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10 Powerful Ways to Rethink Sleep If You Have Insomnia *Spoiler Alert* It’s Not Always Sleep Hygiene

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10 ways to change your perspective on sleep (and help you actually rest)

10 ways to change your perspective on sleep (and help you actually rest)

How My Sleep Struggles Started as a Child

In the 6th grade, I vividly remember lying awake in my parents’ bed thinking that I was going to die. Earlier that day, I was at softball practice and a ball hit me hard in the chest. It hurt badly and pretty soon my young brain convinced myself that I was struggling to breathe. I fixated on this fear throughout the whole night, and one sleepless night led to the next. Those all nighters continued on for a week and each night was an endless battle of whether I would sleep or not. The following days were just as miserable as my sleep deprived body and foggy mind filled with dread for the evening time, wondering if this would be the night I finally slept.

Eventually, I did sleep again. But I suspect this low-T trauma was the start of sleep anxiety for me. For much of my childhood, teenage, and college years I was blessed with mostly blissful sleep, but a perfect sleep routine was definitely high priority for me, fearing a regression into those sleepless nights again.

Childhood sleepovers always had a twinge of anxiety as I wondered if we would all go to bed at a reasonable hour. Late night activities in high school always left me scrambling to get home at a decent hour, so I could get the perfect 8-hours of sleep for the next day. The mere mention of all-nighters left me with dread.

In college I was able to let my guard down with sleep since I wasn’t consumed with rigid schedules and the outrageous hours we expect teenagers to wake up in high school. Although I ran college cross country and track and was studying to be a teacher, I was free of any major responsibilities that my livelihood depended on. Even still, though, I rarely stayed out late on a weeknight and was rarely the last to stay at a party. Sleep didn’t control my life, but it definitely played a large part.

Sleep Anxiety as an Adult

But, like with anything, when you strive for perfectionism, it eventually catches up to you and for me that was in August of 2021. At this point in my life, I had become a mom during the 2018-2019 school year and enjoyed almost a semester of maternity leave. In the 2019-2020, the Pandemic caused teachers to work from home and once again I had over two months of working from home - something that I quite enjoyed. The 2020-2021 school year started with working from home and then easing into a soft return to in-person learning. For me, it was very stress free.

By the start of the 2021-2022 school year, teachers, staff, and the whole student body were ready to return to school full force. This would be my first full school year in nearly four years. On top of that, I had an autoimmune disease, was struggling to get pregnant again, moving houses, coaching cross country, writing and publishing a children’s book, working toward my National Boards Certification, and elevating my blogging career by writing blogs weekly and making constant content for Instagram. With a schedule like that, getting adequate sleep slowly began to rule my life and the anxiety of not sleeping increased.

Then, it finally caught up to me. I didn’t sleep a single second for over 24 hours and then it happened again a few weeks later, but that time it was over 48 hours. Thus began a year of on and off sleep anxiety until finally I broke down after two trips to the ER and nearly 5 sleepless nights recently. I needed help.

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Finding Help

After days of Google searches and an inundation of failed sleep advice - essential oils, meditating, don’t read in bed, do yoga, download the Calm app, room darkening shades, Melatonin, etc, etc - I finally found the life-changing advice that I so craved and resonated with down to my very core. It came from the Instagram page and website of Beth Kendall, a holistic sleep coach and a former insomniac herself. Diving into every single piece of literature she had ever written (which I highly suggest you read) - a lightbulb went off and for the first time in a while I truly and utterly relaxed.

Rethinking Sleep

I've had to develop 10 powerful mind shifts in order to start getting quality sleep again.

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1. Your Brain Is Not Broken

It’s easy to fall into the trap that your brain is broken when you’re in the throes of insomnia.

Everyone else is sleeping, so why aren’t I? I’ve tried xyz, and it’s not working.

I became convinced that there had to be something wrong with my brain. I probably had some terrible condition that had gone undiagnosed, and I would have to be forced to live with insomnia for the rest of my life.

But the good thing is your brain is not broken. Your brain hasn’t forgotten how to sleep. In fact, your amazing brain is doing exactly what it is designed to do, which is to look out for threats and help you survive in this world, according to Kendall.

When I shifted my thinking and realized that my brain was actually pretty powerful and protecting me, I was able to let go of a lot of the anxiety I was holding on to with insomnia.

2. Sleep Is Passive

I’m a runner, coach, teacher, and natural competitor. The logic that "the harder I work and the more I practice, the better I will be at something" has been drilled into my head.

So when it came to sleep, I figured that I was not working hard enough. I wasn’t taking enough deep breaths. I wasn’t going to bed early enough. I was giving up too easily. I had to keep trying more stuff to sleep. I would lie there and think “Sleep, sleep, sleep” almost as if the harder I thought the word sleep over and over, the faster I would fall asleep.

But here’s the thing - Sleep is passive. Sleep happens when it happens. Mindblown.

I had to do the exact opposite of what I had been trained to do. Let go of control.

3. Hyperarousal Is Keeping Me Up

There would be many nights that I would drag my exhausted body up to bed anxious to finally get to sleep, only to have my brain suddenly be WIDE AWAKE the moment I hit the pillow.

And then my brain would go into overdrive trying to figure out how to make myself tired again and worrying obsessively if I was going to get enough sleep for the next day.

Kendall once again helped me figure out what was happening here.

First, there was the FEAR - fear of not sleeping. This fear leads to HYPERAROUSAL. Our brain is then on full alert which causes us to be AWAKE.

It made so much sense.

4. Sleep Hygiene Is Not the Answer

Any person who has experienced insomnia probably can attest to the fact that once you mention to someone that you haven’t been sleeping, these well-meaning loved ones start sending you articles, recommendations, and products of their favorite sleeping products.

Have you tried a weighted blanket? I take two melatonins before bed and sleep like a baby. Use your bed for sleep and sex only. You need to focus on your sleep hygiene.

In fact, sleep hygiene is such a big buzzword that Google provides over 166 million articles.

Trust me. I have my sleep routine down to a science. I have immaculate sleep hygiene, and I used to pride myself on it.

But here’s the thing - my sleep hygiene methods worked…until they didn’t. And I was left wondering what I did wrong. Beth states it beautifully, it puts the power in something outside of yourself.

Because really when I thought about it, how many times did I fall asleep in bed reading a book? How many nights did I go to bed looking at my phone moments before? How many wonderful sleep nights have I had eating right before bed? Too many to count.

And on the flip side, how many nights did my weighted blanket fail me and room darkening shades let me down? Again, too many to count.

So why is it then that my great sleep hygiene would work and then suddenly fail and vice versa - why did my seemingly less-than-perfect sleep habits work most of the time?

Because the times I was doing my sleep routine for the sheer enjoyment of it, I wasn’t focused on controlling my sleep! The moment my mind shifted into doing what these people preached for sleep hygiene to produce sleep, I was trying to control sleep and creating hyperarousal. Thus, I couldn’t sleep. Lightbulb moment.

5. Our Brains Can Be Rewired

One of the best pieces of advice, Kendall laid out, is that our brain can be rewired. We aren’t destined for insomnia. Why?

Because of neuroplasticity. It means the brain can change.

She says, “It means that learned fear responses (like the fear of not sleeping), can be unlearned. Through conscious awareness, humans have the unique ability to alter their own brain structure just by noticing what’s happening.”

Just like Beth, I got incredible hope from that.

6. Should You Use Medicine?

First, let me preface that I am not a doctor and have no medical expertise. Always consult with a doctor first before using medicine.

When I was desperate for sleep last year, I begged my doctor for something to help kickstart sleep. She prescribed a medicine that I took willingly, no holds back. I took the medicine without any qualms, and it worked wonders.

The medicine was enough to give me the confidence I needed to sleep, and I eventually weaned myself off it, but I always had a reserve of it just in case.

Then, I ran out nearly a year after the medicine was prescribed and ironically my insomnia came back in full force.

Doctors prescribed me different medicines. Except this time around, I Googled the side effects. I wondered if I was addicted to medicine. I wondered if other people thought I was addicted to the medicine. I wondered if this new medicine would work. I wondered how I could get my hands on this old medicine that I knew would work. I wondered if I would need medicine to sleep for the rest of my life.

Unsurprisingly, none of the new medicines worked. Why? Beth Kendall sums this up perfectly in her blog about insomnia and medicine. I started to have trepidations about taking any medicines. I became hyper-aware of what the medicine was doing to my body and if it was making me sleepy. And we now know what happens with hyperarousal? We can’t sleep. Instead, I was subcontracting my problems onto medicines instead of looking inward.

I ended up having a brilliant doctor prescribe me the medicine that worked last time, and with this new information, I took the medicine with no guilt BUT with a plan with my doctor and sleep psychologist to wean off it eventually.

So like Beth’s perception, medicines can be good or bad, but mostly it has to do with your inner thoughts surrounding medicines.

It's tempting... but try not to use Google to solve your sleep problems.

It's tempting... but try not to use Google to solve your sleep problems.

7. Avoid Google

When it comes to insomnia, this one is simple. Avoid obsessively Googling. Trust me, 90% of the information is unhelpful and will only lead to hyperarousal.

8. You Will Not Die

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Insomnia is awful. But it won’t kill you. Beth even states that there is no scientific evidence that chronic insomnia has any negative health outcomes.

Shocking, considering all the fear-inducing headlines out there about lack of sleep and the need for the perfect 8 hours of sleep.

Sure, lack of sleep doesn’t feel pleasant, but when I changed my mindset to realize that I wasn’t going to die or cause my body any long-term harm, I started to relax around sleep. In fact, I started to notice that even after 2-3 hours of sleep, I still functioned pretty well. I went for walks, played with my son, and coached my cross-country team. Lack of sleep wasn’t as dire as I originally thought.

9. It Won’t Happen Overnight

Recovering from insomnia won’t happen overnight. You are literally rewiring your brain to change the way you think about sleep. You might have speed bumps along the way. You might need medicine. You might need a sleep coach. It will take time. There is nothing wrong with you.

10. You Can Take Back the Power of Insomnia

There are some key takeaways when you are trying to take the power that insomnia has over you.

  1. Remember sleep is passive.
  2. Let go of control when it comes to sleep.
  3. Realize that insomnia is a fear of sleep and your anxiety is your brain’s way of alerting you to a perceived threat. Figure out what that threat may be.
  4. You were designed to sleep.
  5. Try tapping and deep breathing.
  6. Make your bed.
  7. Don’t call yourself an insomniac.
  8. Insomnia is your brain being kind to you.
  9. Live your life.
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You've Got This!

Every night doesn’t go as well as I plan, but I’m getting better. I have the right help and resources. I’m working on shifting my mindset. Insomnia won’t define me any more.

I highly recommend following Beth Kendall on Instagram, signing up for her free email course, and reading her blogs.

You can get better too.

Sources

  1. Cherry, K. (no date) Neuroplasticity: How experience changes the brain, Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-2794886 (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

    2. Diana Dolan on 01.03.2017 12:09 pm (no date) Staff perspective: The problem with sleep hygiene, Center for Deployment Psychology. Available at: https://deploymentpsych.org/blog/staff-perspective-problem-sleep-hygiene#:~:text=Here's%20the%20unfortunate%20truth%3A%20sleep,have%20a%20poor%20sleep%20environment. (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

    3. Key, A.P. (no date) Why sleep hygiene doesn't always work, WebMD. WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/why-sleep-hygiene-doesnt-always-work (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

    4. Lovato, N. and Lack, L. (2018) Insomnia and mortality: A meta-analysis, Sleep Medicine Reviews. W.B. Saunders. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079218300741 (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

    5. SciTechDaily.com (2022) Insomnia: How to rewire your brain for sleep, SciTechDaily. Available at: https://scitechdaily.com/insomnia-how-to-rewire-your-brain-for-sleep/ (Accessed: October 20, 2022).

    6. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Get Free From Insomnia With These 7 Key Mindshifts. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/get-rid-of-insomnia-mindshifts> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    7. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Why Does My Insomnia Keep Coming Back?. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/why-does-my-insomnia-keep-coming-back> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    8. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Tired Yet Wired - The Paradox of Hyperarousal. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/tired-yet-wired> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    9. Bethkendall.com. 2022. The Sleep Hygiene Mantra: Why it Contradicts Insomnia. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/sleep-hygiene-for-insomnia> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    10. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Medications and Insomnia: A Simple Overview. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/medications-and-insomnia> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    11. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Insomnia and the Google Trap | 3 Big Reasons to Avoid It. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/shouldn%27t-google-insomnia> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    12. Bethkendall.com. 2022. Can You Die From Chronic Insomnia? What You Need to Know. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/can-you-die-from-chronic-insomnia> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    13. Bethkendall.com. 2022. What is Tapping and How Can It Help Me Sleep?. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/what-is-tapping-and-how-can-it-help-me-sleep> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

    14. Bethkendall.com. 2022. 6 Good Reasons to Make Your Bed Everyday. [online] Available at: <https://www.bethkendall.com/blog/Make-your-bed-everyday> [Accessed 1 October 2022].

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.