Once I realized that chronic insomnia is, in my opinion, a phobia, I began to study phobias. The most important thing that I found out about phobias is that they are basically caused by negative and irrational thoughts.
For example, a phobia of flying develops mostly from a person believing on some level that plane travel is inherently unsafe and, as a result, he will die a horrible death if he gets on plane.
Chronic insomnia, too, is caused largely if not entirely by negative and irrational thoughts. Chronic insomnia, in my opinion, is ultimately a fear of being unable to sleep that is caused by thinking that attaining sleep is difficult and agonizing.
Thinking such negative thoughts about sleep causes stress within a person because it conflicts with his knowing that sleep is critical to properly function and live life fully. At bedtime especially, the stress causes increased alertness, blood pressure, brain waves, and heart and breathing rate, which makes sleeping difficult, if not impossible.
Once I realized that negative, irrational sleep thoughts were the central problem, I knew that I had to deal with them. And the first step was to identify what they are.
Negative sleep thoughts filled my head for the better part of any day, but they were often shrouded in emotion and lacked clarity. So to see them clearly and identify fully what they are I wrote them down. By the way, I found that the thoughts can enter and play around in my mind very subtlety so I had to train myself to become aware of them.
My most common negative sleep thoughts were the following:
Now that I knew exactly what the thoughts were, the next thing I did was to analyze them by asking this question about each: Why do I believe this to be true? In other words, what in reality supports this idea?
For example, lets take my thought, Ill be a wreck tomorrow if I dont sleep. After carefully thinking about it, I realized there was not much that supported this idea. First, there have been countless nights in which I have not slept well and have functioned adequately the next day. Sure, I would prefer to get good sleep, but if I dont sleep well, then thats not a very big deal. I always manage somehow. I probably would not be a wreck.
Second, and more importantly, I realized there is no good reason for why I would not be able to sleep in the first place. There would be nothing physically wrong with me. There would be no escaped convict in my bedroom threatening me with a chain saw. My pillow would not be filled with spiders. I would not be sleeping on a bed of nails.
Doing the above exercise for each of my sleep thoughts clearly showed me that there is essentially no rational basis for them.
If there is no rational reason for me to not be able to sleep, then why did I, in fact, have so much difficulty sleeping? As strange as the explanation may sound, I realized that it was my irrational, negative thoughts about sleepand they alonewhich kept me from sleeping. Thats because thinking those thoughts would stress me out, leaving me unable to sleep.
In other words, the insomnia had a life of its own and it lived in my head. There was no actual source in reality that was causing the insomnia.
This life of its own characteristic is true, however, of any phobia, not just chronic insomnia. Again, take a person with a fear of flying. His fear is not tied to the facts of reality. The facts are that flying is undeniably safe. His chances of dying on a plane are extremely remote, yet he believes that death is imminent if he gets on a plane. In other words, the reason he thinks he will die if he flies is merely because he thinks he will die if he flies.
I wondered why such baseless and irrational negative thoughts about sleep could automatically fill my head day and night, leaving me worried and stressed. It seems that part of me was convinced that the negative sleep thoughts were well-founded.
And, indeed, while my conscious mind may have known my negative thoughts to be nonsense, my subconscious believed the opposite. How can this be?
The role of the subconscious is to automatically evaluate things we come into contact with based on previous thoughts, experiences, evaluations and emotions. This keeps us from having to relearn everything all the time.
For example, if you meet someone who is nice and pleasant towards you, you likely think, That person is nice. The next time you see this person your subconscious will automatically evoke positive thoughts and emotions based on your previous evaluation.
On the other hand, if you meet a person who is cruel to you, you likely think, That person is mean. Then the next time you run into him your subconscious will recall this evaluation and automatically send out negative thoughts and emotions to tell you that this person is a danger or threat.
In my opinion, a person with insomnia, such as I, has a subconscious that, over time, has been filled with countless negative thoughts, experiences, evaluations and emotions related to sleep. For example, every time I thought, Ill never get a good nights sleep or Having to sleep is a terrible thing, the thought got sent off to my subconscious. Based on the accumulation of such thoughts and the poor sleep that resulted from them, my subconscious came to regard sleep as a danger and threat.
As a result, my subconscious automatically evoked negative thoughts and emotions to warn me of the perceived danger. And since sleep is a daily requirement, my subconscious was constantly evoking such thoughts and emotions, but it was especially active at bedtime when I came face to face with the perceived threat.
The above shows that conscious thoughts primarily determine what the subconscious believes. For me personally, I had unintentionally programmed my subconscious to regard sleep as a danger by persistently thinking negative sleep thoughts.
Once I understood this, I knew that my urge to obsess, worry and think about sleep was the result of bad programming of my subconscious. Likewise, I now understood fully that the thoughts and emotions that my subconscious urged me to think were not real in the sense that they represented a genuine threat or danger, and I felt less of a need to take them seriously.
The thoughts were like mirages in a desert. They seemed real, but, in fact, where ultimately illusions, and I would be foolish to regard them as anything more.
Knowing this was important for me because it helped to de-fang my negative thoughts (and insomnia itself) and put them in their proper perspective: They are not big and strong, but rather essentially baseless and even silly.
Now I understood that I needed to reprogram my subconscious if I was to stop the chronic sleeplessness. To get started, I needed to stop the bleeding, so to speak. I needed to stop filling my subconscious with negative sleep thoughts. In other words, I needed to stop thinking them as much as I possibly could.
I found that there were some basic rules to follow if I was to have any success in avoiding thinking negative sleep thoughts.
First, I had almost no chance of succeeding if I said to myself, Dont think negative sleep thoughts. This is like saying, Dont think of a pink elephant. By mentioning the very thing I wanted to avoid thinking about in my instructions to myself, I put that very thing in my mind, making it virtually impossible to not think about.
Instead, I found the proper way is to keep my mind actively occupied on thoughts and activities not related to sleep.
To help me do this, I created a detailed schedule for each day that took into account virtually every minute. I filled the schedule with activities related to work, hobbies, chores, etc. Living by this schedule helped me to stay focused on the activities instead of worrying and thinking negatively about sleep.
For a time, I thought that avoiding negative sleep thoughts
may be denial or psychological repression. This is not true
and is not a valid reason to keep thinking negative sleep
Denial or repression is when you avoid thinking thoughts or experiencing feelings that will ultimately benefit you. There is no benefit whatsoever to think negative sleep thoughts except for the purpose of identifying them, analyzing their irrationality and replacing them with positive sleep thoughts.
Keeping my mind away from sleep and on other things was not easy, to say the least. Thanks to the insomnia, I was tired, stressed and did not feel at all like exerting effort on anything. Here are some ways I managed to keep my alertness high so that I felt more like putting forth the needed effort to stick with my schedule:
If possible, I tried to be physically active, since doing so would increase my alertness and wakefulness.
I spent time outside if possible during the day because the bright light would increase my alertness.
The daily schedule that I kept was one important tool I used to keep from thinking about sleep. Although it helped, it was not enough. Throughout the day, my urge to think and worry about sleep was for me extremely powerful, and I would too often give in.
So in addition to my schedule, I started using another technique. I basically made a deal with my subconscious. I designated two 10 minutes sessions each day in which I could freely worry about insomnia and think negative sleep thoughts. However, I would not think such thoughts outside of these time periods.
By and large, this technique worked. Even though I was allowing myself time to think negatively about sleep, by restricting it to a 20 minute total each day, the total amount of time each day I found myself thinking about sleep dropped significantly. Im not sure exactly why this technique largely worked for me, but it did.
Soon, however, I was not using these sessions just to think negative sleep thoughts. I also started to use this time to formulate and say positive sleep thoughts.