Accepting Insomnia

Final exam week is upon us, and I can think of no better time to think about insomnia. Much of the sleep deprivation my students are currently experiencing is self-inflicted, of course, as they stay up all night studying or writing papers, and some of it is inevitable as we all drag ourselves out of bed for an 8 a.m. exam. (Guess where I am right now?). But some of the sleeplessness this week, for students and faculty alike, is pure insomnia. We might try to get to bed a decent hour, to say “enough!” to the studying or grading…and so we might find ourselves lying in bed wide awake, mind racing in a continuous train of thought running through all the things we should be doing instead of sleeping.

As always, psychologists are ready with a fancy technical term for a process you’ll probably recognize from your own experience. In this case, the term is cognitive deactivation, and it refers to how incredibly chill we can be about our thoughts when we are (properly) falling asleep. Imagine that you catch yourself contemplating a plan to ditch your current life, steal a sailboat, and take to the high oceans as a pirate, complete with eye-patch. If you’re awake, likely reactions include “Oh my god, I’m a terrible person for planning repeated theft and for ditching my family; what’s wrong with me?” or the self-defeating “Yeah, and then I’d screw that up too.” But when you’re falling asleep (properly, not in an insomniac trying-to-sleep-and-failing mode) you probably just think “Huh, how odd of me” and let it go. This is a key piece of cognitive deactivation, greater acceptance of our thoughts.

And if you’re a follower of mindfulness, you can see exactly how meditation might be proposed as an insomnia cure. A core tenet of mindfulness is non-judging, or accepting our thoughts as they arise and letting them go – exactly what we need to do to fall asleep. The chain of events leading to insomnia might go like this: “I have not finished writing that paper. Man, I can’t believe I did that! I am a terrible student. I’m going to fail out of school. I am going to ruin my life…but if I get out of bed now I’m only going to write gibberish. Why did I put this off this long?”

It’s mildly depressing how easy it is for me to recall trains of thought like that, 10 years after I graduated college.

In any case, the idea is that a non-judgmental acceptance would nip this cycle of anxiety in the bud. The first time you think “I have not finished writing that paper”, you just accept it, and derail the train of thought that would have you lying awake for another hour or more. So far, this is mostly theory; several researchers have started studies to test out this idea, but most of the reports I’ve found so far are pilot studies – which, like the pilot light on a gas heater, are enough to get things going but not enough to get the job done alone.

One of the challenges to a mindful approach to insomnia, of course, is that unless you have very good “sleep hygiene” and get yourself into bed at an early hour, then by the time you’re trying to mindfully fall asleep you are already quite tired. When you are sleepy, your cognitive control is impaired, and cognitive control is what we practice with mindfulness, so being mindful when trying to fall asleep may be much harder than mindfulness when we’re well-rested – which isn’t all that easy to begin with. But hopefully researchers will keep trying and find a way around this obstacle, because whatever the side effects of mindfulness may be, they are probably not as severe as the side-effects of insomnia drugs like Ambien.
Lundh, L. (2005). The Role of Acceptance and Mindfulness in the Treatment of Insomnia Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19, 29-39 DOI: 10.1891/jcop.


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