You have heard and read it probably over a thousand times: yoga and other relaxation exercises are good for you when you can’t sleep because they help you unwind. While the benefits of low-impact exercise routines like yoga on your sleep quality are widely understood (read this blog post), they can also backfire on you. If you rely too excessively on those methods in trying to cure your insomnia they can become one of the main reasons why you can’t sleep.
Have you already tried many different things including anything from aromatherapy or hot baths, to installing blackout curtains, purchasing a new mattress or exhausting yourself with long runs or daily yoga practice but nothing really helped you to sleep better? Here is why your coping strategies may not work.
Why can’t you sleep?
Almost every person will experience difficulties to sleep at one point in their life. The trigger for the sleeplessness is often a stressful event such as the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a loved one or work overload. Usually, it’s only during this period of a stressful event that someone experiences difficulties to sleep. Once the stress has passed, she or he returns to healthy sleep.
However, this is not the case if you are suffering from chronic insomnia. Having chronic insomnia means that your sleeplessness continues and outlasts the stress. It also means that it is no longer the initial stress event which keeps you awake but rather your struggle with insomnia. In other words, the endless worrying and anxiety of not being able to fall asleep are now the stress triggers and responsible for your wakefulness.
Why do we want to control our sleep?
If you are an insomniac, you know how creative your mind can become in creating uncomfortable scenarios which are mostly totally unrealistic and unnecessary. The problem is that our brain can’t distinguish between real facts and the fiction we make up in our head and uses that as an indication that it’s true.
As a consequence, in addition to your racing mind, you may experience common stress-responses like a quickened heartbeat, faster breathing, and your entire body becomes tense. Not a good state of being in when trying to find restful sleep. And it uses up a lot of your energy too.
The habituation effect amplifies the problem. Your mind remembers the previous night’s struggle and prepares you again for the worst. I remember when I had insomnia, I started to feel panicky already hours before going to bed. Only thinking of going to bed where all these undesired worries and thoughts were awaiting me made me feel stressed.
Why coping strategies for insomnia often don’t work
The stress reaction may show up in different ways, but all insomniacs I have met had one thing in common: trying to desperately get rid of the unhelpful feelings and emotions at night. “If I could just switch off my mind” is what many of us are thinking night after night.
And so we are prepared to do almost anything to make that happen. We change our sleep environment and our diet, implement long sleep rituals, start a new workout or relaxation routine, and may even rely on pills. Often, these changes don’t only affect our daily routine at home but also our social life and the way we work.
I was at a point where I refused to go out with friends worrying that this would jeopardize my daily wind-down routine. I know people who gave up a job they loved for a more boring one only because it offered a more flexible work schedule which allowed them to stick to their long list of sleep routines.
Why coping strategies can cause insomnia
The problem with this behavior is that ironically it can become part of the problem. Sleep routines and other coping strategies do work for people who suffer from a sleepless night here and then. Used in moderation, they may also work when you have chronic insomnia. However, an extreme focus on fixing your insomnia with control strategies can make your insomnia worse. Your mind becomes so habituated to your efforts to cope with your sleeplessness that they will become the very reason for you not being able to sleep.
All those activities are part of trying to escape from your insomnia and to block out the worry and the anxiety it comes with, a continuous fight which keeps you awake. Whereas what you really need to do is quite the opposite: to accept your current situation and face up to your worries and anxiety – even if it might be unpleasant at the beginning. Otherwise, it will be difficult to calm your mind, to relax your body and to return to natural, restful sleep.
What other excess control strategies are there?
Remember, there is no magic in curing insomnia. Any technique, tool or pill that promises you some quick fix might be helpful at the beginning but can turn out harmfully later as they even may increase your level of wakefulness. You might become reliant on unhelpful behaviors or medication which weakens your trust in being able to fall asleep naturally.
Here are some of the most common unhelpful coping strategies that may offer only short-term benefits:
Sleep Rituals: Drink warm, spiced milk, take a hot bath and herbal sedatives, give yourself a 5-minute massage, wear an ear mask and use custom-made earplugs are only some of the sleep-aids which promise you to better sleep. While they are very relaxing and comforting, they often do not work if you do them with the pure intention of getting some sleep. You may even start to rely on them and become nervous when they are not available to you. Who always has the possibility to take a vetiver-sentenced oil bath?
Irregular sleep timing: If the times you go to bed and wake up aren’t fixed you decrease the average sleep time per day as well as the quality of your sleep. This is especially bad news for insomniacs because they already get less sleep anyway. Besides, an irregular sleep schedule means that your circadian system needs to cope with the day-to-day changes in sleep timing. That can make you prone to metabolic health issues like insulin resistance which increases the risk for diabetes. Instead of engaging in long sleep rituals it is more important to keep a regular schedule.
Spending too long in bed: It’s reasonable to think that spending more time in bed will give you more opportunity to sleep. Whereas what really happens is that you spend more time awake in bed, turning, tossing and worrying about not being able to sleep. This happens for several reasons: staying longer in bed strengthens the mental link between being in bed and being awake while it weakens the connection between being in bed and sleep. Therefore, get up at the same time every day, make up your bed right after you got up and convince yourself that it has to stay like this until you go to bed at night.
Napping during the day: A short nap can sometimes be essential and help boost your energy and brain power. If you have insomnia, napping might help you feel like you can finally get at least some rest. The problem is that napping also perpetuates the cycle, preventing you from falling asleep later on because it decreases your sleep drive. Therefore, avoid naps after 3 pm and rest no longer than 20 minutes.
Keeping your mind stimulated: Looking at a screen to watch a movie or to access your social media channels to chat with your friends is not only a source of melatonin-suppressing blue light, but it also keeps your mind stimulated. Same goes for listening to music, an audiobook or a radio program. You may think that these activities distract you from not being able to sleep and help you escape the loneliness of the night. As a result, they become a habit and you may end up binge-watching Netflix shows or listening to long podcast episodes – and totally miss sleep in the process.
Getting out of bed: ‘Leave your bed and distract yourself with simple tasks’ is a common advise if you can’t sleep. Getting up to iron your shirts, do some cleaning or just sitting on a chair staring into the night means to escape from your fears and might give you only some short-term relief. The problem is that your undesired feelings and thoughts will still be waiting for you when you go back to bed. Learning to accept and face your mental struggle while staying in bed is what will help you in the long run.
Exhausting yourself: Going for a run at night to tire yourself out sounds like a good idea when trying to improve your sleep. However, higher intensity workout significantly raises your heart rate and your body temperature which should remain lower close to bedtime. Also, the adrenaline produced from a higher intensity exercise makes it more difficult to wind down. Therefore, do your exercise session earlier in the day. It also prevents your brain from associating your workout solely with your desire to sleep better which can have adverse effects as described in the next section.
Forced relaxation exercises: ‘Start with a short meditation, followed by some yoga poses while staying focused on your breath; allow the stress to drift away until you finally drift off to sleep.’ Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It is a well-known fact that traditional relaxation exercises such as yoga or deep breathing provide relaxation of mind and body. However, if you are an insomniac and do relaxation exercises with the sole intention to sleep better, they might do the opposite. The reason is that your strong focus on getting some sleep increases your alertness because your brain is conditioned to measure your progress. This can lead to a stress response, especially if the exercise doesn’t deliver the expected result. Instead of calming your mind and end up in unhelpful self-talk like ‘I can’t relax. Why is this not working for me?’ or ‘Is there something wrong with me?’.
Making changes to your sleep environment: While it is no secret that for a good night’s sleep we need a quiet, dark and cool environment, there is always a risk of overdoing it. Anything from purchasing expensive mattresses and cutting-edge noise canceling machines to installing window blinds and using all kinds of different eye masks and custom made earplugs – the sleep-health industry is booming and offers you countless ways and tools to make adjustments to your bedroom. Again, some of it may help as a short-term fix. However, if you become reliant on that kind of external sleep-aids you are risking to lose your trust in your own ability to sleep.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should stop doing what works. However, if you are feeling trapped in an unhelpful routine which absorbs much of your life instead of improving your sleep, it’s time to adopt workable long-term strategies. The primary goal of your efforts to return to normal sleep must be to increase your confidence that you can naturally fall asleep without relying on sleep aids or yoga poses.
What are your excess strategies which haven’t help you?
The continuous struggle with sleep hurts. So it is just too tempting to follow any strategy that promises you some relief. Unfortunately, a lot of the methods only increase your restlessness, not helping you at all in your struggle with insomnia.
I don’t know if you already have a long list of activities and follow a busy schedule of different sleep rituals. You may also have already given up to find back to good sleep. Having suffered from insomnia several years, I know that it can be a long way back to healthy sleep.
But believe me, it is very possible. Stop trying to control your sleep. Instead, accept your current state of mind. This is the first and most important step back to a good night’s sleep because it stops your constant wrestle with insomnia.