Insomnia: A Call from the Underworld to Wake Up

by | May 5, 2024 | Anxiety | 18 comments

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve struggled with bouts of insomnia.

When I was a very young child, I remember dragging my sleeping bag into the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom door in the middle of the night where I would curl up and try to fall back asleep with my German Shepherd at my side.

When I was twelve years old and entering a new school in 7th grade, I battled with more intense insomnia as social anxiety took hold, and I found myself dreading the shift in light as night edged near, knowing that the misery of lying awake and staring at the clock was inching closer by the minute.

In my twenties, when anxiety dragged me by the heels into the underworld of my first spiritual awakening, insomnia punctuated the veil of sleep in the form of nightmares, begging me to listen to messages that could only be revealed in the quiet of night.

And, most recently, the hormonal cacophony of perimenopause that began in my mid-40s awakened me during the witching hour of 3am more times than I can count. (I’ll be sharing much more about the midlife passage next month when I release my new audio collection, Thresholds. I can’t wait to share it with you all!)

On one level, insomnia is a living hell. You’re lying there awake, staring at the clock as it rattles off the minutes, then hours, wondering if you’ll ever fall asleep. You’re thinking about all of the things you have to do the next day, your mind spinning into a tizzy of anxiety, which of course makes it more difficult to fall asleep. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and night’s stillness amplifies a fundamental experience of being human: loneliness. In those dark hours, it can feel like you’re the only person on the planet who is awake, battling with the demon of insomnia.

You’re Not Alone

It’s important to know that you’re far from alone. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine cites that at least half of our population suffers from insomnia. That translates to millions of people in the United States alone who are awake alongside you. Misery loves company, which means that while you don’t want others to suffer, it can be deeply comforting to know that when you’re holding acupressure points or reaching for the melatonin, you’re far from alone.

While insomnia is profoundly stressful, there is another aspect of insomnia that is rarely discussed: Insomnia is one of anxiety’s greatest emissaries and, thus, when approached with consciousness, can move us toward healing and the soul’s quest for wholeness. Anxiety, as a gift and a messenger, is one of the ways that psyche alerts us to areas of our life that need attention, yet because we’re masters at staying busy, distracting, and running at top speed during the daytime hours, the stillness and silence of night is often the only time that we can hear anxiety’s call. Insomnia is the soul’s way of saying: Wake up and listen. I have a few messages to tell you.

The Messages of Insomnia

What are the messages embedded inside the insomnia?

The first step in deciphering the messages is shifting from a shame mindset to one informed by curiosity and compassion. This means understanding that insomnia, like anxiety, is not evidence of brokenness but is actually evidence of health as our psyche invites us to heal. Once we establish this framework of compassion, the possible messages begin to tumble forth.

These messages vary for everyone, of course, as we are not cookie-cutters of one another and there is no one-sized-fits-all approach to healing, but a good place to start is by scanning through the four realms of self – physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual – and asking, “What is needed in each of these realms? How could I be listening to or taking care of myself in more loving ways?”

The Four Realms of Self

For example, on the physical realm, insomnia could be telling you that you need to limit your caffeine or sugar intake, or it could be urging you to move your body every day, even if only for a twenty-minute walk. It could be an urgent request to learn how to balance your blood sugar, as it’s been for me. These are basic recommendations for insomnia, but they’re well-worth heeding.

Cognitively, insomnia might be alerting you to the need to be mindful about the brain-food you’re ingesting during the day that may be creating anxiety at night. Are you reading too much news or junk headlines? Are you spending too much time on social media which is activating your habit of comparison, which then leads you down the rabbit hole of shame?

Emotionally and spiritually, night is the time when the child’s cry pierces the shadows and you’re invited to pick her up and hold her to your chest; you remember to pour the nectar of your love into his empty places.

Night’s Invitation

Night is the time when the forgotten words drips like moonlit dew into your skin and you realize it’s been years since you’ve written a poem.

Night is the time to listen to the nightingale’s song, which carries a melody of broken-heartedness and is also an intermediary between the worlds, and when we open our palms to receive its song we become more comfortable with uncertainty.

This is obviously not the quick-fix version of “getting over” insomnia. In fact, seen through this lens, it’s not about getting over anything at all as much as shining the headlight of curiosity onto the symptoms of insomnia until you slowly, and with great compassion, start to reveal some of the messages that write themselves onto the inky ribbons of night.

Are you ready to listen? What messages have insomnia brought to you?

***

Note:  offer a more in-depth approach to working with insomnia at the root in my 9-month course, Break Free From Anxiety, which starts each September. You can learn more and sign up for early-bird notification here

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18 Comments

  1. THANK YOU for this. I’ve suffered from insomnia as long as I can remember. It has come and gone throughout my life – intermittently. I find this passage so beautiful. I now look forward to leaning on and offering myself tenderness next time I find myself in a sleepless night.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad it landed in a soft place and encouraged you to bring tenderness next time you’re sleepless. ❤️

      Reply
  2. I’ve recently intuited that my lifelong insomnia likely is a cry from the baby me who suffered the “cry it out” method. I feel such a vulnerability in the night, a child who desperately wants to be spooned, held, fed, but instead finds nothing but the dysregulation of aloneness.

    Rewiring such early trauma is work I’m so confused about how to do myself, particularly because these attachment needs feel so somatic and relational, but I do my best now when I feel it to just imagine a mama with loving eyes holding me, feeding me, smiling at me, reassuring me she’s got me. Such a vulnerable passage this is. ❤️‍🩹

    Reply
    • Yes, so very vulnerable. It’s often through the imaginal realm that we can heal the somatic trauma.

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  3. Thank you Sheryl for this. I love reading your blog posts on Monday morning, it often feels like they come at the perfect time, just what I needed to hear. This morning I also stumbled upon the latest post on the Zen Habit blog (the only other blog I read beside yours, as they speak directly to my heart), about the chaos and abundance of Spring, and it resonated deeply with what you shared in your newsletter 🙂 Today your words reminded me that while I have less sleep issues now, I had trouble falling asleep as a kid, a teenager and even later on, during my college years, and I’ve dreaded going to bed more times than I can count. I’m glad I can bring more compassion to this scared part of me now, it feels very vulnerable but so healing. Anxiety truly is a gift in disguise…

    Reply
    • Thank you for your faithful readership, Julie 🥰. And yes, bringing compassion to these scared parts is KEY.

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  4. Thank-you for these beautiful words Sheryl- they touched on such truth for me and I wept for my new mom self that was so alone with my post-partum insomnia 8 years ago. I had moved away from my support network when I gave birth to my second child. The insomnia was such a clear messenger that I needed my community with me while I was raising my babies and I remember that the only time that I slept well was when I had family or friends visiting. My sleeplesness was communicating such a vital truth but still, I remember lying awake for hours, feeling shame about it.

    Reply
    • I had the same thing after the birth of my son two years ago. It is so common in new mothers yet rarely talked about!

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    • How beautiful that you were able to discern the message embedded in the insomnia, Sarah. We’re not meant to become mothers alone!

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  5. Very interesting, thank you for this. In a way I have the opposite problem – anxiety is so exhausting that it just makes me want to go to bed at 5pm!

    I certainly relate to what you say about ‘junk headlines’ though. The media has a lot to answer for.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  6. I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw the title of this blog and how appropriately timed it was. I have struggled with sleep for most of my life and had bouts of intense insomnia at several points-including during my engagement anxiety when I first found you Sheryl and following the birth of my son. I recently have been having a bout a f it and I think it’s because I’m going through a period of growth which is both exciting and terrifying. This post was a beautiful reminder that I am not alone, and to soften into it and treat myself with kindness rather than running from it (which of course only makes the insomnia worse).

    Reply
    • Yes, insomnia does seem to show up at transitional times, including times of growth. I’m so glad the post brought comfort, Danielle. You’re from alone!

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  7. 🥰🌘🌙 thank you Sheryl!

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  8. Dear Sheryl, thank you so much for this post! It came at exactly there right time, because I am suffering from Insomnia a lot in the last month. Everything can feel so hopeless at night…

    I wanted to ask, if maybe you and Victoria could do an episode on insomnia? I know you made this episode about the witching hour (and i loved it!) but i would love to hear more about your thoughts about not being able to fall asleep at all or for hours and hours trying. I think in the Witching hour episode you also mentioned that you have developed strategies for while lying awake, and i would love to hear those!
    I think you also often alluded to insomina while getting used to sleeping next to a partner (for me still a work in progress after years) and also about insomnia during menopause. I suffer from a severe hormonal disbalance which is like menopause, but i am not in menopause age. So I would love to hear your thoughts about insomnia and related topics. Thank you so much for all your work – it means so much!!

    Reply
    • We’ll add it to the queue of podcast ideas, Anna. Sending hugs as you navigate the sleeplessness.

      Reply
    • Anna, I totally resonate with you when you write about getting used to sleeping with a partner, even after years. I have been with my partner for 7 years and I started to have trouble sleeping next to him recently. I started to develop intrusive thoughts around the fact that I need 100% silence in order to sleep (even though I have been sleeping with earplugs for half of my life, and his noises had almost never been an issue). It’s a weird mix of slight misophonia, unprocessed overwhelm, OCD-ish tendencies and shame. I sometimes re-listen to the Gathering Gold episode on Nighttime anxiety to help. And this podcast episode was an absolute lifesaver these past months, with SUCH an appropriate title: https://theocdstories.com/episode/steve-phillipson-sleep-342/
      Sending you hugs!!

      Reply

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