Updated: May 1, 2019
Ever had that feeling of panic as you lie in bed and realise the clock says 3am? You’re STILL AWAKE and you have to be up in 4 hours. You’re going to be exhausted tomorrow, how will you get through the day? What if it happens tomorrow night? What’s wrong with you? Is your brain broken?! Your partner is sleeping like a log, reminding you of all that you’re missing out on. The mind goes into overdrive, adrenaline surges through the body, and you’re plunged into the vicious circle of insomnia.
If you can relate to this, you’re not alone! Most of us occasionally suffer from sleep problems, and many of us suffer chronically, usually due to the momentum of our busy minds. According to the Sleep Council, 30% of us are getting a poor sleep most nights [i].
But this is not an article which promises to ‘fix’ your insomnia, nor is it an article about ‘sleep hygiene’ (click here for useful info on improving your bedtime wind-down routine). This article will not focus on warm baths or avoiding caffeine in the evenings - although these can be very helpful suggestions. This is for those who have experienced chronic sleeplessness, those who’ve tried everything and those who sigh inwardly at the well-meaning advice about lavender pillows and warm milk. Here, we’ll dive into the frustrating experience of insomnia and how mindfulness can help us to change our attitude to sleeplessness, even though we may still be sensitive sleepers.
Sleep problems are usually caused by an overloaded mind that won’t shut down, even though we want it to*. The more we fight with it, the more active it becomes and the more frustrated we become. The Buddha referred to the two arrows of suffering; the first arrow refers to the unavoidable pain of a situation, but the second arrow describes the mental suffering we bring to the situation. This is a good analogy when describing the vicious cycle of sleeplessness. The first arrow is the fact that we’re not asleep – this is the reality of the moment, it is as it is. However, insomnia really gets going when our thinking mind fires the second arrow and we move into suffering; ruminating, catastrophising and creating a cycle of frustration which escalates the situation and triggers the body’s fight or flight response. We find ourselves getting more and more tangled in our thoughts and the possibility of sleep recedes as the dawn grows closer.
Sleep has always been my weak spot. Largely, I sleep well but occasionally, I’ll have a night of virtually no sleep at all, whipping myself into a frenzy of frustration when I’m still awake at 6am and have to get up shortly with my two children. At certain points in my life, it has become a chronic problem where the bad nights have outweighed the good. Sometimes it has become debilitating and I’ve needed medication to help to break the cycle. Depression has been famously called The Black Dog but my metaphor for insomnia would be an angry cat; prowling restlessly, sharp claws ready to strike just as I begin to drift off. Sometimes it is huge, monstrous and torments me by sitting on my chest, filling me with tension and dread. It can drive me to what feels like the brink of madness; it’s no surprise that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.
However, my regular mindfulness practice has been transformational in helping me to change my attitude towards sleep (and so many other things!) It supports me in two ways; firstly by keeping me balanced during the day, and secondly by supporting me a