We’ve talked a lot about beliefs about sleep that are perpetuating insomnia. Here are even more that you may need to acknowledge.
It’s difficult not to descend into an anxiety spiral when you are sleep deprived. The world just seems bleeker, and it’s easy to be pessimistic about nearly everything when you’re lacking sleep. When this happens, you need to make an active effort to combat these negative thoughts and beliefs about sleep.
Because the belief that sleep is stressful and anxiety-inducing is literally the main reason why you have chronic insomnia in the first place. When you develop a neutral (or dare I say, even positive) attitude towards sleep, you take the power away from sleep anxiety. So here are a few more beliefs around sleep that are prohibiting you from a restful night.
Your Cognitive Biases are Showing!
Cognitive biases are errors in how we process and interpret what happens to us or around us1. As a result, our decisions are clouded with mistakes in judgement.
When it comes to insomnia, it’s remarkably easy to develop a cognitive bias towards sleep that leads us to feel defeated. And those feelings of defeat self perpetuate to reinforce our bias.
Because the first time you didn’t sleep well, whether that was a few weeks ago or a few decades ago, it was jarring. It wasn’t within your scope of possibility that you won’t sleep and feel the way you do, so you become anxious about feeling that way again, and get trapped in your own mind.
One of the main cognitive biases trapping you in an insomnia loop is a pessimism bias. When something bad happens, it’s easier for us to paint everything else in our life with a negative brush2. It’s like the opposite of rose coloured glasses – you’re wearing glasses overlaid with sadness and misery.
When it comes to insomnia, you can handle a bad night when your mental state is alright. But if you have a lot going on PLUS a lot of negativity around sleep, it’s a lot harder to pull off those misery glasses. So at the very least, try to control the negative thinking around sleep to create a positive feedback loop. I covered the first way to do this this week (challenging your thoughts), and will dive more deeply into it next week.
Beliefs About Sleep Create a Confirmation Bias
There’s also confirmation bias, where if you think something will happen (or won’t happen) because of a previous experience, it’s bound to turn out the same way again3, even though that’s not necessarily true. With insomnia, you essentially create what you fear (poor sleep) because you have it in your head that you won’t sleep well anyway.
Insomnia Isn’t a Life Sentence
If you aren’t yet convinced that insomnia isn’t a life sentence, let’s explore that more.
Insomnia, for whatever reason, came into your life. It then perpetuated because of learned thoughts, behaviours, and beliefs about sleep that supported it. You weren’t always an insomniac. But you are now, and for some reason you think this is your cross to bear. But again, it’s not.
Your body and brain want to rest. They are designed to rest because you are human.
You are wired to get sleep. Humans wouldn’t have made it this far if there was an evolutionary reason for insomnia because we’d be too tired to seek food and outrun predators.
Again, I can’t say this enough – this natural mechanism of sleep isn’t magically lost on you, but there is a built-up layer of anxiety around sleep that is making it a lot harder.
Keep in mind too that you slept before, and you will sleep again. It’s not some indisputable fact that just because you have had trouble sleeping for months or years that it’ll continue. You slept as a baby and child. There were probably extended periods in your life as a teenager or adult where you slept decently. You will sleep.
I suppose insomnia will continue if you do nothing about it, and don’t make an active effort to change. But why do that to yourself? There is an end date if you want there to be.
📍 Mini quest!
Do you think it’s a life sentence? Why?
What is the evidence for this? Have you always been a poor sleeper?
What are the odds of this being true? Do you picture yourself in 5, 10, 20+ years feeling the way you do now?
Are you being fully objective? Be honest with yourself here. Do you truly think that it is a universal fact that you will never feel rested again?
It’s Not a Personality Trait
Just as I mentioned in my sleep misconception section, a lack of sleep doesn’t make you superior to others. It also doesn’t make you inferior. It just is. It’s obviously an “is” that isn’t exactly working for you and something you’d like to change, but it’s not some fundamental truth about who you are as a person.
That’s right, you can change you beliefs about sleep and beat insomnia. You can work towards getting rid of it entirely. It’s not the same as being an introvert or being a creative thinker. Yes you can be more social and enjoy friends and parties, but the way you recharge as an introvert will always remain the same (alone time). And yes, a creative mind can be analytical but the dominant way of thinking will always be creative.
Some traits are innate in you and showed up early in your life4. Insomnia, on the other hand, isn’t some hard fact of life. It’s just a thing you have to deal with and heal from, like wearing a cast for a broken wrist. Yeah, it sucks, but you’re not forever broken.
It’s Ok to Feel Bad (Sometimes)
If you are like, well, anyone on this planet, life gets you down and you feel sad about it.
Just appreciate for a minute what we’ve collectively been dealing with for the past year: a world-wide pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social isolation. Couple that with other stresses, anxieties, and traumas and…
So you turn to bookstores and online articles to see how to fix yourself. Lo and behold, you’ll find countless ways to get out of a funk – from some ‘guru’ describing meditation in convoluted esoteric terms, to ‘inspo porn’ on LinkedIn telling you to just wake up at 5am and exercise/hustle/grind. But there’s a problem with all of it – you don’t need to do anything at all sometimes.
Yes, doing ‘all the things’ that you know to be good for you is great. Sometimes you can just fully experience a down day, or two…or week. Often it’s when we want to ‘fix’ things that we feel sad about feeling sad. Just feel sad, feel the rain on your skin as they say, and move on when you can.
Don’t Expect Perfection: One of the More Super Toxic Beliefs about Sleep
Ok so if I haven’t made it clear at this point, I’ll write it again because it’s SO IMPORTANT:
Do not expect perfection. This is one of the more toxic beliefs about sleep because of the unnecessary pressure you place on yourself.
Chronic insomnia is something you can absolutely overcome, and you WILL overcome with patience, persistence, and dedication to getting better.
This means that you will sleep enough to feel rested on most days. Not everyday, but most days. Because even people who sleep normally have nights where they don’t sleep.
And if you say “well that’s not true because so-and-so in my life has never had a bad night”, they are straight up lying. They might have bad nights that are few and far between but as if someone didn’t get excited for a trip or have a bad flu or get stressed about something that caused them to lose sleep. We all do. It’s normal.
The difference between regular sleep loss, and making it a habit of insomnia, is the mindset around sleep.
It gets us down if we sleep terribly for a night after sleeping well for a few nights because we know what it can spiral into. So the goal is to stop the spiraling before it starts.
As I said in week 1, just because you fall down one stair doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself down the whole flight. There will be days where you feel sorry for yourself and purposely give up and stumble. There will be days where you try and you still fall. It’s ok. Keep doing it – you won’t fall as far next time, and the next time will keep getting further away from the last time it happened. It’ll hurt less, and getting up will get refreshingly easier over time.
Taking the steps to overcome insomnia is like building a bridge, but the only tools you have are sticks, rocks, and whatever else you can scrounge. In other words, it won’t be some marvel of engineering but it’ll get you there and that’s all that matters.
📍 Quest #3: Access your inner child to help challenge your beliefs about sleep
Picture a child in your life, or picture yourself as a 3 year old. In fact, if it helps, stick a picture of yourself as a 3 year old on your bathroom mirror. Think of what this 3 year old is like. They are generally playful, imaginative, and unaware of the weight of the world. They don’t have years of built up emotional pains. They’re just busy existing in their own world of toys and playgrounds and running around.
Now imagine that this 3 year old came to you in the middle of the night because they couldn’t sleep. They’re scared, they’re tired, and they’re deeply upset. What would you say?
Would you comfort them? Or would you say, “obviously you can’t sleep because you’ve failed again. You are going to fail horribly tomorrow because you will be so tired. Tomorrow night, you won’t sleep either”. I sure hope not.
Why are you not giving yourself the same compassion that you would give to a child?
You were 3 years old once. Imagine your adult self comforting your 3 year old self. Tell him or her they’ll be okay. It should be a fundamental right to be safe and comforted. Unfortunately, a lot us didn’t receive the sort of reassurance when we needed it the most, so our inner voice took on the voices of those around us that saw us as a silly kid with ‘stupid problems’ or worse, a burden.
Look – you were born complete. We all are. Our world shapes us based on when we were born, our family of origin, schools, religion, geography, race, gender, and so much more. But when you were born you were born perfect. You are who you are. And that fundamental completeness still resides in you. Even if you were born with certain ailments, you are perfectly you. There is no other you.
And just like you were born knowing how to breathe, and eat, and smile, you were born knowing how to sleep. That is still there. The thing is now you’re kinda like an onion that needs to strip away some layers of emotional build-up to get back to the basics.
So I want you to write a letter to your 3 year old self. Tell them how much you care about them, how special they are, how proud of them you are. Let them know how loved they are, and sometimes the world treated them unfairly by no fault of their own. Write down whatever you want to write down. That little you is still you. You still deserve acceptance and caring, and you need to start giving it to yourself.