 

Therefore, a crucial first step is to pause and become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body that are present right now. Let your awareness be broad, like a wide-angle lens, and simply observe what shows up from one moment to the next. Ask yourself, “What am I noticing in my body, mind, and mood?”

Be present with what may be inside you as you feel into your thoughts and accept them as they are, without the need to change them or make them disappear. 

How to deal with difficult emotions during the acceptance process?

Sometimes, when you turn your attention to yourself, you can initially feel emotionally overwhelmed. This is not uncommon. It’s not that easy to stop in the middle of a busy life and turn toward your own mind. Especially when you’re exhausted, and anxiety arises, you may feel unsettled and even unsafe. 

If this is happening for you, the following practice may be helpful for settling and grounding. 

How to get grounded?

When you’re caught in the grips of thinking about all that you believe will go wrong in the future or what is wrong with you now, you need a safe harbor and anchor to rest in. 

Take a moment to feel your bottom making contact with whatever you are resting on. Tune in to the sensations of contact – the pressure, warmth, softness, or hardness. Feel how much of your body is touching the surface of the chair or couch. You can then put your feet on the floor if they’re not there already and feel your contact with the earth. These solid surfaces are holding you. 

Feeling safe in our bodies helps us in so many ways. When we’re being flooded with thoughts and emotions and are getting totally disconnected from our bodies, we need a way to get back. When we’re mindless, we don’t think straight or make clear decisions. What happens then is that we mostly react. We tend to get impulsive and just grab for whatever will bring immediate relief.

By doing this simple grounding exercise, you’ll increase your ability to practice acceptance of emotions, sensations, and reactions in general and apply that ability to your insomnia. And in doing so, you’ll be changing your relationship to your feelings, sensations, and reactions.

Why you should start doing the exercises during the day

Being aware of any kind of pain, whether physical or emotional, can be extremely difficult, especially at night when being awake in bed. So it’s really important to be prepared, and I suggest starting these exercises during the day.

By practicing these exercises during some of your waking hours of the day, you free yourself from the idea that this will directly improve your sleep. This last factor is critical because if you do them to achieve better sleep, they may undermine their effectiveness. 

That’s why don’t practice these exercises at night to try to fall asleep or as a relaxation strategy. Rather, do it during your normal waking hours. You then don’t have to do anything more. Let the practice work for you by changing how you perceive your sleep, and thereby indirectly improving it. It’s that simple.

How to respond to difficult emotions at night?

When you’re awake in bed at night, you likely experience some frustration, fear, or worries about your inability to fall asleep. The invitation here is to put your attention into your direct experience of being worried or sad, or frustrated about your sleep. 

You can do this by first noticing and even labeling the emotion – “here is frustration” – and then allowing yourself to feel any accompanying sensations in the body.

And remember, reading is not the same thing as practicing! You need to actually practice these simple exercises to get the full benefit for your sleep.

 

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