You often hear me saying that insomnia is a paradox based on the learned fear of not sleeping. But what does that actually mean? How can we remove that fear so that we begin to sleep like before?
In this blog post, I will try to explain what makes insomnia a paradox, what forces take place and, most importantly, how to exit that paradox.
Join the weekly newsletter with insomnia insights:
The difference between an insomniac and a non-insomniac
Insomnia might seem confusing and mysterious but once we understand what is actually happening, a lot of relief can be found through the demystification of insomnia.
As strange as it sounds, sleep itself is secondary to the problem. The absence of sleep as such isn’t bad or good, it is just a neutral fact and any person on the planet can be awake at any point of the night.
🤔 Think about your nights before insomnia: have you ever been awaken for whatever reason? Have you ever experienced the delayed onset or waking up before the alarm?
The problem isn’t in being awake at night, but what that wakefulness means to us. To a person without the fear of not sleeping it is a casual event that has no significance and therefore they get back to sleep effortlessly.
To someone who thinks that being awake at night isn’t okay, not sleeping creates suffering. Each time they realize that they aren’t sleeping, they feel the desire to make sleep happen… which leads to less sleep and more suffering.
I know at this moment some of you might think: okay, all I need to do is just to not get triggered by being awake, and it is true but…
There are two forces to insomnia that we can’t control. Together, they make a paradox that can’t be broken with a straightforward approach. If we would be in complete control here, there probably wouldn’t be such thing as insomnia!
Force no. 1: Brain as a survival machine
First, there is the part of our brain that tries to keep us safe. It’s like a smoke detector, ready to set off the moment it registers a potential threat.
If it sees a possible danger, it launches an automatic reaction – fight, flight or freeze response. This reaction is meant to get the situation under control and to lead us to safety.
When we are in such a mode, we can’t really sleep.
This reactive mode is built in us through evolution – every human being has it, and we kind of needed that mechanism to survive…
Imagine a cave man falling asleep by the fire when he hears a noise. That very moment that safety alarm sets off: “Get up! It can be a predator!” and sleep is gone immediately – it is too unsafe to sleep.
But then the cave man realizes that the noise came from the wind in the bush, and there is no danger, his fight or flight mode turns off by itself and and sleep resumes. Because now it is safe to sleep.
The brain did its job: it warned us about possible danger. But here is the thing about our brain: it can’t tell the difference between the real danger and the perceived one.
Example of a perceived (not real) threat is insomnia. When we begin to fear sleeplessness and try to avoid it at all costs, our brain turns on that fight or flight mode to protect us from not sleeping… by making us more awake! But insomnia can’t harm us, it is not a real threat. The brain just doesn’t know that and tries to gain control over the situation.
The most important thing to realize here is that this reaction is involuntary. We don’t consciously choose to get triggered. That process happens way before we consciously register it.
Force no. 2: Sleep can't be controlled
Sleep is a body’s natural function and no one can fall asleep at will. It is not a skill we can “hack” – the body always knows how to sleep and we don’t have a manual access to that ability.
Try hard to sleep and see what happens!
Whenever we introduce any effort or pressure to sleep, it vanishes. This is why all our attempts to fall asleep quickly or maintain sleep become fruitless. Sleep comes from the lack of awareness and focus, so by trying to sleep we bring the awareness back. It’s like if you try to catch the darkness by pointing a flashlight at it.
The paradox and its solution
So here we are, between two fires: the brain that tries to get control over sleep and sleep that can’t be controlled.
In a way, we are stuck between two forces we don’t control. We can’t just remove our survival mechanism and can’t make sleep happen.
And the first thing we all try to do when begin to struggle with insomnia is to work with the sleep part. We think that once sleep is back to normal, the anxiety and hyperarousal will subside. But that’s the wrong end, because sleep won’t adhere to our wishes! Quite a predicament, right?
But we are not doomed! Since insomnia is a paradox, the solution to it is also paradoxical.
Instead of working directly with the sleep part, we set sleep aside and look at what makes our survival mechanism to react. What we will find is our perception of being awake that makes the brain crave the control. It is the idea that being awake is bad or being anxious is bad that gives the brain a command: “solve it immediately!” And so the brain begins to problem-solve sleep, getting us stuck in the infinite loop.
Therefore, lowering the desire to control sleep is the key to turning off the fight or flight mode. When the brain sees that sleep needs no saving, that wakefulness can be pleasant too, that everything is safe (back to the cave man example: instead of the predator, it sees that it was just the wind that moved the bushes) only then will it “allow” sleep to come. Not vice versa!
To make that fundamental shift in perception, we need education around sleep to demystify insomnia, make wakefulness our friend – not enemy, and deploy acceptance and self-compassion to remove the unhelpful pressure. That the journey that can take a while and won’t be smooth, but that’s the way out of this paradox. The question is are you willing to embark upon this journey?
If you need more guidance and support on this journey consider my other free resources: Sleep Talks Letters, my Instagram account and the YouTube channel. If that’s not enough and you need an individual approach, consider 1-1 support.
Stay strong! 💪