Acceptance – the key to overcoming insomnia
For many people, the word ‘acceptance’ is commonly confused with the more negative state of being resigned. You are resigned to your insomnia if you think that you will never sleep properly again or that you have tried everything and nothing works for you, that your brain has forgotten how to sleep and as a result, you are going to stick to sleeping pills and not try anything else. In this state, you are unwilling to help yourself to move forward and only two things can happen: you remain stuck where you are or it gets even worse.By contrast, acceptance means that you accept that you have insomnia and acknowledge that is simply how things are at the moment. This is far from being resigned or displaying weakness. In fact, it is a sign of real strength since being willing to sit with the pain and discomfort that can arise in the middle of the night takes a lot of courage. It is often far easier to have another glass of wine, take another pill or watch TV all night and avoid dealing with insomnia than it is to actually choose to stay with it. Deep down, though, we know that while these things might provide a quick fix for the night, they are not a long-term solution.
Like so many of my clients, there will come a time when you will need to face your fears, and while this can be scary and uncomfortable, it can bring a huge sense of relief. On realising that they can stop struggling, insomniacs often describe feeling lighter and more able to float with their problems, rather than being pulled under by them. Being willing to accept your insomnia is therefore not a sign of weakness or some sort of masochistic act, but a justified helpful response to months or years of struggle, wasted energy and missed opportunities in your life.
A key benefit of accepting your current sleepless pain, rather than struggling against it, is that it naturally lessens your state of arousal, pushing you closer to sleep. The chances are you already exhibit patterns of acceptance in your everyday life such as choosing to accept the discomfort of doing exercise or going on a diet to become more fit.
One of the most helpful ways to start cultivating a more accepting attitude is via mindfulness. Mindfulness involves living in the moment, noticing what is happening on purpose, and then choosing how you respond to your experiences, rather than being driven by habitual reactions. For insomnia, this means noticing when you unhelpfully worry about sleeplessness or other life stresses and choosing to let go of holding on to the worry, as shown by my client Carlos in the animation above.
It is important to remember that mindfulness is not designed to get you to sleep. It is an observational tool, which enables you to step back and notice yourself doing something such as having thoughts, feeling emotions, or not sleeping. It can’t change the current state and if used in this way is likely to exacerbate the current state. The act of being mindful is powerful because when you are observing you are no longer struggling, fighting or contributing to the current situation. It does not mean that it goes away in that moment, but it does mean that you are no longer fueling it for the future. For example, I am sure you will agree that to witness an event is completely different to being involved in the event.
Mindfulness teaches you to witness events even when we are experiencing them. You are the commentator and the competitor all at the same time. The easiest way to practice it is to non judgmentally describe your experience as it is happening such as “I am having the thought that…”, “I feel like….”, “I can sense this….”. Everything you describe must be based in reality and in the here and now, and not your opinion or judgment of the experience such as “This is awful” or “This is going to affect everything”. Ultimately everyday gentle mindful practice is the key to noticing struggles in your head and letting go of them.
To start learning how to be mindful, download The Sleep School App and listen to the guided meditations in the ‘Accept’ step.
Wishing you the best of sleep,