Sleep avoidance, or bedtime procrastination, is a natural result of insomnia.
There’s a neat mechanism that humans have developed to cope with pain – avoidance. And for insomniacs, that avoidance comes in the form of sleep avoidance.
Avoidance, just like our F3 alarm, is a fantastic evolutionary system that protects us from things that would harm or kill us, like avoiding certain foods that would have made us gravely ill as hunter/gatherers1. Even in modern times, avoidance has a time and a place. For example, you avoid standing on wobbly things after you fell as a toddler and hit your head a little too hard. You avoid putting your hand on a hot burner after learning the hard way. You avoid jaywalking after nearly getting hit by a car as a teenager.
But avoidance can become a maladaptive coping mechanism when it comes to our anxieties. We avoid social situations after being unfairly made fun of as a kid, even though we probably would enjoy them. We avoid arguments with our partner that, while difficult in the moment, could lead to a better understanding and compromise. Or we avoid activities that we once loved out of fear of judgement. We cringe at ourselves for not being perfectly astute, socially aware, and considerate 100% of the time.
Oh look, it’s your asshole brain calling again to remind you to mentally self flagellate for not being perfect.
Avoiding our problems doesn’t make them go away, it simply pushes them to the back of our minds.
While we feel temporary relief, doing so only makes our problem worse when we push them into the shadows. However, it would be a lot less scary if they were dealt with immediately before they create a cobweb of distorted thoughts. Our problems would hold much less power over us. We’d be able to live how we want even if there’s still some anxiety there.
Just like a broken F3 alarm, maladaptive avoidance behaviours likely developed around sleep because initial sleep troubles self-perpetuated into insomnia. First you have negative thoughts around sleep, and then your wonky avoidance alarm goes off making it even more difficult to sleep. All of a sudden, you’ve gone months or years without feeling rested.
You’ll know if you have sleep avoidance – it shows up when you pass by your room and your heart rate goes up.
When you go to bed, you’ll think “I guess I won’t sleep again tonight”. You avoid certain situations because they may trigger a sleepless night. You drown out your difficult thoughts and emotions with TV, social media, video games, drinking, or whatever else.
Maybe you are setting yourself up for failure because it’s easier to accept that you didn’t sleep when you didn’t expect to anyway. You avoid the stress around sleep by simply not even trying to go to bed. You avoid the anxiety of facing yet another night of tossing and turning. Maybe it’s avoiding the feeling of failure or inadequacy that this natural human mechanism is somehow lost on you.
These aren’t always conscious thoughts you are aware of, but there’s something ingrained in your mind that sleep is stressful and therefore should be avoided.
It’s time to take the power away from your disastrous sleep thoughts and beliefs. To stop avoiding them, you need to actively confront your mind and realise that what your mind is telling you is actually not that scary, permanent, or even true.