One of the most frustrating symptoms of sleep anxiety is that moment when you are beginning to feel a delicious relaxation you recognize as the gateway to that heavenly path to blissful sleep. Maybe you’re even getting some definite signs of drifting off—your mind empties a bit, some vague meandering thoughts or images start to float about… all signs of impending dreamland… But then?
Well, then your stupid idiotic conscious mind pops up and takes notice.
“Hey, look at me—finally falling asleep—YAY!” That’s the positive version. Some of you might hear something more like “Hey, I’m starting to fall asleep—I BET THAT’S NOT GONNA LAST!” That’s the negative version.
It doesn’t really matter which version you get. What matters is that it completely messes up the whole process (to use polite language) and you are back to square one again. Because one thing the transition to slumber DOESN’T need… is a narrator.
Yes, this is normal. Yes, this is a classic symptom of sleep anxiety. Yes it is beyond annoying and frustrating. Not only does it send you back to the vicious cycle, but the anger you are feeling at this moment just fuels more misery. Your own brain seems to be working against you. You have a fleeting vision of taking that gooey sucker out of your skull and slapping it around. Yes, that would be unhelpful even if it were possible. But figuratively speaking, it feels like our brain-parts are at war and there seems to be nothing we can do to intervene.
Or is there?
OK, let’s get one thing straight. The rational dialogue that makes up the CBT program for sleep anxiety that I recommend on this site usually doesn’t work in these scenarios. As I’ve often mentioned, CBT is a great thing for long-term change but it’s not a magic pill and rarely does it ever put you to sleep when you’re in the middle of a vicious-cycle sleep-anxiety brain-war. Unfortunately, that’s not what the CBT process is designed to do and it’s better for all of us if we understand that upfront.
As many times as I have successfully used the program myself over the years and even decades, most of that success came after several days of practice. I can’t recall one instance where taking up my CBT notebook and pen has ever resulted in falling asleep on-the-spot. I won’t say I haven’t wished for it. We all want a magic pill–no exceptions. But it hasn’t happened.
When sleep anxiety (and the Narrator) is having its way with you in the middle of the night, whether it’s before you fall asleep or after you’ve been asleep a few hours and want a few more hours so you can feel human in the morning, there are sadly very few options that will shut down your brain and get you to sleep.
One option is a sleeping pill. If you are rationing your pills, as I hope you are, and it’s been several days or a week or a month (depending on your rationing schedule), and if you are feeling especially desperate because 1) you have something unusually important to do the next day or 2) this is the third, fourth, fifth or 12th night in a row you haven’t gotten anywhere near your minimum number of hours (generally 5 hours for most of us), then it’s probably OK to give yourself a break. This isn’t medical advice, obviously, just commiseration.
Besides prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pills, there are a few other similar remedies that might help shut down the annoying narrator of sleep disruption. These may include nutritional supplements such as tryptophan, 5HTP, L-Theanine, or herbal remedies such as valerian, aromatherapy or even homeopathic remedies. And there are also soothing recordings of “white noise,” self-hypnosis and progressive relaxation. These are all “passive” remedies: something you swallow, smell or listen to. It’s asking a bit much to shut down your own brain by yourself because if you could do that, well, you wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with, right? Let’s stay in reality.
This all assumes, of course, that medication, supplements, recordings, and so on, will actually work in these particular “Narrator” scenarios.
Sometimes in our most desperate moments, these things don’t work, because, you know, why should they? I mean, don’t you just love these multiple layers of misery that pile up from the sleep anxiety cycle? Isn’t that what life is all about, big fat layers of misery?
Oddly enough, that leads me to the rest of my story. Because yes, this is your story and it’s also my story.
Even after all these years of pretty good sleep, I still get caught up now and then in the sleep anxiety cycle. Usually I can deal with it pretty well. A few nights of poor sleep. A few hours of intense CBT and rational dialogue, along with worry appointments have taken care of it.
But this time it’s a little different. It all began with the time change in early November. I began to feel a bit frustrated because in spite of going to bed an hour later, I was continuing to wake up at the same time I did before—only instead of 5:00 AM, it was now 4:00 AM and I was getting cheated out of an hour of sleep. But things were not terrible. I was getting at least 5 hours and I can function pretty well on that even over several days in a row. I did not bother to do CBT dialogues. I’m naturally lazy but I also know as well as anyone (I hope) that sleep issues of any cause usually straighten out on their own without intervention—as long as sleep anxiety stays out of the equation.
I thought sleep anxiety was out of the equation.
It was! For a week or so. Then things began to change a little.
As it continued longer than I expected, I thought, hmmm, maybe I should get my notebook and pen—where is my notebook anyway? I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to put the time in because I really thought I could just wait it out. I had other things to do. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As long as I stay calm and collected, I’ll be OK.
Last night the Narrator showed up and I got mad. Really mad.
That’s why I’m writing this article. The first reason is to show you that Marcia, the owner of a website on insomnia, still gets insomnia. Is this hypocrisy at its finest? Maybe. Am I shutting down my website immediately? Well, no. You see, it’s not that the stuff I write about here didn’t work for me. It’s just that I got a little lazy, as mentioned, and also a bit arrogant. I thought, hey, I know how this works—I don’t need to do anything!
Wrong. Very wrong.
Now I have to get back into it. The CBT dialogues actually written out. Doing them in your head doesn’t work. Believe me, I tried. Then I need to make a list of accumulated worries that I have been pushing aside because I have other things to do. They all seem like the same old worries I’ve always had with a few newish ones. Why bother making a list? Don’t I know all this stuff already. Haven’t I done this a dozen or a hundred times? Doesn’t matter. Make the list.
But first, I want to let you know what I actually did last night to help myself fall asleep.
Nothing. I did nothing. I didn’t fall asleep. It was all so futile. I knew nothing was going to work. I didn’t see the point in trying. So instead, I wallowed.
Is wallowing a technique? I think it might be. I am thinking of officially adding it to the list of techniques. Wallowing. You just lie there and let all those negative thoughts have their way.
Life sucks. Things are terrible. Nothing works. Same old same old. I hate this. Why does this have to happen? I’m tired of it. I am miserable. I could be miserable forever. And so on and so on.
Then for some strange reason, the wallowing let up. When it was time to get up, I wasn’t even in a bad mood anymore. Tired but relatively upbeat. It’s not such a big deal, I thought. I can deal with this. I got this. It’s going to go away. I know what to do.
Ordinarily, wallowing by itself is NOT helpful. It just prolongs the misery and intensifies the cycle.
But wallowing combined with a variety of good techniques? Maybe there is something to it. You get all the negativity out. You let it envelop you completely. You stop fighting it. You give up and you give in. Then you get up and do the work you need to do—the written dialogues, the worry appointments, the lists, the brainstorming, he problem solving, the breathing, relaxation, and letting go.
It is only because I have done so much CBT-type exercises that wallowing can be, dare we say, a reasonable option at times. It’s not positive but it can be at least relieving and possibly cathartic. We all know that rational dialogue can take on the tone of “too good to be true” very quickly when we don’t first recognize and accept how awful we feel and how much we hate the sleep-anxiety cycle that holds us in a prison of sleeplessness and negativity.
We need to be true to ourselves and respect our feelings in the present before we can change for the better. I know that’s very cliché, but I don’t know how else to put it. Before you get to that beautiful flowery meadow, you have to slog through a lot of mud? Or is it wallow?
The secret is to not let it get out of hand. Wallow in bed when nothing else is working out. When morning comes, go toward the light, so to speak, and take on the positive, encouraging, confident voice that reveals life’s possibilities rather than its limitations.
But mostly, get the pen and paper or fire up the keyboard and start writing. Make those lists. Challenge those thoughts. You got this.
I’ll let you know how it goes from my end. Meanwhile, I want you to know that I’m still on the lookout for the magic pill and if I find it—whether it’s a tablet, capsule, liquid, powder, a phrase, incantation, hypnosis script, an oil, a special clay, a book, a breathing technique, a spray, a program, a course, a picture, prayer, yoga position, dance move, chant, colored light, brainwave machine, electromagnetic current, or anything else, you can be sure I will tell you all about it on this website. Remember the magic pill has to have no side effects, no addictive properties, no negative consequences whatsoever from short-term or long-term use, works immediately, never fails, is not too expensive, does not require inhalation of smoke or other unpleasant intake, does not require to leave the comfort of your bed and you wake up on time feeling great. You’ll hear about it first right here. Stay tuned!