Week 4 – Transform Your Emotional Response to Sleep

Understand the inner workings of your mind for a deep, restful sleep.

Introduction to Week 4

Hello! I warmly welcome you to week 4.

I hope by now you are deep in the trenches of sleep restriction and starting to see some progress after two weeks. I truly wish that you are one of the fortunate ones who goes from an erratic schedule to a solid block of sleep every night relatively quickly. 

But if you’re not there yet, that’s ok. 

It can take time for your body to realign itself with a regular sleep schedule. For me, this first stage of sleep restriction took me about four weeks with a few slip ups here and there (sleeping in late on weekends and napping longer than I was supposed to). 

If you do slip up like I did, simply pick yourself up and try again the next day/night. Yes, you’re not supposed to nap excessively or sleep in. And yes, slipping up will mean it takes you longer to get a regular sleep schedule. But just get back on the proverbial horse the following day. If you stay committed day in, day out, you will see progress.

The more you train yourself to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, the easier it’ll become over time. And the easier it becomes, the less stress you will feel around sleep in general, making it even easier to sleep. It’s building a positive feedback loop between your brain and body.

I also hope you are putting in the work to rearrange your thinking around sleep. This is just as critical as the biological component. 

  • The first step that we covered in week 1 was to stop your F3 alarm by getting out of bed when you can’t sleep and doing something that helps calm you. These include breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visualisation, or distraction. 
  • Week 2 was all about reconfiguring those automatic thoughts and behaviours that are contributing to insomnia.
  • The next layer to rearranging your thinking around sleep was challenging your thoughts and beliefs as discussed in week 3. 

Speaking of which, how did that go? This can be two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes, challenging yourself works. But other times you can try to convince yourself until you’re blue in the face that you’ll finally sleep tonight and it still doesn’t stop anxiety from taking over. It’s like you can reject all of the negative things and tell yourself to believe all of the positive things, but your subconscious mind overrides any rational thought.

This is where this week comes in. We’ll be peeling back another layer of built up anxiety around sleep, so those ingrained negative thoughts around sleep can be dealt with effectively. In other words, the first three weeks were like dealing with the fire after it was already lit. 

Now we’re going to look for sparks before the fire ignites in the first place. 

🎯 Goal

This week I’ll be providing some tools to help you disconnect from your negative thoughts and feelings around sleep. It doesn’t mean you’ll get rid of them, but it means you’ll be able to see them for what they are – just ineffable things that pass by. Things you don’t have to buy into.

🏁 Mission

Negative thoughts appear and they can’t always be actively countered with rational or positive thinking. The mission this week is to find another avenue to deal with these toxic thoughts and strong emotions that pop up. 

Self Compassion: The Great Insomnia Tamer

If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?

RuPaul

I wanted to touch briefly on self compassion, and what it means for you at this time in your insomnia journey. 

What you’re going through right now is truly difficult. I know, because I have been where you are. It can feel like an endless cycle of trudging through your days, and suffering through your nights.

It’s an emotionally numb yet neurotic existence that can, at worst, feel deeply debilitating and depressing. You want so desperately to sleep but can’t (though I hope you are starting to at this point). You didn’t wake up one day (excuse the pun) and decide to not be able to sleep at night. This wasn’t part of the plan – it’s not part of anyone’s plan. 

But for now, this is the hand you were dealt for one reason or another. And what I want you to do is find some compassion for yourself as you’re traveling through this sometimes straightforward, sometimes daunting, insomnia mountain pass. 

I want you to recognise that you are incredibly capable of achieving the resiliency needed to stay on course. It can take time. When you’re taking the journey to overcome insomnia, there may be twists and turns where progress isn’t always linear. But if you keep going, there will be plenty of days where you make leaps in progress. 

You are powerful. You might not fully realise it, but I hope you are beginning to believe in yourself that you have it in you to sleep soundly, and regularly.

You’re on a tough, but manageable journey – you have my guarantee that this mountain to climb is well within your abilities. Your drive that you have to overcome this problem in your life is something to be admired and appreciated by you. 

Also, I want you to know you are deserving of empathy and understanding towards yourself. This manageable mountain path may feel very unmanageable at times.

Maybe you have started making progress and made your way up a few hundred metres. Maybe there have been switchbacks that can feel like you’re barely making progress. Or maybe those first few steps have led you to trip and fall.

It’s ok. Give yourself a tender understanding that this mountain can sometimes be treacherous. As trite as it sounds, this too shall pass. Tell yourself that you’ll be okay, get back up and keep going. You’ve got this. 

Give yourself some credit.

Having self compassion means being able to forgive yourself for perceived shortcomings, accepting that you’re human and will make mistakes from time to time, and loving yourself when you’re not living up to your own standards (Neff, 2021). It’s knowing when you are having a tough time and giving yourself patience and kindliness when you need it. 

Self compassion is being able to be kind to yourself rather than judgemental. It’s acknowledging  that things are actually hard right now, and it’s normal to feel down. It’s not wallowing in self pity, it’s knowing there’s a perfectly valid reason to feel sad and giving yourself warmth when you need it. It’s not self indulgent to give yourself compassion either (Neff, 2021).

The difference between the two is almost as stark as night and day. Self indulgence ignores your experience – self compassion cares and guides you through your experience. 

You’re having a difficult time. Recognise that not sleeping well one night sucks, because it does. But recognise that it’s not the end of the world either. You are still here, and still persevering. 

You are strong for embarking on this journey. You are to be commended for being open to learning and growing. And you are deserving of rest. 

I hope you see that in yourself. 

Cognitive Fusion and Defusion

Like all humans with a storytelling mind, we continually tell ourselves narratives throughout our day. We interact with our thoughts and beliefs without even realising it, which causes an emotional reaction in us. As a result, our day can take on a certain tone even when the reality of our current situation is much different. 

For example, say you had a perfectly average day. You showered, went to work where nothing remarkable happened, ate food, etc. Nothing particularly good or bad happened, it was just a day. 

But it didn’t feel like just another day because you were ruminating about something someone said to you once that pisses you off when you think of it. Maybe you’re thinking of an upcoming situation that you perceive will be stressful. So this perfectly average day is now coloured by emotions like anger and anxiety even though those things didn’t actually happen today, or have yet to come to pass.

This is called cognitive fusion. Cognitive fusion is when we highly associate with our thoughts and beliefs and they elicit a reaction out of us (Harris, 2009).

They’re strong enough to cause distress and emotional pain. You are perhaps so entangled that you can’t do what you want to do in a day, or you’re stuck over-analysing yourself to the point of it being unhelpful (Harris, 2009). You believe that you are your thoughts, and your thoughts and emotions are getting in the way of living. You are effectively unable to step back from your thoughts and see that they are separate from the real you. You are now tangled in a thought web. 

But what if you experienced your perfectly average day only for what it was? 

It doesn’t mean your mind won’t try to pull you into its web. But you can develop a more cunning approach so as to not be attracted to the sheen of the silk. 

This is cognitive defusion. It’s when you are able to take a step back from your thoughts and beliefs and recognise that they aren’t always a true reflection of reality. They aren’t actually out there in the world, commanding you to follow them or causing you any real threat (Harris, 2009). You see them as only part of your experience as a human. They are only a fraction of your awareness and they don’t define you.

I’ll say it again – your thoughts and feelings don’t define you. You can experience them, but they aren’t you.

So how do I know if I’m fused with my thoughts?

If you really want to get any results, there is official diagnostic criteria that can be administered through a psychologist. However, here are some quick questions to see if you are fused with your thoughts:

  1. I get upset at myself when I have certain thoughts or emotions
  2. I want to control my thoughts and emotions, or stop them completely
  3. My emotions are a problem that need to be solved
  4. When I have an uncomfortable feeling, I actively try to avoid it or distract myself
  5. My thoughts and emotions are getting in the way of the life I want to live

Conversely, if you are properly diffused from your thoughts, you know you don’t have to buy into whatever comes to mind. There is a sense of distance or otherness with your thoughts and emotions. 

Cognitive Fusion and Insomnia

So what does this all mean for you dealing with insomnia? 

There was a reason you developed insomnia in the first place, and now you have thoughts, emotions, and beliefs around sleep that are perpetuating insomnia whether or not that initial trigger is still there. You’re entangled with the belief that you can’t sleep or won’t sleep, even if you’re not consciously thinking about those things. 

To detach yourself, you need to ‘unhook’ yourself from these unhelpful thoughts.

One method I touched on in week 3 was treating yourself as if you were a three year old, or as if you’re speaking with a three year old. If you’ve ever met a three year old, you would’ve seen that they have big feelings they don’t know what to do with. They rely on adults to help manage their emotions and give them coping skills so when the same emotions pop up for bigger situations later on, they can apply the same principles. Doing this gives you a chance to essentially reparent yourself with the way you want to be treated and consoled.

Another method I touched on extensively in week 3 was challenging your thoughts. But this may not work all of the time. 

The reason? We are wired to do things automatically so we don’t have to relearn everything all the time (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2020). Imagine if you always had to relearn, every single day, that you shouldn’t touch a hot stove or look before you cross the street. These memory patterns in our brain allow us to expend our energy learning new things. But when it comes to thoughts and beliefs where the pathway is as well-trodden as the useful automatic thoughts, that obviously works against you and your wellbeing.

It can take time to tread a new path, and I encourage you to continue to challenge your thoughts so you can create new brain pathways. But until they are forged, here are some other methods to help you unhook from your thoughts. 

Name and Label Your Thoughts and Emotions

Give your thoughts and feelings a name. It could be something like “I notice that I am having an anxious feeling” or “that’s a planning thought that just popped up”. By doing this, you get some distance that these aren’t actually you. Your current reality is something different, but you acknowledge that these thoughts are just passing by like strangers on the street.

You can also give thoughts and feelings actual names like Bob or Karen. That way you can say to yourself “ok Karen I hear you are mad, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now” or “alright Bob, you are trying to plan my life while I’m trying to sleep, let’s table that until the morning.” Again it provides that distance, or distinction, between your actual self and thoughts that float by.

Give Your Thoughts a Literal Voice

Alternatively, give your thoughts and feelings a voice like it was a radio host, news anchor, TV announcer, or maybe even someone you find silly. Essentially when thoughts come up, you treat them as external media that’s yapping at you. So for example, instead of saying to yourself “I’m not good enough” you would frame it as “Good morning and welcome to [your name]’s daily hot takes. In today’s news, they think they’re not good enough”. In other words, see them as scrolling “breaking news” updates.

Thank Your Thoughts

Thank your thoughts and emotions for bringing something to your attention, like some overly concerned person looking out for your wellbeing. So instead of saying “I’m so anxious about the presentation tomorrow”, you would say “thank you mind for bringing that up – I did xyz to prepare so I’ll be okay”. Thanking your thoughts acknowledges them without pushing them away to pop up stronger at a later time.

Leaves on a Stream

Here you imagine your thoughts as leaves on a stream. To do this, close your eyes and picture yourself sitting in front of a gentle stream. In fact, you can listen to meditations of water running on Insight Timer (not affiliated) to help you get into it. When a thought appears, picture it as a leaf that came down the stream. Just as quickly as they appear in your awareness, so do they float on away. This also works if you picture clouds or cars as your thoughts – there’s no need to chase them, they are just passing by. 

📍 Quest #1

Everyone is hooked onto thoughts and emotions in one way or another. What will you do this week to try and unhook from your thoughts?

Your Mind/Body Connection

The connection between your mind and your body is a fascinating tale of how thoughts and emotions can affect your overall wellbeing. The two interact constantly and are intertwined with each other’s functions. 

What this means is your physical and emotional bodies aren’t separate entities (Ramirez, 2021). Your physical health affects your mind, and your mind affects your physical health – for better or for worse.

To start, it’s important to point out that the mind and physical brain aren’t the same thing. Your mind is where your mental states, such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images, exist (Hart, 2016). And your brain is the mechanism that allows you to experience these mental states. 

The first interaction, (our physical health affecting our mind) is well documented for pretty much any bodily ailment or environmental hazard that humans encounter. For example, air pollution has been linked to anxiety and suicidality in children (Brokamp, Strawn, Beck, Ryan, 2019), off-balance gut microbiomes are closely linked with anxiety and depression (The New South Wales Ministry of Health, 2021), and stress alters white cell function that helps ward off infections and disease (Carnegie Mellon University, 2012). 

However, the reverse (our mind affecting our physical health) hasn’t been as well studied. Though this concept has been widely believed across cultures for nearly a millennium, it wasn’t accepted until the latter part of the 20th century in the western world, and only recently taken more seriously in academia. 

But scientific research has so far shown what many have already believed to be true for a long time – our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and attitudes affect our physical health by sending corresponding physical signals in our body (Benedetti, Carlino, and Pollo, 2010). It doesn’t even matter if these mental states are positive or negative, or part of our conscious awareness or not, they still show up in our bodies (Selva, 2020). 

As Dr. James Gordon, the founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, said:

the brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another.

To take things further, researchers in Finland have actually mapped where we feel certain emotions, whether it’s fear in our hearts or the warm glow of happiness (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietanen, 2014). There is also a more recent study from the same researchers (2018) that maps over 100 different states (positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive processes, somatic states, and illnesses). What is truly remarkable is how specific emotions correspond to specific body parts across cultures, with only minor differences between people who live in the eastern world and western world, and men and women (Volynets et. al, 2020).

Figure 2 (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietanen, 2014)

To start, take a look at the scale on the right – it is the activation (or deactivation) of emotions in the body. In other words, it’s how much you physically feel emotions in certain parts of the body. 

Now take a look at the figure on the furthest top right of the image – this shows our natural ‘neutral state’ of 0. 

Next, compare the activated figures: happiness (middle, top row) and love (second from the left, bottom row). They show strong full-body activations, like your whole body gets a warm, fuzzy feeling when you feel positive emotions (though interestingly but not surprisingly, happiness’s strongest activation point is the heart and head, and love is the heart, face, and groin). 

There are other emotions with strong activations as well. Anger (far right, top row), for example, is localised to the upper part of the body. The hands and mouth area are much more energized than happiness, showing an activated fight-or-flight response. 

An interesting comparison to note is the difference between fear (second from the left, top row) and anxiety (far left, bottom row). It almost appears as if anxiety is a similar, but more heightened, emotion than fear. The biggest difference is with anxiety you feel it more in your chest and less in your legs. 

Now take a look at depression (third from the left, bottom row) and sadness (third from the right, top row) – they both show a void of emotion, except sadness is felt in the heart, throat, and eyes. Makes sense – when we’re sad, we’re “heartbroken”, “choked up” and get “teary eyed”. However, depression is apathy – a complete void, like we’ve lost our sense of self. There’s a really good comic about depression by Hyperbole and a Half that has been described as a powerfully accurate representation of the emotion. 

What this all means is that emotions are indeed felt in the body. Some of the many physical ailments caused by negative thoughts and emotions you may experience are nausea, a sore back, tense muscles, intestinal distress, and a clenched jaw. It’s an interesting interplay where once you notice it, it becomes apparent what you’re feeling just by paying attention to your body.

Emotions are there for a reason – they are trying to get you to listen. 

The goal here isn’t to “get rid of” your emotions. We as humans have pretty cool brains that do all sorts of neat things, and one of those things is to make us aware of emotions in an effort to survive. They are there to tell you something important. 

Sadness for example, indicates a loss and is meant to help us slow down and process things. Anger is a sign that a boundary has been crossed (Gustafson, 2019). Guilt shows us that we didn’t live up to our own values (not to be confused with the concept of shame, which is a general feeling of contempt, unworthiness, and inadequacy in yourself imposed by external sources [National Institute for the Clinic Application of Behavioral Medicine]).

Conversely, love and happiness are there to provide those lovely love hormones that make us want to connect more and create meaningful bonds with people (Gustafson, 2019). Gratitude is within you to give yourself some compassion for who you are, who you were, and who you will be. 

brown wooden i love you wooden blocks

They are like little messengers telling you what to do with yourself. How you respond to those emotions can make things better for you – or much worse. This is the cognitive defusion concept I discussed previously where we allow ourselves to feel, but how we react and the intensity of our reaction needs to be honed in.

So no, your thoughts and emotions aren’t “all in your head” like you may have been led to believe as a child by a well-meaning, but emotionally vacuous adult. With that being said, there are methods of changing your relationship to your thoughts and emotions which I touched on in week 3, and will continue to discuss in weeks 4 and 5. 

If you think you can just “let go” of your emotions (aka ignore them), you aren’t doing yourself any favours and in fact may be hurting yourself further. One study found that suppressing emotions causes a poorer memory (Richards and Gross, 1999) and another found that bottling up emotions causes aggression (University of Texas at Austin, 2011). 

Of course, the other reason you shouldn’t ignore thoughts and emotions is that they cause physical aches and pains that may have been otherwise avoided. And the more you ignore them, the more they try to get your attention by producing symptoms in my body. This is particularly true for negative emotions. 

So stop ignoring and start acknowledging your emotions. Yes, YOU. The person reading this. I know you are avoiding something that needs some loving attention. 

You know how I know?

Because you have insomnia. 

As The School of Life said:

insomnia is the mind’s revenge for something extremely important we have forgotten to do in the day, namely, think.

Your body is displaying what I think is the ultimate “HEY LOOK AT ME!” symptoms. You can’t ignore insomnia – it’s persistent, adamant, and determined to get your attention. And it’s always there to knock on your door, reminding you that there are unfelt feelings and unthought thoughts that want to be acknowledged.  

As I have mentioned on both the front and about page, I no longer have chronic insomnia. But that doesn’t mean a sleepless night doesn’t pop up sometimes. This is the reason why a night of poor sleep pops up, even after five years of overcoming chronic insomnia – I am suppressing something that needs to be brought to my awareness and dealt with. Once I do that, I sleep. 

If you feel like you don’t quite understand why you feel a certain way, these maps of the physical body is one way to perhaps recognise what you’re feeling within yourself. For example, you may not even know you feel particularly anxious until you are aware of how tight your chest feels, or maybe you notice a fuzziness in your head. There are other ways to understand yourself better, and I’ll get into those ways next.

Connecting With Yourself

You are the culmination of a vast number of experiences, memories, history, and so much more. There is plenty of material for you to sit back and cherish or analyse for at least a few moments a day. But how often do you create space to truly connect with yourself to ask “how are you?”

Sometimes we go through the weeks, months, or even years without really stopping to check in and take a genuine interest in our own experience. We become complacent in our own lives, and forget that we need to analyse, without undermining nor exasperating, how our experience has been and how to process it. 

The default mode is that we think we just need to “let things go” or “move on” without much thought. Or we think something that has happened is unimportant to us simply because we think it should be, but it really isn’t.

Those thoughts and feelings, especially recurring ones that cause you even a slight bit of discomfort, need to be noticed and listened to. Even if they seem silly or inconsequential, they just want to be seen and heard.

Our life is like a golden thread being woven through a rich and complicated tapestry that isn’t completely of our own making. 

gray and white star print textile

Surely, a lot of it is what we created – we chose what we’re going to do, and where we’re going to be, and how we’re going to go about it. However, there’s a lot that shaped us that’s outside of our control, like the time and place of our birth. There are the people you’ve come across who have affected you in one way or another. There are the parents you inherited. There are the significant events that changed your life. These have all shifted your sense of self in some way or another, for better or worse. 

But that golden thread is still there. Our true selves are never lost, but sometimes past issues can color unrelated experiences that occur later. It’s strange and magnificent to think of how intertwined our whole being is. Not only our minds and bodies, but how we connect to ourselves through time and space. And sometimes you have to consciously reach for that golden thread lest you get lost in the fray.

The goal here is to neither suppress nor exaggerate your thoughts and emotions – they’re just there, and want to be acknowledged. Here’s a few ways you can do that. 

Philosophical Meditation

The idea of philosophical meditation, rather than traditional eastern meditation, was proposed by The School of Life. I find it rather interesting, and I thought it may be helpful to you.

Essentially we get so caught up in our own lives, in our own thoughts and emotions, that it’s quite difficult to keep up. So they pile on top of each other, to the point where it turns into a sort of static electricity of anxiety running in the background.

It doesn’t have to be anything major either. It can be things like keeping a mental checklist of all the project management you have to do in your life. It could be a niggling little sensation that the conversation you had with your coworker had some undertones you’re not comfortable with. Or perhaps you’re unconsciously anxious about things you can’t control, like what the weather will be tomorrow.

Instead of doing a traditional meditation where you try to calm your mind, philosophical meditation seeks to confront everything that makes you anxious, upset, and excited. Because once you acknowledge all the inner workings of your mind, a clear picture starts to emerge. And the more you acknowledge these unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, the clearer the image becomes and the less power they’ll have over you.

You can watch the video here on how to perform philosophical meditation: Philosophical Meditation – YouTube

What Makes You Mad

yellow and black smiley wall art

This is different from what I just touched on in philosophical meditation. Philosophical meditation focuses on the micro issues of your life – what I’m talking about here is what makes you mad on a macro level. 

Maybe it’s a particular environmental issue, like salmon farming or local litter. Maybe it’s animal rights and veganism, or children on display for the whole world on youtube. Maybe it’s a particular social or political issue. 

Whatever the case, there can be some deep discomfort there that needs to be acknowledged. And not in a “doom scroll” kind of way, but in a “take action” or “find some resolve” kind of way. 

I will touch more on this in week 5, but in today’s world, where the line between real life and online life is blurred, I think it’s important to actually take some measures to do your part and feel good about it. 

Talk to Your Thoughts

Imagine yourself sitting across the table from your thoughts (again you can give them names or physical forms). When they’re sitting across from you saying whatever it is they say, ask this thought why. Why do they think that about you? 

When they give a response, ask them why again. The first answer is usually just a strawman you create in your mind based on those unhelpful pathways you formed long ago, so push ‘em to the side a bit here. 

This second response may seem almost as strong as the first, so ask why yet again. You’ll find that the more you drill down into these unhelpful thoughts, the more you’ll see that they don’t have a leg to stand on. They may have even been put there by other people in your life, because of THEIR insecurities and judgements about themselves. 

Or perhaps you’ll find that some thoughts are signals to take something about yourself more seriously. The answer may be sobering when you ask “why”. Maybe you haven’t fully dealt with whatever life threw at you. Maybe it’s trying to get you to acknowledge a boundary that was crossed, or a value that needs to be reassessed. 

So question your thoughts ruthlessly, and ask them “why” at least three times. 

Body Scan

A body scan is when you go through your whole body, part by part, and acknowledge what’s going on there without trying to actively change it. It may sound a lot like progression or passive muscle relaxation, but the goal with a body scan is to simply be with your body and breathe. Focus on each part and breathe “into” each individual muscle or organ a few times. 

This relates back to the mind-body connection where you notice the areas you are holding in tension. So the goal here is to breathe in “calm” and breathe out “tension”. I personally like to light a candle or open a window to get a sense that the tension I am “releasing” has somewhere to go, either being burned or flying out the window. There are many guided body scan meditations on both YouTube and Insight Timer. 

Immerse Yourself in Nature

Getting out in nature has countless health benefits including lowering your blood pressure, enhancing immune system function, reducing anxiety and more. One study with nearly 20,000 participants showed that spending at least 2 hours per week in nature showed a substantial benefit for physical and mental wellbeing (White et al., 2019). Another showed that having access to green spaces in cities increases life expectancy (Templeton, 2019). There are another 1,000 studies that prove the benefits of immersion in nature (Robbins, 2020). 

In other words, when we spend time in nature, we strip away all that excess mind-junk swirling around us and get back to the core of who we really are. So go ahead and take a forest bath. Feel the regenerative effects and connect with your authentic being. 

Be a Kid For a Day

When was the last time you just let the day take you where you wanted it to? Really think of the sort of day you had when you were a carefree kid. When school was out for the summer, it was a beautiful day, and you had the whole day ahead of you.

Create that day for yourself. Eat the sugary cereal, wander aimlessly around your neighbourhood, play some vintage games. Throw in some adult indulgences too if you want because, hey, you’re a kid for a day but not an actual kid. 

Let your own desires guide you, and let everything wait for tomorrow. It may reveal a fun part of yourself that you need to nurture more.

Uncover Unconscious Thoughts

The unconscious mind is crucial to how we interact with ourselves, other people, and the world at large. While it was believed to play a lesser “shadow” part of our being for centuries, the unconscious mind has been shown to be just as complex, deliberate, and perceptive as our conscious counterpart (Bargh and Morsella, 2008). The current research is split into two ideologies – the New Look research, where “the person did not intend to engage in the process and was unaware of it; [and]…skill-acquisition research,[where] the person did intend to engage in the process, which, once started, was capable of running off without need of conscious guidance.” (Bargh and Morsella, 2008).

Research still needs to be done (from what I can see, anyway) to fully understand the unconscious mind. However, I do believe there are ways that you can access your inner workings.

Dreams

This is always fun to say to someone currently experiencing insomnia…but when you DO fall asleep, I want you to pay attention to your dreams.

Freud believed that the dreams were the “royal road” to the unconscious (Freud Museum London). He thought that dreams contained your hidden fears, desires, and feelings. More recently, researchers have hypothesized that dreams consolidate memories, process emotions, express true desires, and/or gain practice confronting potential dangers. However, we have yet to get a conclusive answer on why we actually dream (Cherry, 2021).

With that being said, I’m personally a big believer that our dreams offer insight into our subconscious mind. It’s a window into what hasn’t quite materialized into our consciousness, or what we haven’t processed yet. I truly believe in the universality of archetypes in dreams, and it is the reason why so many people have had the same dreams of teeth falling out, being chased, or flying. 

When you wake up, try to remember, and even write down, all of the details including seemingly inconsequential things. Look up every detail in a dream dictionary (there are several available online) to put together a full picture of what may need your attention in waking life. 

Get Creative

assorted-color paints

Your conscious mind is logical and capable of expressing itself through words, writing, and language. The subconscious, however, is free from the constraints of language and expresses itself through imagery, music, and sounds. That’s why artistic pursuits, like playing an instrument, creating art, dancing, and other forms of self expression, can make you feel like you are opening up a side of yourself that feels oddly familiar yet rarely seen. 

Creativity doesn’t have to be defined by one domain or another, either. For example, some people express themselves through cooking or baking. Others express themselves through building things or decorating their home. However you choose to get creative, you will become in tune with another authentic part of yourself that seeks to be seen and heard. 

📍 Quest #2

There are many methods to connect to your emotional self. This week, I want you to pick one of the above ways to help clear up some mind gunk that has inadvertently blocked you from sleeping. 

Meditation For Insomnia

beaded beans

Meditation is the act of training your awareness and attention so you can achieve better emotional equilibrium and mental clarity. This heightened focus has been proven to decrease blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and yes, insomnia (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2016). One study showed moderate improvement in sleep-related daytime impairment in older adults with depressive symptoms (Black et al., 2015). Another meta-analysis showed a moderate improvement in overall sleep quality in over 3,000 participants (Rusch et al., 2015).

While meditation was first widely introduced to the western world through hippy culture, it has been around for just a bit longer in other parts of the world. And by a bit longer, I mean the hippies were about 10,000 years late to the meditation party.

Meditation is an ancient tradition that is believed to have started between the 6th BCE and 5th BCE century in Taoist China and Buddhist India (Mead, 2021). There are also records from a few millenniums ago in Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. However, it didn’t reach the west until the 1700s and even then, only became mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. 

It was eventually taken seriously as a medical treatment to treat chronic conditions with the help of John Kabat-Zinn (Mead, 2021). Now, meditation is becoming increasingly accepted by the medical community as a form of mind-body therapy to treat the whole person rather than just physical ailments (Puff, 2021). 

rule of thirds photography of lit candle

There are some common misconceptions around meditation, the most common of which is that you ‘fail’ if you don’t clear your mind. As I’ve mentioned previously, we as humans have a storytelling mind and we can’t really stop or control our thoughts. However, we can start to make a conscious choice of how much attention we give them. By doing this, you find the ‘space’ between your thoughts, a place of internal peace, even if it’s just for a few seconds at a time. And the more you practice meditation, the more time you will be able to spend time in that space of quiet awareness.

Because of its religious roots, a lot of folks also expect meditation to be a connection to their God. While you can choose to connect it to your religious beliefs, at its core, meditation is the practice of stillness – that’s it. You can do it from an agnostic or atheistic perspective, or you can make it separate from your religious beliefs. 

There’s also a misconception that meditation should be an enlightening experience of seeing visions or revelling in pure and utter bliss. As the editors at DeepakChopra.com state:

Although we can have a variety of wonderful experiences when we meditate, including feelings of bliss and oneness, these aren’t the purpose of the practice. The real benefits of meditation are what happens in the other hours of the day when we’re going about our daily lives. When we emerge from our meditation session, we carry some of the stillness and silence of our practice with us, allowing us to be more creative, compassionate, centered, and loving to ourselves and everyone we encounter.

There are other common misconceptions, including the requirement that you have to be sitting, or that it should be practiced in absolute silence, or that it takes hours of your time. While we often think meditation is sitting in a lotus pose on a mountain top at dawn, there are actually several types of meditations. You simply do the one that resonates with you. Some of these include (Bertone, 2020):

  • mindfulness meditation: this is where you engage in the present moment by being aware of your thoughts.
  • spiritual meditation: here, you seek a deeper connection to your God or spiritual beliefs. Other tools are often used in this type of meditation including crystals, essential oils, or an altar. 
  • focused meditation: just as the name implies, you focus on one thing that engages one of your five senses like watching a candle flame or listening to a certain sound, like binaural beats.
  • movement meditation: instead of sitting, you move through purposeful movement and breathing to experience your body as is. Yoga is a good example of this. 
  • mantra meditation: you repeat a phrase to yourself over and over, either out loud or in your head, to focus your attention. The most common is the “Om” or “Aum” sound, though it can be anything else that is meaningful to you like “calm in, tension out” or a personal affirmation (“I am enough”, “I can and I will”, etc.)
  • transcendental meditation: Founded by the Maharishi Foundation, transcendental meditation claims to be an effortless form of meditation that uses “alpha” brain waves. To find out the specifics, you need to register for their course.
  • progressive relaxation: as we discussed in week 1, this is where you focus on parts or sections of your body and first tense them then relax them, or just relax them once you think of each part.
  • loving-kindness meditation: Here, you imagine yourself being completely at peace and feel nothing but love for your physical, mental, and emotional states. You are perfectly content just the way you are. Here, you pick at least three phrases for yourself such as “May I be happy”, “May I be calm”, “May I be strong”, etc.
  • visualization meditation: not to be confused with the concept of visualization where you picture success, visualisation meditation is when you imagine some thing, someone, or a specific state of mind. 

I think you should add a point here about duration. My therapist told me that the ideal time, which was determined scientifically was about 26 minutes (I think). But she said that you do what you can do. Aim for 10-12 minutes to start. But some days if you can only get 3 minutes, then be happy with that. The most important part is consistent practice. Ideally every day.

I will discuss mindfulness meditation in week 5, but have already touched on progressive muscle relaxation in week 1.

Here we will dive a little bit into the last one, visualisation meditation. 

Bus Driver

This one is a personal favourite of mine. 

To start, you take 10 deep breaths to calm your mind down. Next, imagine yourself as a bus driver. Your passengers are your thoughts and feelings. 

You may find that some of these “passengers” are loud and angry, others are tense and anxious, others despondent, sad, or contemplative. Others are perfectly content. Your goal here is to accept them as your passengers, not kick them off the bus. 

As the bus driver in control, imagine yourself as being the perfectly calm and neutral driver that wants to help the passengers. You “see” the one crying and approach it to start a conversation. Why are they so sad? Give them advice in loving kindness, like you would to a dear friend. Go to the next ‘passenger’ and give them the same gentle compassion as the last passenger. Once you’re done, you’ll notice the passengers are still there, but they are more quiet and content.

You’re the Sky/Ocean/Mountain

body of water near mountain during daytime

Think of the permanence of the sky, the ocean, and mountains. For the sky and the ocean, they have been there since the dawn of time and mountains for a few million years. Now imagine yourself as one of these magnificent features of nature. 

Just as the sky is blue, the ocean has water, and mountains stand still, you are you. There is an authentic self there. And your thoughts and feelings are like clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean, or wind on the mountain. You notice your thoughts as such, and let them pass by without judgement. They are not part of you, they are just moving through or past you. 

A Place You’ve Been

Imagine the last time you were somewhere where you felt relaxed and at ease. Picture yourself there: the sights, the sounds, the feeling of the air. Try to bring yourself back to this place as much as you can with as many senses as you can. 

📍 Quest #3

Try visualisation meditation, or any of the other types of meditations listed above. If one resonates with you that I didn’t go into detail here, I encourage you to look further into it. 

Week 4 Checklist

There are two big components of insomnia: the physiological component and the psychological. And the two go hand in hand – you can’t solve insomnia with one or the other, it has to be both. The physiological component is fairly straightforward, albeit still a challenge to stick to. However, trying to sort your mind out as to why insomnia is being propped up can take a bit more soul searching.

This week, I got you to dive a bit deeper into yourself, and approach yourself from another angle. The goal is to foster a compassionate stance towards yourself – that you don’t always need “fixing” and you most certainly need to stop feeling bad about feeling bad. 

Let’s recap:

1. Keep going with sleep restriction.

I’m going to mention this every week because it is literally the backbone to overcoming insomnia.

2. Keep writing and questioning.

As we discussed throughout week 3, I would like you to continue to challenge your misconceptions about sleep, and write a short daily journal of your moods. What I’m hoping is that over the next coming weeks, these misconceptions will start to be less important to you, and you’ll have a record of your mood gradually getting better.

3. Get unhooked.

This takes time and practice, but it can eventually become a daily ritual and almost automatic response of not letting your emotions get the best of you. 

4. Take up meditation.

There is no right or wrong way to do it. Even if you set aside 10 minutes and your mind wanders for 9 minutes and 45 seconds, you meditated successfully. Next time, you try to go a bit longer. Some days are good, other days aren’t – it’s fine. Just pick a meditation that seems like you’d enjoy it, and set aside some time for yourself. You deserve it.

5. Connect with yourself.

Get inquisitive, explore, and have fun with it.

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