Working with Your Insomnia to Cure It

Many of us struggle with insomnia because our attempts to make ourselves sleep fail. We fight ourselves.

So what to do? First, stop fighting. Accept your insomnia. It exists for a reason. It may reflect your system’s attempt to solve some problem, possibly to make you aware of a problem you didn’t know about or have neglected. It may be your system’s message that you need to be doing something differently in your life—relaxing more, being less perfectionistic, moderating your consumption of certain foods, drinks, or drugs; exercising more, changing your job, spending more time with your family, spending less time with your family. Or it may represent excitement about an upcoming event that you are turning into anxiety instead of savoring the excitement. Or, to give credence to feng shui, your insomnia may indicate that you need to change the position of furniture in your bedroom to alter the energy flow around you. If you view your insomnia as a red flag signaling a need for change, that realization alone can generate a solution.

Naturally, if recurring thoughts about the same issue keep you awake, then you need to solve it during the daytime. But suppose random thoughts plague you at night. Then accept your insomnia. Do not try to stop it. The more you try, the more it will dig in its heels. Instead, be curious about your thoughts. How do you accelerate from zero thoughts at any given moment to that mental pinball action that you cannot control?   Are there specific initial thoughts that get the ball of wakefulness rolling? If so, what are they? Where do they come from?

Accordingly, as you lie in bed, silence your mind for a few moments. And then notice which thought emerges next into your consciousness. Don’t try to stop that thought; just notice it, devoting your full attention to its emergence. Be curious about what will be the next thought to emerge, much as if you are observing a leaky faucet to see when the next drop appears in the nozzle and what it will look like. Don’t do anything else; don’t try to change anything. If your attention wanders from this mental position of dedicated and curious but effortless observation, just bring it back as soon as you notice it has strayed.

This tactic works (it has for me many times) for two reasons. First, you are no longer fighting your insomnia and your thoughts, but instead are accepting them—going with the flow, as it were. Second, if you are devoting your entire mental energy to monitoring which thought emerges, then there is no room for other thoughts, including those that usually keep you awake. You are appropriating all the thought-space in your mind, as it were, for this purpose.

What if the above suggestions fail? Then a more drastic though highly effective procedure is in order. First, decide what your personal definition is of your particular insomnia. How much time do you need to be lying in bed on any given night before recognizing that you cannot sleep and that whatever methods you ordinarily employ to help you sleep are not working: 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours? Then on any given night, if you are still awake after that length of time has passed, accept your insomnia and get out of bed. Stay out of bed until drowsiness overwhelms you, whereupon you can return to bed.

But here is the most important part. After you get up, do something useful—not entertaining or fun or even pleasant, but useful. In other words, do not watch TV or a movie or read a novel. Why? For one thing, if you escape the unpleasantness of lying awake in bed for some pleasant activity, you will be rewarding the insomnia, like giving a child ice cream after it throws a tantrum. Then on future nights your insomnia will be more likely to compel you to get out of bed.

So you want to make continued wakefulness as unappealing to you as possible. But you also want to reframe the insomnia so that its meaning changes in a way that allows you to view it more positively. (As noted, if you consider it your adversary, you will fight it and it will fight you back.) How? By doing something constructive that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. Wax your floors, polish your furniture, scrub the bathroom, learn Chinese or French, practice a craft or other skill to which you have been unable to devote enough time during the day—embroidery, chess strategy, drawing, juggling. Or improve your mind by, for example, reading philosophy (the writings of Hegel or Kant will return you to bed in no time).

Once you feel sleepy enough to return to bed, check your clock. If you are not asleep within the previously stipulated period of time, arise again and repeat the process. If you never get sleepy enough to return to bed, that is all right, because at least then you can feel good about accomplishing something useful instead of staring at the damn ceiling. And you will be more likely to sleep better the following night.

One caveat: if on any given night you have taken a sleep-inducing chemical, this exercise is unlikely to help and may be unsafe to perform.

Pleasant dreams.




Leave a Reply