Acceptance is the key to overcoming insomnia
For many people, the word ‘acceptance’ is commonly confused with ‘resignation’. 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 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 the fact that you have insomnia and acknowledge that it’s simply how things are at the moment. This is far from being resigned, and definitely not a sign of weakness. In fact, it is a sign of real strength. 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 your insomnia. 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. While this can be scary and uncomfortable, it can also 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, instead of being pulled under by them. By accepting your sleeplessness instead of struggling against it, you can naturally relax, lessen your state of arousal, and move closer to sleep.
Being willing to accept your insomnia is therefore not a sign of weakness or some sort of masochistic act; it’s a justified, helpful response to months or years of struggle, wasted energy, and missed opportunities in your life.
The good news is that you probably already exhibit patterns of acceptance in your everyday life; perhaps it’s by choosing to accept the discomfort of doing exercise or going on a diet. To cultivate a more accepting attitude, consider practicing Mindfulness. Mindfulness involves living in the moment, purposefully noticing what is happening, and allowing yourself to choose how you respond to your experiences, instead of being driven by habitual reactions. For insomnia, this means noticing when you’re unhelpfully worrying about sleeplessness or other life stresses, and choosing to let go of holding on to the worry. To better understand how Mindfulness applies to insomnia, take a look at the animation below.
It is important to remember that Mindfulness is not designed to get you to sleep. It is an observational tool, which enables you to take a step back and notice yourself having thoughts, feeling emotions, or not sleeping. It can’t change your current state, and if used with this intention it can even exacerbate the situation you’re trying to change. The reason why the act of being mindful is powerful is because when you are observing you are no longer struggling, fighting or contributing to your current situation. It does not mean that whatever is bothering you goes away in that moment, but it does mean that you are no longer fuelling it or even taking part in it. As I am sure you will agree, witnessing an event is completely different to being involved in it – and that’s what Mindfulness can do for you.
Mindfulness teaches you to witness events as you are experiencing them; adding some useful and much needed distance, and ultimately a different perspective. The easiest way to practice is to describe your experience as it is happening, without judgement and without sentiment. “I am having the thought that…”, “I feel like….”, “I can sense a….”. Everything you describe must be based in reality and in the here and now, and not on your opinion or judgment of the experience. None of the usual “This is awful” or “This is going to affect everything”. Ultimately, daily gentle mindfulness practice will help you notice the struggles in your head, and let them go.