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What To Do When Insomnia Returns

May 14, 2023

Wait! Insomnia returns??!!

So, you’ve done the work and it paid off. Restful sleep has finally been restored and you feel like a sleep guru (if you are like me, you are so confident in your sleep knowledge that you decide to build a career around it). It’s all blue skies and rainbows and you are feeling invincible. It seems impossible that insomnia could ever return, not with all your newfound knowledge.

Then BAM! Right when you least expect it, you get blindsided by a few nights, or weeks, of bad sleep. What did you do wrong???

What if Insomnia Returns for Good??!

This recently happened to me while creating my 30 day sleep course. I hadn’t experienced insomnia in almost a year. Over the last few months my partner and I cleared out a house he had been living in for 13 yrs, moved to Mexico, spent 3 months renovating our new place AND his mother stayed with us for 2 wks. Needless to say, it’s been a stressful time and I kept waiting for insomnia to return, since this is usually how my system responds to change, but it didn’t! If anything, I was sleeping better than usual.

I was feeling so cocky that I even said in my course that I was sleeping better than ever before. So of course it was that exact night that insomnia decided to try and return, like an ex lover knocking at my door, suitcase in hand.

I told insomnia that the guest room wasn’t available, so it decided to climb into my bed (and into my head). What to do?

Luckily Disturbed Sleep Doesn't Mean Insomnia has Returned

First, it’s important to make the distinction between disturbed sleep and insomnia, which I have been using interchangeably. Disturbed sleep is when your sleep is not as restful as usual, maybe you are struggling to get to sleep or have frequent wakings, but you are not having an emotional reaction to it (i.e., you are not going around thinking about sleep constantly, talking about it or researching it and you are not scared to go to bed).

Since you are not having an emotional reaction to the disturbances, they will likely be short term and resolve whenever the life event triggering them has passed (me completing my course for example).

Insomnia is extended disturbed sleep on steroids and usually worsens over time. Insomnia returns when you are EMOTIONALLY TRIGGERED by a short-term bout of disturbed sleep.

Say, for example, you have a lot of extra work to do that you are stressing over. Because the body and mind are stressed, you lie there and ruminate over everything you must do. Falling asleep is difficult, or you wake up during the night and have trouble falling back to sleep.

Initially, it is just a pattern of disturbed sleep and it does not mean that insomnia has returned. If you examine it logically and you understand that your sleep is a bit restless right now because of a short-term life event (in this case extra work) and that once the event is over your sleep will correct itself, then great, that is likely what will happen.

If, however you worry and stew and think “Oh no my insomnia’s returned! Crap I can’t believe it! It was so painful last time, and it took me forever to get over it. I can’t believe it’s back now when I’m so busy. I only have 4 hours to sleep, now 3, now 2. I’m never going to get all my work done!” Then you have become emotionally invested. This stress and fear is what insomnia lives off of and it makes it much harder to get your sleep back under control.

Stress Makes Insomnia More Likely to Return

Think about it. From a biological standpoint, we were not built to sleep when we were stressed. Threats were usually physical, so we evolved to fight, run or hide. For example, if an ax murderer was after you, would you be able to sleep? And, if you did chose to run instead of continuing to sleep, would you then say that your insomnia had returned?

Our body has the same reaction to stressful thoughts and feelings (I’ll never sleep again) as it does to physical danger (ax murderer). This is why understanding how the body works and managing our physical and emotional response to disturbed sleep is so important.

When you know how the body works, you can use this knowledge to keep anxiety in check. When you notice stressful thoughts come in, remind yourself that everyone has a disturbed night occasionally and, as long as you don’t get upset, the body will sleep when it’s ready to. This is simply a temporary reaction to a transitory life event and does not mean insomnia will return.

Let's Apply Logic

You can even write this all down if you want. It can be very helpful to get all your thoughts down on paper and look at them logically. Is the thought true? What evidence supports it? What is the evidence against it? If it is true, is it true 100% of the time? Is there another, kinder, less frightening thought which you could be thinking instead? What support do you have? What action can you take and what is going WELL in your life right now? You can’t control sleep so what can you control?

Our thoughts aren’t always true and emotional thinking tends to blow a situation out of proportion. Often when you take the time to examine your thoughts, you can see this for yourself. Maybe you catch yourself thinking “I’m a bad sleeper” but then upon further examination you realize that you had a good night last wk or that 3 months ago you were sleeping incredibly well. So, a more accurate thought would be “sometimes I don’t sleep well”.

 Or maybe you are thinking “I never sleep”. Is this really true? I find it hard to believe that you managed to make it to adulthood without a single minute of sleep.

I know this is just how we all talk. It is normal to generalize. The problem is that when we generalize we often exaggerate (a tendency to experience disturbed sleep is shortened to “I can’t sleep”) we forget that this generalization is an exaggerated summary, not an actual fact, and we begin believing it as if it were true.

We can’t control our thoughts any more than we can control sleep but we can choose not to become emotionally activated by them. We do this by examining them to see where they are untrue. This frees us to then choose more accurate and helpful thoughts.

What Caused the Disturbance?

It is also important to look at what is causing disturbed sleep (a life change, work or family stress, etc). If you are like me this can be difficult because I often don’t feel stress. I have a habit of denying when I’m stressed and then being so surprised when I have trouble sleeping!

Even if you don’t feel stressed, I bet you can find something in your life that changed right around the time your sleep became disturbed. Or, hypothetically, if you were stressed what would you be stressed over?

Is there something you can do to resolve this stress and are you willing to do it? For me it was easy. Don’t stress over disturbed sleep and use the extra time awake to get my course done (the extra work hours were actually a gift). This mindset kept insomnia from returning, it was only disturbed sleep!

Then, when the pressure is off I get a massage, do extra breathwork or exercise, whatever I need to do to nourish and rebalance my system. I do this to show myself loving kindness and recenter myself. NOT TO SLEEP! Intention is important here.

Maybe you know what is stressing you but it’s a change you aren’t currently willing to make (perhaps you know it is being unhappy in a job or a relationship causing the issue and you aren’t ready to leave yet). If so, then you can at least acknowledge it and own your decision.

 Even if all options are undesirable, you still have the power to choose. You aren’t a helpless bystander, and this knowledge is empowering.

You might have many good reasons not to make changes. If you are choosing to stay in a situation which is causing stress and sleep disturbances, then you can still look at what you can do to make the situation more manageable. Couples therapy? A talk with HR?

Regardless of the situation, recognizing it and taking some control can often help resolve disturbed sleep before it evolves into insomnia.

Remember, sleep disturbances are merely speed bumps, an invitation to pay attention, and they don't necessarily mean that insomnia has returned.

Thank you for taking the time to read this sleep article.

As always, I would like to leave you with this important message. You are not broken! You are whole perfect and healthy exactly as you are, and you CAN sleep!



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