We have many ways that we deal with sleep deprivation, but it’s likely you’ve developed some unhelpful insomnia coping skills. Let’s take a look.

woman looking stressed sitting on the floor drinking a glass of wine. On an article about unhelpful insomnia coping skills

Chronic insomnia can be incredibly jarring. You want so desperately to sleep but can’t. You’ve tried all the things that people have told you to do to change or fix poor sleep. Maybe you tried venting to others about how horrible insomnia is, or maybe you just resigned yourself to poor sleep. Or maybe you tell yourself that you’ll be ok over and over again. But these coping mechanisms don’t seem to work for you – your brain still doesn’t turn off. If this is the case, it’s quite likely that you developed some toxic insomnia coping skills.

Coping can be defined as behaviours that are meant to bring relief to your life. It’s how we naturally deal with stressful situations. How we cope usually depends on the situation, and it likely includes more than one type of strategy.

Response to Stress Model – How Good Are Your Insomnia Coping Skills?

stress response model

There are a few models around coping behaviours. However, one that pops up frequently was developed by Bruce Compas and his colleagues and is called the Response to Stress model (Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, 2016). It’s a multi-dimensional model that assesses how someone copes with stress and how effective they may be at mitigating the initial stress. 

The first parameter of the model distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary responses to stress. So anything that is within your conscious awareness where you try to regulate your emotions, behaviours, and thinking is voluntary. Conversely, involuntary responses may or may not be fully understood by the conscious mind. These are conditioned reactions like numbing yourself to mental pain, ruminating, and having intrusive thoughts (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). 

Both voluntary and involuntary responses are further divided as either an engaged or disengaged response. Engaged responses mean you are responding directly to a stress, and disengaged means you are orienting your response away from the stress (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). 

It is important to note that disengaged does not necessarily mean it’s unhelpful.

You can disengage with stress in helpful ways through things like acceptance or emotional regulation. You can also engage in unhelpful or helpful ways, e.g., rumination versus emotional expression.

These can be further categorised as either primary control coping strategies where you aim to directly alter the conditions of the stressor, and secondary control which is adapting to the stressor (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). .

Many coping mechanisms, such as emotional regulation, acceptance, and problem solving can work quite well when dealing with stress. However, not all forms of coping are beneficial to our overall well-being. When the healthier coping mechanisms seem to fail us and nothing really changes, we turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms. These are things like: 

  • voluntarily disengaged (denial, avoidance, wishful thinking)
  • involuntarily engaged (rumination, intrusive thoughts, emotional or physiological arousal), or
  • involuntarily disengaged (inaction, emotional numbing, etc.) 

These can not only get in your way of creating helpful insomnia coping skills, but actually reinforce insomnia’s place in your mind. I’ve already touched on confronting some less-than-beneficial coping mechanisms, so let’s continue to talk about them to see if there are more you can pinpoint. Because the sooner you acknowledge these in yourself, the sooner you can truly and utterly eradicate insomnia from your life. 

Avoiding Social Interactions

How many times have you avoided a social situation just because you didn’t sleep well the night before? Maybe it was canceling on a friend, or cutting a family gathering short because of the anxiety built up around sleep. It could be as simple as avoiding small talk in public places.

The thing is, when we cut our interactions short or avoid them in an effort to get to bed, we can stress ourselves even more. This makes sleep that much more difficult to come by. 

One study tested the overall happiness of participants with how they interacted with strangers on the train during the daily commute. People were divided into three groups: 

  • the first was told not to socialise at all and keep to themselves
  • the second group did what they normally did
  • the third group was instructed to talk to another passenger on the train and learn at least one thing about that other person

You may think that keeping to yourself and not having the possibility of a negative interaction would make you the happiest, right? 

Well it turns out, the exact opposite is true. We are actually really bad at assessing how happy we’ll feel if we talk to a random person. And we underestimate how badly other people want to connect with us. As humans, we are naturally social creatures. We almost always feel better when we connect with others, even if it’s just for a brief moment in time (Epley and Schroeder, 2014)

Thinking “oh I’m just an introvert”? Introversion does not mean anti-social. It means that you recharge by being alone, but still enjoy social interaction – even if it’s less than an extrovert. I’ll say it again, introvert ≠ socially anxious or hermited (Hendriksen, 2016).

So what does interacting with a stranger on a train mean for you and your sleep? Well, it means  that if you socialize, you’ll be filling your brain with more positive things. And filling your brain with positive thoughts, emotions, and memories can start a snowball effect where you want to do it more because it feels nice and reduces stress.

Remember my beautiful graphic on stress and how an excess can overflow into your insomnia cup?

Socializing is a direct way to reduce that overflow.

Stress Eating

Who doesn’t love good comfort food when they are feeling stressed?

The problem with stress and insomnia is that it is near constant, so you tend to crave sugary or fatty foods more regularly. This isn’t a lack of will power thing – sleep deprivation throws your cravings completely out of whack. Your hormones shift in a way that may make you suddenly feel the need to eat things you normally wouldn’t be drawn to. Or maybe you’ve always liked candy and fatty foods but now it seems impossible not to eat it. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Cortisol: long term stress from not sleeping causes the release of the hormone, which in turn makes you crave fatty and sugary foods  (Chao et al., 2018)
  • Leptin: this lil buddy tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. According to Taheri et al., 2004, sleep deprivation decreases leptin and therefore causes you to eat more.
  • Ghrelin: The same study from Taheri et al., 2004 shows that sleep deprivation increases ghrelin which stimulates your appetite.
  • Insulin:  The body’s reaction to sleep loss can resemble insulin resistance, and insulin’s job is to help the body use glucose for energy. So if you’re not sleeping, your body can’t regulate blood sugars as it should (Mann, 2010). 

So how do you combat this? It’s tough. But the only real solution is to keep unhealthy foods out of your house. As a result, you’ll have to feed your cravings with healthier alternatives. And the less you eat high (unhealthy) fat, high sugar foods, the less you crave it. So at the very least, cutting back on the unhealthy stuff gives you less of an uphill battle from a hormone regulation standpoint. 

Drinking Alcohol

As an attempt to deal with the stress from insomnia, some people turn to drinking alcohol to help calm their nerves as one the insomnia coping skills.

While alcohol can provide a sense of relief and relaxation because of its sedative effects (for a short time anyway), drinking can actually add to the stress in your life on a hormonal level (Roehrs and Roth). It releases cortisol, which, again, is the stress hormone. And the more you drink in quantity and frequency, the more your base-level cortisol stays elevated. 

This new hormonal balance then targets specific organs, triggering that lovely F3 response. Isn’t evolution grand? 

Plus, as I mentioned previously, the rapid eye movement (REM) and deep stages of sleep will be disrupted when the alcohol starts releasing stimulating enzymes that need to be metabolised after 3-4 hours (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). These are the stages that happen to be the most regenerative for your body.

You’re already dealing with insomnia stress, so I encourage you to give up alcohol (or greatly limit it) while you are tackling chronic insomnia.

📍 Quest #4

Identify your negative coping strategies. I’ve identified a few common ones here, but there are more that you may be able to identify in yourself. How can you combat these negative strategies? What can you replace them with instead? E.g., meditation, mindfulness, daytime relaxation activities, etc.