If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, your mind buzzing with thoughts — among them why you are not asleep — you are not alone.
Though common, some people seem to face more sleeplessness than others. Women are more likely to struggle, alongside other population groups. Single parents and people of colour, for example, appear to get less shuteye on average.
I am Livia, a science writer and regular contributor at Inspire the Mind, and I have also battled my own sleep on and off.
What eventually helped me the most was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, also known as CBTI. It works by changing learned behaviours and thought patterns that obstruct good sleep, and has been championed by sleep experts as the most effective way to beat the problem.
Though it sounds a bit clinical and scary, CBTI can be designed to gently help you relax your thoughts around sleep and thereby pave the way for sleep to return to you.
If you happen to be somebody who does not get enough sleep — despite putting your best efforts into it — a totally new approach may be just what you need.
The Magic of Sleep
When we sleep, much work gets done by our brains.
Every night, our most complex organ busily completes different tasks, such as processing experiences and chucking out cell waste we no longer need, so that we wake up refreshed and ready to take on a new day.
Not enough shuteye means that we have not had the chance to recover enough, and concentration, memory, emotions, and energy levels are all affected. Though not a guarantee, the risk for mental health problems, such as depression, may become bigger.
Effortless fun can suddenly seem hard, and everyday demands do not become easy to face, either, because sleep appears needed for the prefrontal cortex to recover — the part of our brain that helps us handle stress. Sleep, alongside water, oxygen, and food, is something humans, as biological creatures need. Not getting enough deserves sympathy — especially when one bad night becomes many.
It’s understandable, therefore, that many who suffer from sleep problems try to alleviate them quickly.
Often, they can be more easily helped by simply enough daylight and exercise, and keeping a regular sleep schedule, to help the natural circadian rhythm that humans have.
Some might discover that buying a weighted blanket helps, as new research has shown that weighted blankets boost melatonin production. Others start to use the bed only for sleep and sex, and ban screens from the bedroom, as per some common sleep hygiene rules, and for some, the answer could well be to just start leaving your phone outside your bedroom.
But for some people, sleeplessness stays. No matter how hard they try, the bed never feels comfortable.
A new way to sleep
Rather than subject poor sleepers to tough rules and elaborate routines, some sleep coaches design CBTI to help them enjoy involuntary wakefulness and relearn a more relaxed, natural approach to sleep.
Daniel Erichsen from BedTyme, for example, actually sees insomnia as a psychological fear, even phobia, of being awake at night, rather than a problem that would be solved by enough sleep.
Those types of bad sleepers, he means — I would count myself amongst them — have become hyper focused on sleep. The urge to Google and read every book has become hard to stop, and they try herbal teas, screen bans, whatever might work, to get more. In other words, they start to chase rest.
Meanwhile, experts say that good sleepers do not check boxes, but actually pay next to no mind to how they sleep. Researcher Colin Espie at Oxford University, for example, says that they have no clue what they do — sleep just happens.
It may sound outrageous to people who try so hard, but effort, as far as sleep is concerned, does not equal reward.
Your sleep does not want your attention
A path to help poor sleepers get to that cozy place may therefore be to care less, and do what actually takes the focus away from sleep.
To accept the deal, get up, and stream a good sitcom could be much more effective than trying to force sleep and getting frustrated when it does not come, an unpleasant place to be that makes us dislike our bed more. The blue light from your screen does not keep you awake, your thoughts do, sleep coach Camilla Stoddart says, and should screen bans and other efforts only make somebody focus on sleep, they should abandon them. To cultivate a more carefree attitude, Stoddart suggests that we even stop reading about sleep altogether.
Granted, changing your mindset can be hard, and takes practice.
It is also worth noting that this may not work for everybody, as poor sleep can be fuelled by different things. Illness, for example, can affect sleep, which is why you should always check in with your GP if problems persist. For some, a few simple lifestyle tweaks may do the trick. Not every sleep problem needs the same remedy.
But for those who hyperfocus on sleep and even fear the small hours, learning to enjoy them could undo that type of insomnia at the root and help you love your bed once more, as we are meant to. When we no longer worry about sleep, Erichsen means, sleep just comes naturally.
The key takeaway from this particular approach can be summed up by the mantra that we cannot control sleep, so we may as well stop trying.
That type of relaxed — and pretty counterintuitive — therapy has been the answer for me and for some who have had enormous fears to overcome.
When I struggled, I needed the comfort of my best Netflix show, even though screens are often preached as bad for you. When we feel overwhelmed, we are allowed to relax and do whatever our gut tells us we need. Sleep should not feel like a chore.
Remember that even though scary statistics say that the risk for various health problems appears to become larger when we sleep poorly over longer periods, they are not guaranteed to happen, and that you control your lifestyle long-term.
Sleep is a natural process that the body never forgets, and the fantastic healing capacities means that the body can catch up and restore the sleep that has been lost.
So, should you be one of the many sleepers out there who does everything right and somehow still struggles, great news. No need to try more, or work harder, to solve your sleep. From now on, you may put that worry to bed — no pun intended — and start to do whatever makes you relax, and let sleep find you.