Taking on our insomnia monster

Imagine Ian, a 51-year-old man, cruising through life until his relationship encounters turbulence.

Suddenly, he finds himself lying awake at night, his mind inundated with concerns about the future.

Thoughts about living alone and worries about the mortgage trap him in a relentless loop. This pattern persists night after night, forcing him to face each day on little sleep, utterly exhausted.

Unbeknownst to Ian, his brain begins to adopt this pattern of wakefulness as the new normal. The more he spends the night worrying, the more his brain reinforces this pattern, creating a vicious cycle.

Envision a computer system that regulates your sleep and wakefulness. Repeating an action teaches the system a new command, similar to updating software.

If you consistently wake during the night, your brain learns this “program” and attempts to replicate it, resulting in an insomnia sleep pattern.

But there’s more to Ian’s struggle…

Chronic pain, a sensitive bladder, and work stress also play roles in his sleep disruption. Broken sleep exacerbates these conditions, which in turn further disrupt sleep.

It’s a series of vicious cycles that intensify the overall problem, transforming it into a formidable monster that gradually strips away his life and sleep.

While Ian initially attributes his insomnia to relationship troubles, it’s evident the issue is far more complex.

The silver lining is that, although we can’t conquer this beast in one fell swoop, we can tackle each contributing factor one by one.

This method, known as sleep retraining, aims to dismantle the vicious cycles fueling the insomnia.

Most individuals with insomnia have between five to ten components sustaining their condition. Sleep retraining seeks to identify and mitigate each one, thereby weakening the insomnia monster.

Had Ian practiced relaxation techniques before bed at the onset of his troubles, he might have prevented the escalation into full-blown insomnia.

However, given the multitude of factors now at play, simply “switching off” before bed is insufficient. It’s likely that past efforts focused on a singular aspect of insomnia, overlooking the multifaceted nature of the condition.

Consider the analogy of a sleep muscle, akin to the muscles used for walking.

Neglect leads to atrophy; Ian’s fragmented sleep weakens his sleep muscle, impairing its ability to provide a full night’s rest, and thus the cycle of weakening continues.

Today, I offer you a key exercise: identify what disrupts your sleep.

Are you awakened by external factors, or do you struggle with a racing mind?

Do daytime stress, chemical imbalances, or the fear of sleeplessness affect you?

Reflect on these questions. Over the next few days, starting with the most common issue—sleep anxiety (distinct from general anxiety)—we’ll delve deeper into these components of our insomnia