As many of you know who follow my blog, Carrie and I met in graduate school over twenty years ago, and we both agree that our friendship was the best gift to come out of that program. We have grown together as friends, wives, and colleagues, shaping each other in every way possible and holding each other as sisters along our twin paths. I cannot imagine who I would be without her by my side every step of the way, from conceiving on the same day (our kids are two weeks apart) to growing our counseling practices to learning about what it means to be consciously married. And, as I know that many of you suffer from sleep anxiety, it is with deepest respect and gratitude that I share her words of wisdom and compassion with you here.
“Please let me sleep!” you plead, either silently or aloud. But the letting go doesn’t come. You toss into another position. You check the clock. It’s already 11:30 p.m. But that’s okay, you think, as you do the sleep-math. “If I fall asleep soon, I’ll still get six hours.” Now you’re feeling anxious. “Don’t look at the clock.” Another hour passes. No shut-eye peace for you.
Or, you fall asleep, and then you’re up at 3:00 am tossing and turning, restless, obsessing over some “what if” scenario. The anxiety grows and the anxious thoughts come, “How am I going to be able to function tomorrow?” “I can’t do this much longer.” Your heart begins to race. Soon, you can’t catch your breath, and you can feel the anxiety swallowing you whole.
When this happens night after night, the anxiety can attach itself to one big, scary thought: “I can’t sleep.” And this thought can become all consuming. It is a hellish realm to visit for any extended time.
Sleep anxiety is torture! In order to have the energy to address it fully, we need to sleep. This creates quite a conundrum and can make us a prisoner in our mind and life. Prolonged sleep deprivation is an especially insidious form of hell. It can intimidate and exhaust us into abandoning the activities that are a natural part of the day. If sleeplessness goes on long enough, well, next thing we know, we are just unrecognizable to ourself.
It does this to millions of people, but even as widespread as it is, everyone I’ve worked with seems to feel completely isolated, thinking that they’re the only ones struggling here. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When we think that sleep anxiety is some uniquely personal form of suffering rather than something that the whole world experiences, we tend to feel ashamed and embarrassed, and retreat into a shell of shame and secrecy, which only increases the anxiety.
I’ve seen this time and time again. Clients will come to me with so much anxiety, living in absolute panic, feeling like they are going crazy because they’re not able to sleep for more than a few hours a night. This deprivation creates isolation, which only exacerbates the anxiety. The fear, by this time, usually takes on epic proportions with the primary focus being, “I can’t sleep.” Daylight hours can be tough enough, but as soon as dusk arrives, the bewitching hour, wave after wave of panic can bring us to a ball on the floor.
How does a person get to this sleepless place? Usually there is a fear-based thought that takes over the psyche and next thing we know, we’re not sleeping. It’s a vicious cycle, originating from thoughts like:
What if I’m not in love with or attracted to my partner?
What if my daughter is not safe at school?
What if I can’t get pregnant?
Or, if already pregnant, “What if I don’t bond with my baby?” or “What if something happens to my baby?”
What if my shortness of breath means something is seriously wrong with me?
If these fears run rampant, many of us can say bye-bye to sleep, which then changes the focus from the “what if” anxiety to the “not being able to sleep” anxiety.
I’ve been in this prison multiple times.
This is when we frantically begin to Google, “Sleep tips for insomnia,” in which one will find the following:
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day…even on weekends! Not so easy.
Take a hot bath at night, or practice relaxation techniques. However when the anxiety is so great, relaxation seems like a pipe dream.
Limit caffeine intake, especially after 2 p.m. Better yet, cut it out altogether until you’re sleeping again, or actually if you’re prone to anxiety, just quit for good.
Cut out refined sugar. Period.
Exercise regularly, but not within three hours of bedtime. Except when you’re so exhausted, you just can’t seem to muster the energy.
Limit nicotine within two hours of bedtime. Or actually just quit because… really, in this day and age?
Don’t use alcohol as a sleep aid, and limit alcohol within two hours of bedtime. Better yet, don’t drink at all because you will pay for it wide-eyed by 3:00 am.
No screens at night, and never use them in your bed. Better yet, find guided meditations for anxiety. I have one on my website http://www.carriedinowcounseling.com
Forego naps if you are having trouble sleeping at night.
Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and as quiet as possible. Sound machines – set to “white noise” – my favorite, much to my husband’s chagrin.
Unfortunately, as helpful and ‘right on’ as these tips might be, once the anxiety overtakes us, they don’t help; focusing on sleep is the wrong focus because the anxiety is what needs our attention.
Sleep anxiety can feel like a demoralizing experience, and can make us feel like we’re entering the land of crazy, or even like we’re dying. Some of my clients have had the not-so-great experience of seeing a doctor or other health practitioner who aren’t at all in “the know” of how to deal with this.
At best, they were treated with kindness, maybe the doctor wanted to prescribe a sleeping pill (which doesn’t work with anxiety); and at worst, they are dismissive and shaming, probably because they have absolutely no training in this area. So messages like, “mind over matter,” or even one of my favorites, “just relax and have a cup of warm milk” are what’s being offered.
By the time someone is experiencing intense sleep anxiety; believing that she will die or go insane, I’m pretty sure warm milk is not the answer. Not helpful.
What I know without a doubt is that the fears, whatever they tell us, are invitations to a deeper connection with our Self. And even though there’s always some nugget of wisdom waiting to emerge, the anxiety of ‘not sleeping’ becomes the central obsession.
We may think that if we ignore our fears, they’ll go away. But if we bury worries and anxieties in our consciousness, they continue to affect us and bring more anxiety; and next thing we know, some of us are not sleeping for extended periods.
When my daughter went to kindergarten, I experienced enormous anxiety; which led to many weeks of no sleep; which led to huge amounts of anxiety; which led to panic. I became obsessed by the fear of not being able to sleep. And learning how to tame my anxious mind in order to sleep becomes a world onto its own.
In my case, I explored the fear around my daughter going to school, and discovered that I still carried a lifelong separation anxiety. My inability to sleep, as terrifying as it was, led me into a deeper healing with myself.
I have since midwifed many people through the anxious dark night of no sleep. I find that holding a lifeline of love and connection, along with a lot of suggestions and offerings from my medicine bag, is the tether that carries them back from the hell realm into the world of sleep, toward the ocean of healing. A loving and safe connection to another person during this time is key.
Healing sleep anxiety is a multi-layered process and there are steps that must be taken. First, we’ve got to begin sleeping longer hours, so we can function and have the mind power to actually do the work of understanding the real fear that hides under the covers of ‘not sleeping.”
And then we get to the “what if” fears, which again, is just a stepping stone into the juicier and truer questions like, “What is my refuge? Do I trust myself and others? Do I know how to let go?”
But until we are actually sleeping a little more consistently, the ability to ask these questions are akin to reading a book while skydiving, a tad challenging to say the least.
A critical healing piece is to learn to investigate the fears without judgment. For some, the “without judgment” part is one of the hardest habits to let go of, and where so much of the healing is needed. It’s not so simple to become non-critical of our selves and others. Even if we start just by noticing how often we turn on our self for having fear. Working with the critical voice can help to grow kindness toward our suffering.
Then by acknowledging gently that fear is here. This can bring a lot of relief already. And once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources. Is our fear coming from something that is happening right now or is it an old fear, a fear from when we were small that we’ve kept inside? Understanding the origins of our anxieties and fears will help us let go of them.
If you’re not sleeping, and suffering with anxiety, reach out and get support. Find a guide; someone who knows this terrain and can carry you from sleeplessness into understanding the messages of your anxiety, toward freedom. You just may find strands of peace pearls along the way.
May the angels of sleep bless you…
Carrie Dinow is a licensed psychotherapist and lifelong student of what she calls, “All things Om” (anything that connects us to the Spiritual realm). She is known in her circles as a wife, a beyond grateful mother, a sister and daughter, an auntie, and a soul mate to her soul sister friends. All of these relationships sustain her deeply, and because of them she is so blessed to be able to live and write about her life’s purpose, which is to grow her heart and consciousness infinitely bigger one moment at a time, while she helps others to do the same. Read more about her work or contact her here. Carrie is available for one-on-one counseling both at her Santa Monica, CA office and worldwide over Skype.