How Your Mind Tricks You Into Insomnia: Your Routines
Part 1: When it comes to insomnia struggles, what makes sense is not what works.
Posted June 22, 2020
One night, it so happens that you can’t fall asleep. You toss and turn till dawn, finally get a couple of hours of shuteye. You wake up feeling awful.
The next day, all you can think of is going to bed and catching up on sleep. The evening comes. You finally get into bed, ready to drift off. Suddenly, your mind goes: “What if that happens again? What if I can’t sleep tonight, either?” And sure enough, you are suddenly alert and awake—no sleep for you.
Third night—the same thing.
Now, you know that sleep is really important for your health. You might have read that lack of proper sleep leads to all sorts of health problems. You start to get really worried.
Your problem-solving mind takes charge and starts to brainstorm how to get that much needed nighttime rest back. You follow your mind’s logical suggestions only to discover that instead of getting better, your sleep is getting worse.
Little did you know that trying to problem-solving you sleep is exactly what prevents sleep problems from getting solved. Sounds too complicated? It will be easier to see if we look closely at the "solutions" your mind offers you.
You compensate for lost sleep
“You didn’t sleep at night, so you need to give yourself plenty of opportunities to catch up,” your mind says.
To do that, you might decide to take a nap, go to bed early, or sleep in. That’s a bad idea—compensating for lost sleep is one way that chronic insomnia is maintained (Morin 1993). The thing is, when you compensate for lost sleep, you compromise the two basic processes that are behind your ability to sleep: your circadian rhythms (your internal body clock) and the sleep pressure.
It is natural for our bodies to be sleeping at the same time of the day every day. Sleep timing is regulated by your internal body clock. If you have always gone to bed at, say, 11 p.m., this is what your body clock is set to. If you go to bed an hour earlier one day, even if you are tired, you might not be able to fall asleep because your body clock says it’s not time yet.
Then, if you either go to bed too early or sleep in, you are in bed too long—longer than you can possibly sleep. There has got to be a couple of hours somewhere during the night where you will be awake. It is a simple calculation, but if you don’t make this calculation, your wakefulness will only exacerbate your worries about the inability to sleep, waking you up even more.
Finally, you need enough sleep pressure to be able to go into a deep sleep. The longer you stay awake, the more sleep pressure you build up. If you take a nap, you remove some of that sleep pressure, so there is not enough left for the night.
Despite what your mind is telling you, go to bed and get up at the same time every day no matter how poorly you slept and don’t spend more hours in bed than you can possibly sleep. Skip the nap if you have trouble sleeping at night.
You take it easy after a sleepless night and skip your regular activities
When you haven't slept, your mind might tell you to cancel your plans and take it easy. But that is counterproductive as far as your future sleep goes. By staying home and resting too much, you deprive your body of what it needs to sleep well the next night.
You need daylight for good sleep. Exposure to daylight, especially in the first half of the day, positively affects sleep quality. Moreover, bright light will help your brain feel more awake and make it easier or you to cope with sleep deprivation.
You also need exercise for good sleep. Regular physical activity maintains sleep quality and promotes deeper sleep. Even if doing anything rigorous might seem unmanageable, going for a brisk walk will wake you up and increase your chances of sleeping better at night.
You try to tire yourself out and go overboard
You have to keep yourself busy during the day to be able to sleep well at night. But it is easy to overdo it, too. When chronic “business” turns into chronic stress, the nervous system becomes overstimulated. Sleep will suffer as a result.
Indeed, stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia (Ellis et al., 2012). Perhaps, that first night you couldn’t sleep was a result of a stressful event or an accumulation of everyday stress. To be able to sleep, you don’t need more stress; you need less of it.
When you have had a busy day, it is particularly important to keep the evening hassle-free and give your brain and body a chance to wind down and to prepare for sleep. If you are working up till bedtime, engaged in emotionally or mentally demanding activities, you are keeping your brain awake. You cannot expect it to switch off the second you switch the lights off.
Devote your last one or two hours of the day to something calm and pleasant. How about picking up that long-forgotten painting hobby? Or that novel that has been sitting on your shelf waiting for you?
You have an overly complicated bedtime routine and scare your sleep away
You might have heard that having a bedtime routine, a consistent sequence of actions that precedes sleep, can help you prepare for sleep. Your problem-solving mind might take this idea to the extreme and, to ensure you are really ready for sleep, make the sleep routine overly complicated.
An overly complicated routine with too many steps makes you vulnerable to an unexpected change. (What if you run out of your favorite foot cream?)
More ways your mind is compromising your sleep in Part 2:
Ellis, J. G., Gehrman, P., Espie, C. A., Riemann, D., & Perlis, M. L. (2012). Acute insomnia: Current conceptualizations and future directions. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 16, 5-14.
Morin, C. M. (1993). Insomnia: Psychological assessment and management. New York: Guilford Press.
Walker, M. (2017). Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin, UK.