Important Causes of Insomnia: Hyperarousal of the Nervous System, aka “Fight or Flight”

One of the major causes of insomnia is hyperarousal of the nervous system, yet it’s rarely discussed and often overlooked. This is probably because most people don’t understand what, exactly, this means.

Hyperarousal of the nervous system is really another name for the stress response also known as “fight or flight.”

But I think it is a more accurate term, because it better describes what is really going on physiologically, especially when this state, supposed to be a temporary thing, becomes more chronic.

Ironic, isn’t it? One of the biggest causes of insomnia is a built-in mechanism that is designed to keep you alive and healthy.

This mechanism is the foundation of the survival instinct. It’s most basic function is to alert you to imminent danger and give you the strength and speed to either deal with the danger head on or run away from it.

In order for the fight/flight response to work properly, your body is flooded with so-called stress hormones, such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and others, to allow you to respond properly to danger.

So you have a much faster heart rate and respiration, an increase in blood pressure, raised levels of blood sugar and amino acids, and so on, all produced so you can carry out whatever is necessary to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Your mental state becomes one of extreme alertness. Your senses and perceptions become sharper and more acute. Your body becomes tense in the expectation of action. You are like a coiled spring, ready to release your pent-up energy when the time is right.

When the danger has passed, your body releases other hormones to help get things back to a normal, everyday state of mind and body… tension dissipates and you can enjoy a more peaceful life again.

But sometimes, the danger doesn’t pass right away…

…it hangs on a while longer. In this case, your body stays in its state of alert much longer. Sleep, at least for long periods of time, is not an option. So your state of mind and body cooperate to help you stay awake. Maybe short catnaps are OK, but the solid hours of undisturbed slumber are not OK

So yes, your own survival instinct can be the culprit behind the most frustrating causes of insomnia – the inability to calm down, relax, and release the mental and physical tension that’s keeping you wide awake.

And this can go on for days, if necessary. You are designed to be able to do this as part of your survival instinct and strategy. Most likely the biggest danger has subsided but still lurks in the shadows. You know it’s out there so you can’t completely relax as you could if it wasn’t there.

You might not be in a state of blast-off, but you’re in the launch pad, so to speak, ready to get fired up if you have to.

OK, that’s the (very basic) physiology of hyperarousal – it is simply a prolonged stress response. It can be fairly mild. You don’t have to be bouncing off the walls, but neither can you enjoy the full surrender to total relaxation and tension release that makes long sleep possible.

Of course eventually this prolonged stress response or hyperarousal state DOES takes a toll on your health and well-being. After a few days, along with your feelings of tension and wakefulness, you’re now getting exhausted, irritated and frustrated. You want sleep more than anything, but it stays out of reach, taunting you and making you a miserable heap of worn-out nerves.

And so you are now in the midst of chronic insomnia wondering what has gone wrong with your brain and body.

Hyperarousal, one of the main causes of insomnia, is the second most paradoxical one.
(The first most paradoxical causes of insomnia is sleep anxiety).

And this of course leads to the most disturbing feeling chronic insomniacs have to face:

Feeling “tired yet wired.”

Sure, you’re utterly exhausted… but at the SAME TIME your mind is racing, your heart rate is most likely elevated, and you feel like a caged wild thing, ready to attack at the slightest provocation.

As it continues, the attack might turn more into a whimper, but still. “Tired yet wired” isn’t a pleasant state of mind.

But keep in mind, even though you feel like something your cat dragged in, it’s still your hyperarousal that is, if not THE major cause, at least one of the underlying causes of insomnia.

How to Deal With It?

OK, we’ve described it pretty well. Now how do you get rid of it?

It makes sense that one of the biggest causes of insomnia doesn’t have just one solution. The process of dealing with hyperarousal of the nervous system is multi-step.

The first step is to understand what exactly is going on. Hopefully, this article has helped you with that.

The next step is, strangely enough, is redefining this response as something positive rather than negative. While this might seem really ridiculous to you now, acceptance is the only sure way to get to a real, working solution for hyperarousal.

Too often, we get stuck in a negative approach. We think we have to beat up on ourselves and our mind-body functions in order to “cure” what ails us.

I remember feeling so angry and frustrated at my mind’s hyperactivity that I literally wanted to slap some part of myself! Hopefully, you are not as an extreme case as I was.

Let me tell you, if hyperarousal is one of the most important causes of insomnia, the runner up might be beating yourself up about it. There has to be another way, and there is.

I’ll talk more about how to deal with hyperarousal and other frustrating causes of insomnia in a more positive and effective way in the self-help section.

Return to the Insomnia Facts page.