While cognitive techniques were crucial for me to overcome insomnia, so were behavioral techniques. By behavioral, I am referring to the behaviors or actions one takes that are related to insomnia.
Ones behaviors and actions send a powerful message to ones subconscious. They are as powerful, and possibly more powerful, than ones conscious thoughts.
I found that I could not have much success overcoming chronic insomnia if I engaged in cognitive therapy but continued to act like someone with insomnia.
Thats because the subconscious simply wont believe positive sleep thoughts if ones actions contradict them.
As I mentioned here, I regard chronic insomnia to be a phobia. People often cope with phobias by avoiding the object or situation that causes them the fear. For example, people with a phobia of flying often cope with this fear simply by not getting on an airplane.
This avoidance of the feared object or situation, of course, does not reduce or eliminate the phobia. In fact, avoiding that which one irrationally fears feeds the phobia because it sends the message to ones subconscious that one does, indeed, fear the object or situation, otherwise it would not be avoided. By the same token, gradually and repeatedly exposing oneself to the feared object or situation or facing the fear is often an effective way to overcome the phobia.
A person with chronic insomnia often irrationally fears that he or she will be unable to sleep adequately. In my opinion, this fear is fed by the fact that the person avoids facing it by engaging in certain coping behaviors.
Below I will describe the coping behaviors that I used and how they were responsible for perpetuating the insomnia. I will then show how I eliminated them and how their elimination allowed me to expose myself to my fear of being unable to sleep, thus helping to pave the way for me to end my sleeplessness.
To properly identify the coping behaviors that I used to avoid facing my fear of being unable to sleep, I wrote down all of the ways I behaved differently since I developed chronic insomnia. Here are the three main coping behaviors I identified:
In my opinion, my subconscious correctly viewed my engaging in the above behaviors to mean that attaining sleep for me was a real problem; otherwise I would not engage in them. In other words, my subconscious understood my actions to be proof that sleep, in some sense, is a danger or at least difficult.
Its little wonder, then, that the idea of sleep in general, and bedtime in particular, would cause in me an eruption of negative sleep thoughts and stress, enough to prevent me from sleeping or sleeping restfully.
I realized that I needed to eliminate or at least reduce my coping behaviors because they (along with negative sleep thoughts ) were fueling the insomnia. In other words, I needed to start behaving as if I had no insomnia or fear of being unable to sleep.
So I began to set challenging goals for myself, be more physically active and spend less time in bed. This was very difficult at the beginning largely because I had great anxiety about doing these things.
I engaged in the coping behaviors, after all, to deal with my fear of being unable to sleep well. So the mere thought of eliminating these behaviors made me feel dreadfully anxious at first.
With this in mind, I found that the best way to eliminate the coping behaviors was to borrow a technique used to treat other phobias. Specifically, I am referring to the technique of gradually increasing exposure to the object or situation that is the source of the fear, instead of facing the fear all at once. These small steps keep the anxiety level manageable and, consequently, increase the chances that the person will be able to eventually fully face their fear and overcome the phobia.
Here is how I applied this technique for eliminating each of my coping behaviors and confronting my fear and apprehension of being unable to sleep:
Immediately upon just starting to reduce my coping behaviors, I felt much more in control over the insomnia. And by starting to behave like someone without insomnia, I started to think like someone without insomnia. And this means I would start to sleep better.
Relaxation is an important behavioral technique for overcoming chronic insomnia. If I did not use relaxation, I doubt that I would have ever succeeded in controlling the sleeplessness.
Whenever I would think negative sleep thoughts, day or night, my body would automatically respond by increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and I would generally become tense and stiff. This is a normal bodily reaction to thinking a stressful thought.
When my body reacted in this way, it sent a reinforcing message to my subconscious that negative sleep thoughts are serious, nasty things. This only increased my anxiety and obsession with negative sleep thoughts and made it that much more difficult to control them and get some sleep.
After many years, I began to wonder what would happen if I responded differently to negative sleep thoughts. What if I made a conscious effort to not get so stressed physically in response to the thoughts? So I began to focus on relaxing my muscles and taking deep breaths when negative sleep thoughts popped into my head.
I got really good at relaxation after time and practice so that when a negative thought entered my head, I automatically relaxed my body. In other words, I turned things completely around. My automatic response before was to get tense, now my response was to relax.
This made a fairly big, positive difference for me. I felt that I had more control over the thoughts' effect on me, and generally I was more relaxed, both day and night. In fact, I began to no longer fear the thoughts as much and, as a result, they were popping into my head less and less.
It seems that my subconscious started to get the message that if my body was not reacting negatively to the thoughts, then maybe the thoughts are not such a threat and danger. As a result, my subconscious quieted down at least somewhat and falling asleep then became more likely.
A mistake that I made at the very beginning was giving up too soon on relaxing. I would try to relax for say, 10 minutes, with no real effect so I would stop trying. But achieving a relaxed state, especially when you are really tense, takes time and patience -- for me it took at least 15 minutes of really concentrating on relaxing to feel less tense. In other words, relaxation was not something that came natural. I had to work at it.