The two most common questions I get from people trying to get over insomnia are 1) How long does it take? and 2) Why do I keep having relapses?
This article will discuss the first question. The next one will tackle relapses.
The questions above boil down to this simple reality: People are trying to change their behavioral and thinking patterns so they can sleep better, but they aren’t getting the quick results they want. So understandably, they feel upset and disappointed.
Sometimes getting over insomnia takes a lot longer than you wish it would.
While it may feel that insomnia came on quickly, it takes its merry time going away. That is the nature of insomnia. There seems to be no way around it.
As you travel this journey to better sleep, you will find that the solutions are simple, but implementing them is more complicated than you first imagined. The frustration makes it hard to realize that the long-term results are well worth the trouble.
The most effective treatment for chronic insomnia complicated by sleep anxiety is using cognitive behavioral self-therapy techniques. These usually take quite a while to make a noticeable difference in your sleep. This causes people to get discouraged and to think the techniques aren’t working, when in fact they are building a highly valuable foundation for a long-term cure.
So what’s the best way to break this to you… oh right, there isn’t any.
It’s difficult to tell a frustrated, upset, miserable individual that he or she might not get immediate relief from the techniques of CBT or any other method on this site.
People vary so much in their responses to these techniques that it would be useless and misleading to make predictions or to give an arbitrary time to wait until they start working.
For some, it might be a week, for others closer to three or four months. Some might need even longer.
But it may be helpful to know that most “fast easy remedies” do not work long term and some don’t work at all. The only solution for insomnia that comes close to a “quick fix” is medication, and its limitations are well-known and documented. Mainly, it does not provide a lasting cure and sometimes produces side effects and dependency problems, although it definitely has its advantages, as mentioned in this article on insomnia medication.
So WHY does it take so long? Blame the paradox…
The paradox of insomnia that is primarily caused or made worse by sleep anxiety, is discussed often on this site.
Simply stated, if you desperately desire to fall asleep, your anxiety about not being able to sleep will keep you awake.
The solution to sleep-anxiety causing insomnia is just as paradoxical as the condition. Maybe even more so.
The solution to sleep anxiety is to change your thinking patterns. But many insomniacs get so anxious about doing this (because they think it might help their insomnia) that often it seems their efforts backfire.
Sometimes it feels like the insomnia is getting worse because we are worrying so much about whether the CBT or similar techniques are working or not, and worry about what we’ll do when it turns out to not work, and so on.
Having these worries will not prevent a CBT program from working long term, though they might slow it down a bit. Most of the time, if you patiently plug away, you can modify these thoughts using the CBT techniques themselves. A daily, low-key journalizing/CBT practice will help you understand that layered anxiety is simply a frustrating mental quirk and will slowly fade away as you continue the inner dialogue of rational, reassuring responses.
Do you need to work HARDER? Probably not.
Sometimes we think that if we work longer and harder on our CBT techniques or deep breathing, or whatever we’re doing, that will make it more effective. But does doing more of something make it more effective? The answer is usually no.
People have ruined careers in sports, guitar playing, computer programming, and just about every other endeavor you can think of by overdoing their practice. In a physical practice like sports, you can get a traumatic injury. In a skill like guitar playing, you can get a repetitive injury to your hand or wrist or other areas. In a mental skill like programming or gaming, you can burn out and your brain refuses to continue this imbalanced approach by shutting down.
Of course not doing enough of something is not effective either, but most of us already know that. I mention more about consistent practice of CBT for insomnia in this article.
Should you take a break? Maybe…
If a certain technique you have tried for a few weeks is not having any effect, then it is high time to take a break from it.
In the case of CBT, often taking a break will allow it to continue to work, only in a more unconscious and more natural way.
Once you have fed your brain new, more helpful, reassuring, and more rational thinking patterns over a period of time–perhaps a month, or six, maybe eight weeks–they will continue to work even if you stop for a while, almost like a background program running quietly as you go about your daily business. A short break won’t impede your progress and may even help.
So for all the techniques mentioned on this site, taking a break from them when you feel they are no longer working is a good idea.
Not only that, but insomnia is best approached in a relaxed and creative manner. Being rigid does not help insomnia.
This is often a misunderstanding because, using the advice of sleep experts, I recommend following a consistent sleep schedule and establishing other sleep-hygiene practices on a daily basis. But you must keep in mind…
Consistency and rigidity are not the same.
Creative problem solving and flexibility in thinking does help insomnia. This is the idea that it is OK to experiment, OK to not have the same results as last time, OK to be patient, OK to have relapses.
Should you throw in the towel and give up? Absolutely not!
Why give up? What comes from that except discouragement and inertia? If you are doing CBT, it is a good idea to explore this concept of giving up in your exercises. What does it mean to give up? If it means not working on your insomnia and just taking medication, that is fine for a little while. You can certainly do this as a break while you plan your next move.
When it’s taking longer than you wish (and it almost always does) or when relapses occur (and they almost always do), it is good to have some techniques for dealing with the disappointment.
- CBT is good.
- Mild exercise is good.
- Some self-pampering is good.
- Escaping your problems is good with conditions. Meaning, watching a movie, reading a novel, getting absorbed in a hobby project and so on.
- Taking a break from your efforts to fix your insomnia is good. Just remember you can always go back.
- Some calm self-reflection is good.
- Finding a bit of humor in your snowballing anxiety, when you can manage it, can be quite helpful.
- Taking a sleeping pill to just get some damned sleep is good, as long as you schedule them far enough apart and take all the usual precautions.
We all want a quick fix. Then when we don’t get one, we all feel acute disappointment and frustration. This is all a part of getting over insomnia, one of the most frustrating conditions I have ever experienced.
But think about what has happened.
You expected something.
It didn’t happen.
Now you’re upset.
Wouldn’t it be better to not expect quite so much? This is why I consistently tell people to keep their expectations low.
But then where would your motivation come from, you might ask? Certainly it is difficult to take up self-help techniques if you are constantly saying to yourself, “I don’t think this will work.”
It doesn’t have to be either extreme.
Some positive thinking is necessary for success, but it needs to be grounded in reality and a willingness to keep going despite obstacles.
The best attitude is cautious optimism combined with low expectations, teamed up with a stubborn and unshakable sort of patient persistence.
Or you could just keep going, knowing that you will get somewhere if you never give up.