Mindfulness and Insomnia
Posted on 4th December 2019
Overcoming Insomnia with Mindfulness by Mauricio Senger
I started having sleep difficulties in 2006 after a serious motorbike accident. The back pain that I began to experience after that event would wake me up every night at around 4am and it would be very difficult for me to get back to sleep once I was awake.
Now, the interesting thing is that over time my back began to improve but my sleep didn’t, so I started to try different natural approaches in the hope of finding one that would help me with my problem. I tried many types of natural sleep remedies, intense exercise to get me tired, yoga (sometimes even in the middle of the night), and meditation.
All those approaches helped me initially, but after a few weeks they would stop working. I feel that the reason for that is that I was always clinging to an outcome, which was to fall asleep quickly and have a deep sleep. When that outcome wasn’t achieved, I would then experience a lot of negative thinking about my situation, which included: “Tomorrow I’m going to be exhausted, I won’t be able to function”; “This is a nightmare”; “I’m going to age quicker if I don’t sleep enough”; “I just want to sleep, it’s so simple, why can’t I?”; “Why me?”; “Is this ever going to end?”, and so on.
In 2014, I began to practice and study mindfulness which led me to understand the influence that our thinking processes have on our emotions and physiology. I learned that our brains do not know the difference between thinking and reality when it comes to producing chemicals, and that thinking negatively can trigger the production of hormones that help to keep us awake such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Our brains believe that we are under threat in those situations, and as a result we can become more alert. With that understanding, it became clear to me that over the years my sleep-related negative thinking had become the main cause of my insomnia – I had developed a habit of waking up around 4am and ruminating, and that rumination was keeping me awake and perpetuating my insomnia, even though my back didn’t hurt as much anymore.
After learning all that, I decided to see if I could let go of any outcome every time I found myself awake in bed and simply allow thigs to be as they are. I changed my approach to meditation – instead of hoping to fall asleep as soon as I focused on my breath, I started to use my practice to become aware of my present-moment experience without any expectations (which was very hard initially). My new intention was simply to observe my thoughts, feelings, emotions, and body sensations as I lay awake. For example: whenever I experienced any of that ruminative thinking mentioned earlier, I could see that I was also feeling anxious, frustrated, and sometimes angry. I could also see that those feelings and emotions would normally manifest in my body as tension on my chest, and sometimes also in the belly area.
Every time I became aware of this whole experience, I would then let go of the story in my head and direct my attention to those sensations in my chest and belly, always with an attitude of openness, welcoming whatever I found. I’d just be curious about those sensations, I’d become aware of their size, their shape, their intensity, and how that intensity would be in constant change. When I’d shift my attention to the body in this way, the story that was creating that experience would lose its power because it was no longer the focus of my attention. I could therefore get myself out of that “threat mode” which was being created by my negative thinking and keeping me awake. As a result, my body and mind would be able to relax, and sleep could occur naturally.
Once I learned to approach insomnia in that way, I immediately began to get back to sleep more quickly after waking up in the middle of the night, and after a few months the ruminations became less and less intense until they finally disappeared, and I became a normal sleeper again. Nowadays, I seldom experience poor sleep; when that happens, I know how to allow things to be as they are, and as a result my sleep usually goes back to normal the following night.
Mindfulness is a paradoxical approach – we find healing by welcoming difficulty. When it comes to dealing with insomnia, it is no different. I had to learn to be with what was there without fighting it so sleep could occur in its own terms as, according to my experience, it cannot be forced.
By Maurico Senger
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