Do you, or have you, ever struggled to fall asleep? Worried about falling asleep? Worried about the effects of sleep loss? Lay awake at night feeling anxious? Felt like you can’t switch your mind off at night? Found it difficult to shut down? Gone days, weeks or months without getting a proper night’s sleep?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you are not alone!
Insomnia and sleep anxiety are something I have struggled with on a number of occasions, sometimes out of the blue, but often when there has been a stressful event, change or trauma in my life. For me, occasional insomnia is just a standard response to excitement, nervousness or stress. I might even struggle to sleep simply because I slept for ages the night before, or from drinking alcohol. But the bad night’s sleep can sometimes lead to chronic insomnia if the “stress” doesn’t go away, or if I develop sleep anxiety (which is so destructive and difficult to overcome).
Below, I’m going to talk a bit about what it has been like, for me, to experience insomnia and sleep anxiety, some of the thoughts and worries I’ve had, and how I manage them now. I’m not going to talk about how “important” sleep is for your health, or offer any advice on how much sleep you should get, as this kind of information can really trigger sleep anxiety. No doubt, if you’re worried about not getting enough sleep, you already know that sleep is important. I’m just going to go through some of the anxious thoughts that have kept me awake for days, and how I would now respond to them (after trying and failing to think my way out of sleep anxiety).
My struggles with insomnia…
As a child, I definitely found it difficult to sleep if I was excited or worried. But I don’t remember that, in itself, ever really worrying me. Of course it’s normal to struggle to sleep if you’re nervous. But, when I was around 14 or 15, on Christmas Eve, I became very worried about something, and that night I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I remember feeling very, very anxious during the night, and I had to ask my mum to stay in my room with me. On Christmas morning, I realised that it was possible to be so anxious that you could go an entire night without sleep. It felt really frightening, and that’s where the insomnia began.
I don’t remember the ins and outs of the next few months, but there were very few nights where I slept properly. Sometimes I would go more than 48 hours without a single moment of sleep (particularly when I had GCSE exams the next day, or something else important to do). I felt wired and extremely anxious all the time, particularly when night was approaching. I would try and tire myself out by going to work and exercising, but it made no difference. Sometimes, I could “trick” myself into sleeping by doing mindless activities like playing cards, as it seemed to give me a break from worrying about it.
I remember one night so vividly (which turned out to be a good night). It was 3:00am, I’d been awake for hours, I felt so anxious. I was listening to one of the songs on Coldplay’s album ‘Mylo Xyloto’ and I felt in so much despair that I finally decided to give up trying to sleep. I just remember thinking “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t try anymore, I don’t care if I never sleep again. I give in”. And in that moment, the most beautiful and peaceful feeling came over me, and within seconds I was fast asleep. I have loved that album ever since!
I can’t remember when that particular period of insomnia ended, but I do remember thinking “that will never happen again, I’ve got it sussed out now” (I think I also thought the same about anxiety, as the two were so interlinked for me). I was wrong though, and I have experienced awful anxiety and insomnia on a number of occasions since then. When it flares up, it is so difficult to remember everything you learned last time. However, I do learn more and more each time I struggle with it, and the one belief that is definitely getting stronger each time is that it really isn’t the end of the world if you lose some sleep. It sounds so silly writing that because, to some people, it probably seems so obvious. But if you develop anxiety around sleep, the thought of losing sleep becomes the most frightening thought.
Below are some extremely anxious and catastrophic thoughts I have had when experiencing sleep anxiety, followed by some ideas that challenge them. I’ve developed all of these ideas through my experiences and talking to other people.
It is the end of the world if I lose sleep. I might lose my job, fail my exams, ruin my life…
- New parents manage to successfully raise children on very little sleep
- You can function the next day if you didn’t sleep well, even if you feel tired
- It is possible to function pretty successfully the next day, even if you feel tired (I know that the circumstances aren’t great, but I’ve gone to work all day and worked really hard, and got As in exams, on literally 0 hours of sleep)
- There are probably a lot of other people at your work place or school who also didn’t get much sleep last night, and they’re surviving
- Even if your lack of sleep causes a problem for you, you can get help. You can talk to your doctor, or talk to your family, your boss, your teachers…
- This is just a thought, nothing has happened yet. You are (probably) lying safely in your bed right now. You don’t know everything about the future. You do not need to waste so much of your energy predicting the future. Allow yourself just a moment’s break from panicking. It can be frightening to think about what might go wrong in your life if you don’t sleep well, but the chances are it won’t be anywhere near as bad as you think it will be.
I might never sleep again…
- To put it simply, you will sleep again. This will pass, even if it doesn’t feel like it will right now.
- You can get herbal and over-the-counter remedies/tablets to help you sleep if you’re really struggling to sleep naturally (these have always worked for me when I’ve been desperate).
- If you really cannot sleep, you can get help from your doctor. They will be able to help you.
- If you’re still fixated on the idea that you might never sleep again, just accept that thought. At the moment, it is just a thought and possibility, not a fact. It doesn’t mean anything. It is just an irrational thought and it doesn’t need any more of your energy trying to prove or disprove it.
I didn’t sleep last night, so it will be even worse if I don’t sleep again tonight…
- That’s not necessarily true. It will probably be much the same – you will feel tired and uncomfortable (and probably a lot more hungry), but you’ll be okay.
- If you lose sleep again and you do feel really bad, you can speak to your doctor and get help. You don’t have to live like this.
- Once again, this is just a possibility that your mind is presenting to you. It doesn’t mean you won’t sleep tonight, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to cope tomorrow. It’s just a thought (admittedly not a particularly helpful one) that you can observe, without giving it your energy and attention.
It’s important to understand that reacting with anxious energy to any thought is probably going to keep you awake.
The idea about just observing the fears also applies to any anxious “what if” thought your mind is presenting to you. There are a million “what ifs” you could be worrying about. You could be thinking “What if I fall off my chair tomorrow?”, “What if I break my leg tomorrow?”, literally anything. You’ve chosen to fixate on the sleep-related “what ifs”, and so your mind is presenting you with more and more, because of how much energy you’re giving them. The reason you’re still awake now is because your mind thinks something is really wrong, because of the “Emergency!” way you’re reacting to thoughts about not being able to sleep. Your stress response isn’t clever enough to realise that the reason you’re anxious and alert is because you’re worried about not being able to sleep, so if your brain could just shut off the anxiety response so that you could relax everything would be fine. Your stress response is just like “the brain is firing off right now, something is obviously wrong, I need to stay awake to save myself!”… (NB: I haven’t based this on any particular evidence, it’s just the way that I have made sense of it all through my knowledge of psychology and my experiences, and also particularly from yoga/meditation teachings).
If you haven’t struggled with sleep anxiety, some of the thoughts and experiences I have written about above might seem really irrational and destructive. And, to be honest, they are. But they are also extremely real, threatening and debilitating for someone who is struggling with anxiety.
If you do relate to any of what I have written about above, please do not suffer in silence. In the past, I have wasted so much time suffering needlessly when I could have got the support I needed through a doctor or mental health professional. If I ever felt that my mental health was going downhill again, or if I was really struggling with insomnia, I would make an appointment with my doctor immediately. Even if the first person you speak to doesn’t give you the help that you need, there will be someone who can.
At some point I considered my “sleep issues” and “anxiety issues” to be separate, which made the problem worse because I didn’t understand them properly. Now I am aware that my thoughts about not being able to sleep are just the same as my thoughts about anything else that causes me anxiety. Hopefully some of the ideas I have written about above (in response to sleep anxiety) will be helpful, and they can be applied to catastrophic thinking in all areas of your life. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga are, from my experience, the most useful ways to learn how to give your thoughts less “power”, and not react to every thought so strongly.
I hope that this post was helpful (or comforting) if, like me, you ever struggle with insomnia and sleep anxiety. I also hope it was interesting if you don’t, and that it helps to raise some awareness for how severe and detrimental sleep anxiety can be.
I am not a medical or a mental health professional, and any of the advice I give is purely based on my own experiences and studies of psychology, in the hope that it may be helpful. I cannot urge you enough to speak to your doctor or a professional if you are struggling with any aspect of your mental health. You don’t have to suffer alone and it is so important that you get the right support! ❤