Dealing with the frustration of insomnia

Q:  I am an insomniac and try to sleep through the night, but often wake up several times.  When I do, I get upset because I just want to sleep and can’t.  Each time I awaken I get even more frustrated than before because I’m just so tired and sleepy.  All of this frustration can’t be good for my sleep.  Any suggestions on how not to get frustrated?

If it’s any consolation, many insomniacs share your frustration.   When you’re dead-tired and only want to sleep and somehow can’t, yes it is very frustrating to say the least.

We suggest a multi-pronged approach.  When you’re in bed wanting to sleep but absolutely can’t, don’t force it.  When this happens, you can deliberately break the vicious cycle of insomnia by choosing to get up and out of bed.   Doing so helps you break the negative association you will understandably make between the idea of sleep and the awful frustration of insomnia.

Instead of lying there angry and frustrated at your inability to sleep, you can get up and go to another room and do something relaxing, in low-level light, until you feel drowsy.  Then head back to bed and try sleep again.  Do this as many times as necessary.  Eventually, you will sleep, and for one very simple compelling reason:  your physiological need for sleep is stronger than your insomnia.  You can leverage this fact to your advantage.

Breaking this negative association puts you back in control, not the insomnia.  You are no longer controlled by it.  This method is known in psychology as stimulus control, and is one of the techniques in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically designed for insomnia.

A second approach is to identify and understand the underlying thoughts that are leading to the frustration.  If you isolate these thoughts, you likely will find recurring patterns.  Examples include:  “If I don’t get to sleep right now I’ll be a wreck in the morning.”  “My insomnia is out of control.”  “Oh no, I can’t sleep again so I’ll have another bad day tomorrow.”  And so on.

If you examine these thoughts, you very likely will discover they are largely inaccurate, overly pessimistic, and not based on fact.  Your experience is probably like most other people’s:  you actually can function just fine with less than a perfect 8 hours of sleep.  You may not think you can, but the experience of firefighters, soldiers, astronauts, medical residents, long distance competitive sailors and many others repeatedly show the human capability to consistently function at a very high level with far less than 8 hours of sleep.

Knowing proven empirical facts will likely help you relax and feel more confident about sleep, and then it may be easier to be less bothered by the frustrating thoughts.  By replacing the negative sleep thoughts with better and more positive ones, you will help yourself move naturally back toward a drowsy state more conducive to slumber.

This is another CBT method known as cognitive restructuring.  By using this method, you can literally think your way to better sleep.

A third approach is to deploy sleep-promoting relaxation methods in bed.  These methods often incorporate deep, diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.  Deliberately relaxing will help distract you from the frustrating negative sleep thoughts and help move you back toward drowsiness.

Yet another approach involves structuring your sleep schedule so you only allow the minimum time in bed needed to awaken refreshed.  By keeping a disciplined sleep schedule, you help your body’s internal biological clock synchronize to your natural circadian rhythm, and keep your sleep drive at a high level.  These processes largely control sleep, and when they are in synch sleep becomes easy, practically irresistible.

All of these methods are contained in a good CBT-based sleep training program.  The tools and techniques complement and reinforce one another.  By using the methods simultaneously, you greatly increase your ability to sleep soundly through the night and awaken refreshed.

If you haven’t yet checked out CBT for sleep, we encourage you to do so.  CBT helps most people who try it.  Many become normal sleepers again.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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2 Comments on “Dealing with the frustration of insomnia”

  1. Great post. Besides all the techniques you mentioned, mindfulness meditation helps immensely by recognizing and eliminating destructive thought patterns.

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