Week 3 – Uproot Your Toxic Thoughts and Beliefs Around Sleep

Challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs that are holding you back from getting a solid nights’ sleep.

Introduction to Week 3

Last week was the first step in creating a regular sleep schedule. This will lead to not only getting adequate sleep, but eventually making insomnia a non-issue. Can you imagine a time in the near future where your life won’t revolve around sleep? A time where sleep will come naturally and you feel rested? And on nights where you don’t sleep well (because everyone, including people who don’t have insomnia, have the odd sleepless night), it won’t be any sweat off your back because you know you’ll sleep well again soon?

Your life might be fraught with anxiety around sleep right now, but it doesn’t have to be. It only became that way because of learned thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviours. This week we’re going to start dismantling the first two – thoughts and beliefs.

If you don’t think it’s possible – that being an insomniac is just part of your personality now – let’s go through a thought exercise.

What is something that you believed so deeply about yourself, something you thought was a fundamental part of who you are, only for it to evolve at some point?

It could be something as simple as thinking you’re not very good at math, only to find there were some concepts particularly easy to understand. It could be a job you thought you were meant for, only to find yourself enjoying something completely different. Or maybe it was something you were told by your parents (“he’s just a loner”, “she doesn’t have street smarts”) that turned out to be flat out wrong (he wasn’t a loner, just introverted; she was academically inclined and they didn’t understand). 

There are many examples of this, some of which were positive (like the math and job examples listed above) and others that were a tough pill to swallow but turned out ok in the end anyway. Either way, there’s a good chance that there’s something in your life that you thought was a fundamental truth about yourself, only to have it shaken in some way. 

Look at you – you’re incredibly strong for getting through the trials of your life. It doesn’t matter if it was messy or you think of how you could have done things differently, you are here today. You’re here showing up for yourself, trying to better your situation by searching and learning. Even if insomnia feels mostly hopeless there’s obviously still a bright glimmer that improvement is on the horizon. 

You’ve done this before. You dropped thoughts and beliefs that weren’t working for you, and picked up new ones that helped you persevere on your new trajectory. You can do it again with insomnia. So that’s what we’ll be starting with this week to make a permanent, lasting change in your life.

🎯 Goal

This week, you will start modifying your toxic thoughts and beliefs that are holding you back from getting a solid night’s sleep. As someone with insomnia, you quite likely have thoughts and beliefs around sleep that are overly energised, dramatically negative, and hopelessly sad. It’s counterintuitive, annoying, and does nothing for you other than stress you out and make you literally exhausted. So let’s change that.

🏁 Mission

This week, there are actually two missions.

The first is you will continue with your sleep restriction schedule. It may be hard, it may be messy, and it may not be perfect. You will still feel sleep deprived for a bit. If you keep at it though, your body WILL catch on to a normal sleep/wake rhythm. This is just the beginning of a very fruitful journey to getting a regular sleep schedule.

The second is to take the proper time and care to complete each quest. This week’s quests require active thought and analysis from you, so be sure to create space so you can properly process what is going on in your mind. 

NOTE

Are you actually on week 3 of the program, or are you reading ahead?

I’m not talking about reading through a week before getting started. I’m talking about you reading weeks 1, 2, and 3 without actually working through those weeks. It’s fine to read in advance to see what the expectations will be, but I want to note at this point that you should follow the program and take a full seven days for every week of this course.

The reason for this is because you need to digest the information and be truly ready for change. Reading something and not implementing it is like standing in the rain and thinking you’ve learned how to swim. You need to actually understand and implement the actions for any change to take place, and you need to be completely committed to learning, trying, and trying again.

So how do you know you’re ready for change?

I take Dr. Phil with a grain of salt, but he did say something that stuck with me. I remember him mentioning that there are four stages of readiness for change:

  • Stage 1: Compelled by authority to change. An example of this is you land in court for a drug charge and they sentence you to rehab. You didn’t go there under your own volition so there’s a near zero chance of lasting change. 
  • Stage 2: Comply to escape criticism. This is when you’re so sick of being nagged about something that you try to change. Again, since it’s not an intrinsic desire to change but rather someone else’s desire, your chance of lasting change is close to zero. 
  • Stage 3: Intellectually aware of the need for change. Here, you’ll see someone rationalise why they need to change. You know you should change, but there isn’t a ‘thirst’ for change. 
  • Stage 4: Mentally and emotionally self-motivated by change.

“Stage 4 is when you can honest to God say, ‘I am so sick to death of this that I will not put up with this for another second, for another minute of another hour of another day. I don’t care how scary it is, I don’t care what’s on the other side, I will not put up with this for another second. I will change this, I don’t care what it takes.’ That’s when you get change.” – Dr. Phil

This is where real change takes place.  When it comes to insomnia, this is when you say to yourself:

  • I am so tired of being tired. I’m done with this.
  • I don’t care what I have to do, and how hard the process will be, I want to get better. 
  • I deserve so much more than this and I will put in the work to get it.

If this is where you are – good. You are ready.

But heed this call: take the suggested amount of time to internalise these lessons. If you jump ahead before you’ve completed them, you’re selling yourself short.

It’s important that I put this note here because last week’s goal and mission of sleep restriction is the bedrock of recovery. Even if your first week of sleep restriction doesn’t go well, you know what it takes to get a regular schedule. Set the foundation for good sleep, and change will come.

Avoidance Behaviour and Sleep Avoidance

There’s a neat mechanism that humans have developed to cope with pain – 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/gatherers (Anxiety Canada). 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 it – it shows up when you pass by your room and your heart rate goes up. When you go to bed, you’ll think ‘“ 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 by avoiding the feeling of failure or inadequacy, 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. 

The Importance of Challenging Negative Thoughts About Sleep

There are a few key components that go into overcoming insomnia. The first two, understanding your biology and creating a regular schedule, were covered in the first two weeks. As I’ve already mentioned, the next component that I’ll cover is modifying your thoughts and beliefs about sleep. Why? 

First, remember that anxiety cup I talked about in week 1? When you clear up the backlog of distressing thoughts and beliefs about sleep, you can stop the overflow of stress. And when you deal with the anxiety around sleep, it gives you more space to more adequately deal with whatever life throws at you in other areas.

Second, as someone currently suffering with insomnia, you have thoughts that self-perpetuate to make sleeping a far bigger issue than what it actually is. Your biology is wired, literally from your head to your toes, so you can sleep (if your toes are too cold, it makes it harder to sleep). Essentially insomnia makes the act of sleeping look like a marauding beast when it’s actually a moody cat you can roll your eyes at. 

The cat version of invisible lat syndrome. 

You need to haul these automatic thoughts and beliefs into the light because they are holding you back. They’re causing you to spiral, and you may not even be consciously aware of it. That’s why, even when you’re not thinking of anything in particular, your mind can keep you up when your body is exhausted. 

We take our thoughts way too damn seriously.

We have defeated thoughts around sleep that are just plain wrong and are often based in logical fallacies. (I’ll get into specific and common thoughts and beliefs in the next section) 

Have you ever thought that just because you didn’t sleep under certain circumstances (say, a stressful day at work or school), that you won’t sleep every time you experience stress? Or do you have specific habits, like avoiding wearing a certain pair of pajamas because the last time you wore those pajamas you didn’t sleep well? 

This is called circular reasoning, where we think if “A” is true because “B” is true, then “B” is true if “A” is true.

So if you experience stress or you wear certain pajamas (A) and you don’t sleep (B), then you don’t sleep (B) if you have stress or wear certain pajamas (A). Circular reasoning is essentially where we confirm one thought by convincing ourselves of another thought. The first thought isn’t inherently true on its own. By doing this, you are inaccurately judging both thoughts. 

How about this gem:

Have you ever thought, I didn’t sleep well this time last year so I won’t sleep again at the same time this year? Or maybe you believe that when there’s a full moon, you won’t sleep because the last full moon caused a restless night.

This is called retrospective determinism. It means that we believe something is happening under certain circumstances that is bound to happen again under the same circumstances. (FYI there’s no scientific evidence that a full moon disrupts your sleep, though plenty of astrologers would disagree). 

Another common logical fallacy among the sleep deprived is the fallacy of composition. This is when someone infers that something is true of the whole based on something being true for some part of the whole. So you think when you wake up in the middle of the night after a few hours the rest of the night is ruined. Or you won’t sleep this week because you didn’t sleep well last night. Or you won’t ever sleep again because you’ve had insomnia for X number of years. 

Not true. Again, you’re a biological being and have the ability to sleep.

You are not your thoughts.

Our brains are wired to have mental models that make it a lot easier to live life (Johnson-Laird, 2010). By having mental models, we don’t have to relearn everything every time it comes up. Once you learn to talk, walk, ride a bike, etc., that’s it. Life is a lot smoother that way. 

But sometimes we unnecessarily create distorted mental models, as I have hopefully shown above. Your thoughts can trick you. In reality, a lot of our assumptions are not only invalid, but are not helping us in any way. These excess thoughts and beliefs are like clouds in the sky that pass by. Yours might feel permanent because they’ve been hanging out for so long, but they absolutely are not. They don’t have to be a fixture in your mind if you don’t want them to be. 

You are not your thoughts.

I’ll say it again. You are not your thoughts.

If someone came up to you and said something unnecessarily judgemental, would you feel obligated to internalise their judgements? That’s what you’re doing to yourself. You are buying into your own gross errors of judgement. Your thoughts lie to you to an alarming degree. So I implore you, today, to stop putting up with your own lies. It’s not working for you, and you don’t have to let toxic thoughts and beliefs run your life.

Debunking Myths and Misconceptions About Sleep

Now that we’ve talked about how your mind can trick you into believing things that aren’t true, let’s dive into common misconceptions about sleep. These are so prevalent that you might not even realise they are part of your ‘common knowledge’ that is just straight up wrong. 

Misconception 1: You can sleep hack

I went off in week 2 on why I think sleep hacking (at least as described by new-agey or new-riche types) is complete and utter bullshit. Let me reiterate again – anyone who says you can get by on very little sleep in small increments is either lying, or hasn’t done it long enough to see the ill-effects, or is a money grubbing shill. Very few ‘entrepreneurs’ make me as mad as people who sell the idea that if only you didn’t sleep you’d be successful. 

Again, these ludicrous schedules not only mean you never get enough sleep, they also mean you need to sleep on demand which someone with insomnia can’t do. Nor is it something you want to do. People feel rested when they sleep in one consistent block of time. Period.

Misconception 2: Successful people don’t sleep

I SCREAM internally when I hear someone say, ‘well Obama doesn’t sleep’ and ‘Steve Jobs didn’t need sleep’. Like, alright Elon, go back to inventing your starships and portals then.

For the rest of us normies that want to live a healthy and even financially successful life, it involves rest. There is nothing – literally NO STUDIES – that correlates a lack of sleep with massive amounts of success. None. If there is, let me know and maybe I’ll change my opinion. But if you are holding onto insomnia just because you think your erratic schedule makes you better somehow, just know you’d do even better for yourself if you slept. 

“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in. Sleep, or how little of it we need, has become a symbol of our prowess. We make a fetish of not getting enough sleep, and we boast about how little sleep we get. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.” -Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post

Misconception 3: You need to sleep 8 hours

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. 

While you aren’t superior because of your lack of sleep, you aren’t inferior either for not sleeping the ‘golden number’ of 8 hours. Many people, including those who have insomnia, think they need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015). And when they don’t achieve 8 hours of sleep, they feel like they’ve failed. The 8 hour myth has put unnecessary stress on a lot of people, and I’m here to tell you right now that you don’t necessarily need 8 hours. 

It’s true that most adults need between 7-9 hours per night. The average is actually 7, and most adult’s nightly sleep averages between 6-8 hours. In fact, a 2013 Gallup poll shows that 40% of adults sleep less than 7 hours and 75% sleep less than 8 (Jones, 2013). 

It should be noted however that teenagers generally need at least 8.5 hours of sleep, and upwards of 10 (John Hopkins Medicine). So if you’re underage, your aim should be at least 8.5 hours. If you are the parent of someone who is underage, don’t wake them because you think they’re lazy. They literally need it for physical growth and brain development. 

Misconception 4: You’ll die sooner if you don’t sleep well

There is a common misconception that you are more likely to die an early death by simply not sleeping well. While it’s true you are more prone to accidents when sleep deprived (Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten, Altevogt, 2006; Gottlieb, Ellenbogen, Bianchi, Czeisler, 2018) you will NOT die an earlier death just because you aren’t sleeping well. 

Research involving millions of people from at least 35 scientific studies demonstrates that we do not need eight hours of sleep to – well – not die (Shenm Wu, Zhang, 2016). Here is the j-shaped graph that shows our mortality is at its lowest overall around the 7 hour mark. It also shows we’re better off sleeping 5 or 6 hours rather than 9 or more. 

“Figure 1. The dose-response analysis between nighttime sleep duration and risk of all-cause mortality. The solid line and the long dash line represent the estimated relative risk and its 95% confidence interval.” (Shenm Wu, Zhang, 2016).

Misconception 5: You’ll gain weight if you don’t sleep well

Another misconception is that you are more likely to gain weight if you don’t sleep. While it’s true that not sleeping can mess with some hormones around hunger, we are more likely to gain weight just because we’re awake for longer and therefore more prone to eating (Reutrakula, Van Cauter, 2018). Also, what makes us more likely to gain weight when not sleeping is the fact that it’s harder to muster up the energy to actually get up and exercise (Cooper, Neufeld, Dolezal, Martin, 2018). We’re simply more sedentary and therefore the normal number of calories we eat might be too much when we reduce our activity significantly. 

Misconception 6: You’re lucky if you don’t sleep

Ok, so again I get heated when I hear this. When I had insomnia, I was literally on the verge of suicide from a deep depression because of a lack of sleep. I had a few people say that I was lucky to not sleep because if it were them, they’d “gEt So MuCh DoNe”.

LUCKY. Like, ok Kyle. Try sleeping for a broken 0-6 hours per night for at least six weeks and see how much you get done. 

If you’re a normal sleeper that happens to wake up an hour or two earlier than normal, sure you can accomplish something in that time. But someone deep into insomnia is not in the mindstate to suddenly pick themselves up by the bootstraps and accomplish massive goals. 

So while insomnia isn’t some massive curse, it’s most certainly not a blessing either. 

Misconception 7: You’ll be mentally sluggish if you don’t sleep enough

The cognitive toll sleep deprivation has on you depends on you as a person (Alhola & Polo-Kantola, 2007), how much sleep was actually lost, and how often it happens. Generally elderly people are affected the most by sleep loss, and women can endure sleep loss more than men but recover slower. 

It also affects some areas of your life, but generally won’t affect others. Studies show that decision making, planning tasks, and rule-based reasoning are generally unaffected by inadequate sleep (Killgore, 2010), whereas creative and innovative thinking, and memory tasks do decline from lack of sleep (Killgore, 2010; Deak & Stickgold, 2010). 

Based on personal experience, the cognitive effects of sleep loss also depend on the situation. For example, you are a lot more likely to be on your A-game as a new, sleep deprived parent looking after a newborn because of the motivation and obligation of parenthood. Conversely, if you don’t sleep and have to deal with a bunch of boring meetings where you’re not engaged normally anyway, you’re going to have a far more difficult time. 

Misconception 8: All sleep is equal

Here’s the deal – as I mentioned before, most adults need 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night to feel their best the next day. However, there is a concept called “core sleep” which is a 5-6 hour period of sleep where we get nearly all of our deep sleep stages in, and about half of our REM sleep (Wauquier & van Sweden, 1992). If you remember from week one, these stages (stages 3, 4, and 5) are the most important in restoring our energy.

It has also been shown that sleep does not have to happen continuously. For example, you can sleep for 3 hours at the beginning of the night, wake up for a few hours in the middle of the night, and fall back asleep for 2-3 hours early in the morning. Your body would still get its core sleep in because our brains are hardwired to do so. It’s not optimal of course, but you at least get the fundamental parts of sleep.

Misconception 9: Perceived amount of sleep vs. the actual amount you got

Remember in week 1 when I mentioned in the sleep stages section that those with insomnia think they’re not sleeping during stage 2 of sleep? What this means is, you’re likely getting more sleep than you think. It also means you overestimate how long it takes you to get to sleep, because stage 2 happens shortly after falling asleep. 

Misconception 10: You will be in a bad mood

Losing sleep does make it more difficult to control your mood (Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors, 2006). However, if you’re in a bad mood after a poor night of sleep, a good percentage of your subpar mood is due to having negative thoughts around sleep rather than any actual biological changes. This means if you reduce your negative thoughts around sleep (irritability, depression, stress, anxiety, etc.) you will actually reduce the effects of insomnia on your daytime mood. 

If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you woke up after a sleepless night and thought “today is going to suck”. And then that day did suck. Conversely, think of when you lost sleep before a vacation or because of a fun party. Your next day may be sluggish and tired, but it isn’t nearly as terrible. 

Misconception 11: Go to bed earlier tonight if you didn’t sleep well last night

As I mentioned in week 2, going to bed earlier is one of the worst things you can do right now while trying to overcome insomnia. Your job right now (and forevermore) is to disassociate your bed from stress and sleeplessness. And to do that, you must go to bed at the same time every night to train your body. 

If you spend MORE time in bed not sleeping, you are reinforcing the subconscious belief that you should be even more alert and high strung when going to bed. Please, just don’t do that. 

Misconception 12: You can turn yourself into a short sleeper

Can you turn yourself into a short sleeper? I get asked this all the time by insomniacs and great sleepers alike. The former wants to see if they’ll ever be able to feel normal on an erratic schedule, and the latter are naive type-As that want to “get more done” and have no idea what sleep deprivation is really like. 

As mentioned previously, humans are wired for 7-9 hours per sleep in adulthood. The only people who feel rested on less than 7 hours are those with a mutated ADBR1 (Shi et. al, 2019) or DEC2 gene (Alvarez, 2019).

So how do you know if you have that particular mutation? There’s two ways:

  1. Go to a genetic counselor and ask them to test you for it, and/or
  2. Sleep consistently 6 hours or less per night and see if you feel refreshed and energised

That’s it. There’s no way to turn yourself into a short sleeper. 

📍 Quest #1

Write down your misconceptions


Which of the above misconceptions do you hold? Are there any others you can think of? 

I have listed some common misconceptions around sleep, but there are so many out there a book could be written about them. For example, many people have the misconception that a full moon or star alignments cause sleep disturbances, or if they don’t perform certain actions (e.g., having the radio on a certain station or the TV at a certain volume) they won’t sleep. 

Write down any beliefs you have around sleep, even if you don’t think they are a misconception.

When you are done, research why you are potentially wrong. When I say research, I mean don’t just Google it and find headlines in the top results. Look for and read multiple scientific studies from sites that publish reputable peer-reviewed research. See if your assumptions are confirmed or refuted. 

Common Negative Sleep Thoughts

Now that you understand the physiological processes that happen around sleep, how to get a regular sleep schedule, and why you should challenge your negative sleep thoughts, let’s dive into the negative sleep thoughts that keep insomnia in your life. 

I would venture a guess that once insomnia really started kicking in for you, you became deflated, anxious, and maybe even scared to sleep. From there, it’s hard not to spiral into negative thoughts. Then those thoughts only serve to prop up insomnia a little more. 

So this week, I want you to identify and truly think about what sort of thoughts come into your mind about sleep. It’s a bit of an exercise in mindfulness, because these negative thoughts can pop up at any time. Maybe you’re grocery shopping and your thoughts wander to those about sleep. Or you’re busy working but suddenly a distressing and deflating sleep thought just seems to appear from nowhere. 

See if any of these thoughts pop in your mind this week:

  • I won’t be able to sleep tonight
  • I don’t even want to go to bed tonight, there’s no point
  • Sleep is so stressful
  • I just toss and turn when I try to sleep
  • Why am I ruminating about the past when I need to sleep?!
  • I’m going to get sick if I don’t sleep
  • If I don’t sleep well tonight, I won’t be able to function tomorrow
  • I’ll never be able to fall asleep again
  • I’m an insomniac and will never be cured
  • I just don’t sleep I guess
  • I need to get 8 hours tonight, or I’ll fail tomorrow
  • If I don’t sleep tonight, I’ll have long term health problems
  • If I wake up in the middle of the night, I won’t be able to fall back to sleep
  • I hate myself for not sleeping
  • I feel depressed and anxious today because I didn’t sleep last night
  • This keeps getting worse
  • I can’t fall asleep without pills or substances
  • Why is this happening to me, this is so unfair
  • Even if I do fall asleep, I’ll wake up too early
  • I won’t be able to do anything tomorrow
  • This will never get better
  • What’s wrong with me? 

This self-deprecating internal dialogue perpetuates chronic insomnia. You have an expectation that you will be unable to sleep so it causes you enough anxiety to not sleep. I get it. I 100% get it because I’ve been there.

One of the cures to insomnia is changing your attitude towards sleep, and deeply internalising this change. By this I mean you don’t just push your thoughts away, you truly stop believing your negative thoughts. This is a necessary step because with chronic insomnia, it’s incredibly hard to say “tonight’s the night! I will sleep! HURRAH!” when your subconscious mind is like “haha NOPE”. 

Your subconscious mind

But the more you challenge your negative thoughts and replace them with comforting ones, the easier it will be to stop buying into the nonsense you are feeding yourself. Your conscious and unconscious mind work together to bring your anxiety around sleep down to a manageable level, or completely dissipate it.

Here’s the deal – you WILL eventually sleep. I keep repeating this over and over again because 1) it’s true and 2) I had chronic insomnia for years and didn’t believe I could sleep. Some things are getting in your way, one of which is your thoughts, so let’s identify them and spank ‘em with logic and reason.

To do this, I want you to write down a counter argument to the negative sleep thoughts you listed.

Here are some examples:

  • I’ve slept before, I’ll sleep again
  • When I didn’t sleep, I was still able to work
  • When I didn’t feel rested, I still exercised
  • I was able to play with my kids even when I didn’t get a full night
  • I’ve handled a bad night before, I can handle it again
  • My body and brain are capable of sleeping (it’s true – you’re a regular homo sapien that has biological rhythms to get you to sleep)
  • It’s normal to wake up during the night, even for those without insomnia
  • If I don’t sleep 8 hours, that’s ok – most people don’t sleep 8 hours, and a lot don’t even need 8 hours
  • I can still go out and have fun even if I’m not rested
  • Insomnia doesn’t run my life
  • I’m probably getting more sleep than I think I am
  • If I continue with good sleep hygiene and taking care of my mental health, it will get easier to fall asleep
  • If I wake up after 5 hours, it’s ok – I got my core sleep (I’ll cover this in the next section)
  • If I minimize my negative sleep thoughts, I will improve my daytime functioning because I won’t be as stressed
  • The techniques I’m learning have worked for others with insomnia, and they will work for me too
  • Insomnia is common and affects over half of adults at some point. I’m not alone. 
  • If I don’t sleep as well as I would like, that’s OK. I can still enjoy my day. 

Here’s another quick reminder to be gentle with how you treat yourself. Have patience with your own mind – you will be a lot more likely to sleep.

📍 Quest #2: Write a daily journal

I want you to create a daily journal of the negative sleep thoughts that come to mind. It will not only show you what you’re thinking, but also how much you’re actually bombarding yourself with negative thoughts surrounding sleep. Create a Google Doc, get a notebook app on your phone, or carry around an old fashioned paper notebook.

Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Write down your sleep thoughts as they come in. They might happen while you’re working, grocery shopping, or watching a show, etc. It doesn’t have to be complete sentences, just write down what comes to mind when you think of sleep. 
  2. Now rate your thoughts on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least intense with little reaction and 10 being powerful and impossible to ignore. Write down your emotion(s) (sad, angry, anxious, etc) about that thought. 
  3. Look back at step 1 and counter that thought with a rational thought. Here’s an example: You had a thought in step 1 “my sleep will never improve”. Counter that thought with rational thoughts, like “my sleep will improve if I put in the work” or “I have slept before so I will sleep again” etc. Rate your belief in the counter-thought on a scale of 1 to 10. 
  4. Rerate your automatic thought from step 1 on a scale of 1-10 after countering it with rational thought. Then specify your subsequent emotions.
  5. If your automatic thought doesn’t come down in emotional intensity to a degree that you want, go back to step 3 and keep digging for a rational thought that minimizes the impact of your automatic thought. 

Here’s an example:

Sleep thoughtRate your sleep thought and describe emotion(s)Counter your sleep thoughtRerate your initial sleep thought and emotions
My sleep will never improveEmotional intensity of sleep thought: 8
Anxious, stressed, defeated
My sleep will improve if I put in the work, I have the ability to sleep – I slept well for 27 years before this
Belief in thought: 4
Feeling toward initial sleep thought after rationalisation: 6
Still stressed and anxious; skeptical that I can sleep but have a bit of optimism

Sleep Debt (or Sleep Deficit)

If I had a quarter for every time someone thought they were screwed for life because of sleep debt, I’d have about $100 by now.

So what is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is when you lose sleep and ‘the balance’ carries over to the next day (Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School, 2018). So let’s say your optimal amount of sleep is 8 hours but you sleep for 6, you have a sleep debt of 2 hours. If you don’t sleep well for a few nights, it compounds. For example, if you sleep 6 hours for three nights in a row, you now have 6 hours of sleep debt. 

Sleep debt is paid off by sleeping an extra hour or two per night until you’ve paid off your debt (Webster, 2008). Depending on how long you have been carrying sleep debt around, it may take days, weeks or months to repay. 

There is a big misconception that if you didn’t sleep well for a few nights a few years ago, you have been carrying around sleep debt ever since. But if you have been sleeping fine ever since, you are not carrying around any sleep debt. 

What Sleep Debt Means for Insomnia

Here’s the deal with sleep debt, and the specifics around how to ‘repay’ while having insomnia.

As someone with insomnia, you will not be able to pay it off right away. The reason for this is you need a regular schedule first (as outlined in the sleep restriction section). By doing this, yes, you will accumulate debt. But it’s an investment that will grow with well-being dividends. 

Here’s what I mean – as you are recovering from insomnia and trying to get a sleep schedule, it isn’t recommended that you suddenly go from an erratic schedule to aiming for 9 or 10 hours per night. There are necessary steps in between. 

It’s kind of like training for a marathon. You don’t go from not running at all to suddenly running 42.2 kilometers. You train to run 5k, 10k, a half marathon, etc. before you tackle the whole thing. 

Just as you’d probably fracture your shins when you go from 0 to a whole marathon, you would be remiss to go from an erratic sleep schedule to thinking you should sleep 10 hours straight per night. There’s some mental and physical work that needs to be done in between for that to even be possible.

How an Insomniac Repays Sleep Debt

Here are the steps you need to ultimately get a healthy sleep schedule:

  1. Sleep in one solid block of time in accordance with sleep restriction guidelines
  2. Once you are sleeping a solid block for one week straight, you add 15 minutes to that block of time do that for one week
  3. Continue adding 15 minutes to your sleep time until you reach at least 7 hours of sleep OR you begin to feel rested on most days. So if you don’t feel rested on 7 hours per night, keep adding 15 minutes per week until you do feel rested.
  4. Do a gut check. As I mentioned above, repaying sleep debt means sleeping an extra hour or two sometimes. If you play with your schedule too soon (before you dissociate from negative emotions around sleep), this will set you back and throw off the progress you’ve made. So do not even begin to think of repaying your sleep debt until you have a relaxed attitude around sleep.
  5. Now that you’re relaxed and sleep isn’t a major issue in your life, repay your debt. By this point, you are regularly sleeping 7+ hours per night in one block AND your attitude has shifted around sleep. You can now begin sleeping in or going to bed earlier as needed without dramatically throwing off your following night. 
  6. Once your debt is repaid, you will gradually decrease the amount of time you need to sleep and settle into your natural sleep pattern that is just right for you.

Unlike training for a marathon which normally takes one year if you’re a beginner, it won’t take you as long to repair your sleep debt once you have a regular schedule. It may take a few months, but you can undo literally years of sleep debt.

Some people do this by booking a holiday and doing nothing. Literally nothing. Like, don’t book a European vacation and plan full days of sightseeing and wine tours. Book a secluded cabin in the woods where there’s not much to do other than enjoy being surrounded by nature. 

Emerald Lake Lodge. Photo by Jody Robbins

The goal is to sleep and wake up when you want, and have your day contain no stress whatsoever. I did this twice – once while camping for a week on Canada’s west coast, and 10 days in Iceland in April. The camping was great because there were no devices. I went to sleep when it got dark (around 10pm) and didn’t wake up until 8 or 9am. Iceland was awesome too because it was so dead and cold in April that there wasn’t much to do other than sit in a hot tub and watch the northern lights and relax.

If you’re thinking, “I can’t do that – I have rowdy kids or too much to do!” Listen. You need to make time for yourself. You don’t need to go anywhere – send the kids to grandma’s, cancel all plans, and lounge around all day for a weekend. Order food so there’s no dishes. If you’re bothered by messes, do all the cleaning leading up to your weekend.  Better yet, hire a professional cleaner if you can. This isn’t the time to check off your to-do list. The only thing you should be doing is whatever the hell you feel like and sleeping.

It’s not selfish to take a bit of time for yourself. It’s necessary self-care. And not in the indulgent “I’m going to shirk all my responsibilities and have the time of my life while other people are having a hard time” kind of way. If you do your due diligence, no one else suffers when you take time. Kids are well taken care of. Responsibilities can wait, or be done beforehand. 

What I’m talking about is necessary maintenance to your wellbeing. Your health is the most important thing in your life. Your mental and physical health, which sleep is a fundamental part of, are literally the backbone to everything else in your life.

Once the Debt is Repaid

A funny thing happens once you repay your debt. When you miss sleep again, you’ll feel way more tired than you would have on the same amount of sleep as an insomniac. So what that means is when you sleep 6 hours as an insomniac, it doesn’t affect you very much. But once you top up that sleep piggy bank, 6 hours will make you feel groggier than hell. There’s no actual difference in the effect, other than sleep deprivation being more noticeable.

Can I Stock Up on Sleep!?

If only, right? Smartasses telling parents-to-be to “SleEp WhiLe YoU cAn” would actually have a point. But alas, they are wrong. Dead wrong. Here’s why:

In short, think of your sleep health as a piggy bank like this:

There is a limited amount of space, so it can only get so full. Your goal is to always keep it topped up, because there is no room for extra savings. Once the piggy is full, it actually can’t handle anymore.

When you have sleep debt, you’re withdrawing from the bank account. It’s ok when this happens every once in a while, because it’s easy enough to top up if it’s still relatively full. But once it’s depleted, it’s harder to get those first few pennies back. 

However, just like it can only get so full, it can only get so empty too. So you won’t have an infinite list of IOU’s to repay, you just need to prioritise savings for a while. 

More Beliefs Stopping You From Sleeping

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 thoughts and beliefs. 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 us (Dwyer, 2018). 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. Why? 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. 

Pessimism Bias

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 brush (Bateson, 2016). 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.

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 again (Yagoda, 2018), 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 and behaviours 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. You probably slept well for extended periods in your life as a teenager or adult. 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 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 life (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009). 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

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.

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 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

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. 

Week 3 Checklist

Insomnia is something that came into your life because the overwhelming nature of life had to overflow somewhere when you didn’t deal with things as they came up. For some people, it is a neurotic compulsion to organize. For others, it’s endlessly searching for the perfect job, place to live, or partner. Some turn to substances. For you, it’s insomnia. 

This week, I covered how to start challenging your thoughts around insomnia and stop buying into them so much. Sometimes you’ll challenge yourself and know logically your counterpoint is right, but part of you still doesn’t believe it. When this happens, keep going. Because the more you practice modifying your thinking, the easier it’ll become to neutralise the negative that comes in.

So let’s recap:

  1. Keep up week 1’s exercises

Get out of bed when you can’t sleep, calm your nervous system down (see week 1 again if you need a refresher), and see your doctor if you haven’t already.

2. Keep going with week 2

Continue with sleep restriction and avoiding naps. This will carry through all six weeks of this program and beyond. Also, how are the lifestyle improvements going? If the two things you picked are still a bit shaky in terms of turning them into habits, keep at it. If it was easy for you, add another lifestyle factor this week that will help you improve sleep.

3. Do all quests and mini quests this week

I want you to do quest #1 at least once this week, and quests #2 and #3 every day this week. Quest #2 will help you diffuse some of the negative emotions around sleep, and quest #3 helps to develop some self-compassion.

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