Imagine that you have successfully cured your insomnia and are enjoying normal sleep again. You feel re-energized and confident to take on any mental or physical challenge that comes your way so that you can finally enjoy your life again. And in this scenario, it’s only natural that you think you’ve finally cracked the insomnia problem and your sleepless nights are over.
But then one night, you lie awake again. The trigger may be that you are suffering from jet lag after a trip or are again exposed to greater stress at work. But it can also just be a sudden memory that pops up in your head about the time when you had insomnia.
The shock of lying awake in bed immediately brings a flood of thoughts, telling you that everything will go back to the way it used to be. And what’s worst, these thoughts develop such power to trigger the old terrifying sensations – your heart begins to pound, fear and panic creep in.
“What if the sleepless nights return….?”
It seems your normal sleep is shattered, and your insomnia is back. In this situation, your thinking mind begins to calculate what you have to lose when poor sleep returns, and more importantly, it starts asking what you can do to fix the problem. After all, you’ve tasted normal sleep again and therefore are willing to do anything to keep it.
So you try to use all the tools you’ve learned to calm your mind, but nothing works. Out of desperation, you begin to struggle and escape the challenging thoughts, feelings, and sensations that start to show, only with the result that you are getting even more agitated, frustrated and awake.
You try again to control your insomnia instead of accepting it
You have fallen victim to the sabotaging thoughts and behaviors that haunt so many insomniacs when poor sleep returns. In your desperation to prevent the return of sleepless nights, you inadvertently begin to use the tools you’ve learned to control your insomnia instead of accepting it.
The result is that you spend all night expending vast amounts of energy trying to battle your insomnia instead of simply accepting that you are awake because of jet lag or a random memory that popped into your head.
This scenario highlights how easy it is to struggle with poor sleep again, especially when you think you’ve cracked it. It also shows you how deeply rooted your fear of insomnia is and that you are not ready to accept it in your life.
The truth is that just because you’ve learned to sleep normally again doesn’t mean you’re immune to insomnia.
Why your brain remembers insomnia
Everyone experiences brief bouts of insomnia at some point in their life. Triggers such as stress at work, relationship or family problems, financial worries, or even just traveling to another time zone can be enough to cause poor sleep. In most cases, though, their sleep returns to normal once the stress is over.
However, this is not necessarily the case for someone who had chronic insomnia because your mind remembers your insomnia and will always compare current sleeplessness with past experiences of insomnia, putting you at a higher risk of insomnia returning. This is the way your brain works; it constantly links information together and uses it as a reference to anticipate what might happen in the present or future.
This means that while your recurring bout of poor sleep would normally pass within a few days, your mind can’t help but ask the inevitable question, “What if this is the beginning of a return of my insomnia?” This is not a malicious intent of your mind, but rather its habit of accessing your past sleep experiences to infer possible future risks.
Insomniacs in recovery have a greater risk to experience poor sleep again
Sometimes the mere suggestion of poor sleep is enough to trigger a new bout of insomnia, but often it’s recurring experiences. For example, if your insomnia was originally initiated by events in your life such as work or relationship stress, reliving those events is a possible trigger.
So your brain will never forget your poor sleep history, and so you will always be at greater risk for poor sleep than someone who has never had insomnia.
However, that doesn’t mean that all is lost because what’s more important is how you respond to the recurrence of sleeplessness. If you believe and act upon the stories of insomnia projected by your mind, you can keep yourself awake for days. Understanding this process is not only crucial to learning how to get back to sleep naturally, but you also need to remember it to prevent relapse.
This leads us to the question of how you can respond to recurring sleeplessness in a more helpful way.
Exercise: Welcoming and labeling your thoughts
What do you usually do when you greet people in person? You make direct eye contact and smile, make a welcoming comment, and depending on your cultural background, bow or offer a firm handshake. All these are part of the communication process to make a positive impression, but they also give your brain the critical signal that you are safe.
This same principle can be applied to your thoughts. If an unpleasant thought occurs in your head like “What if insomnia returns” or “This anxiety is terrible”, acknowledge it and treat it with kindness by welcoming it with a simple “Hello” or by saying “Greetings, ‘terrible’ thought”. You can also combine it with labeling your thought like, “Aha, here comes Lady Anxiety again.”
Your thinking mind has many ways of either directly reinforcing your bad feelings or making you waste a lot of time brooding about them pointlessly. When you look at these thoughts as guests rather than intruders, your body won’t increase alertness.
Key take away: What you repress persists
The way you behave when a sleepless night comes around again determines whether you increase or decrease the possibility that chronic insomnia will return. If you try to suppress your fear of poor sleep returning, you increase the likelihood that it will return. Only by being open to the possibility of experiencing a night of bad sleep again will you pave the way back to a lasting recovery from your insomnia.
The key to responding more helpfully to recurring insomnia is to skillfully acknowledge it and all the sensations associated with it, yet not pay so much attention to it that it causes unwanted reinforcement.
Remember that everyone experiences sleeplessness, even the most relaxed person who sleeps typically soundly for eight hours. The difference between you and an average sleeper is that they don’t give it much thought, and the poor sleep passes on its own.
Therefore, try to act as they do and consider the sleeplessness as something that will pass. When unhelpful thoughts and sensations arise, don’t fight them, but make peace with them by welcoming them.