Hyperarousal and Chronic Insomnia

In my previous article on hyperarousal and insomnia, I discussed how the nervous system has a way of going into a state of alert — also known as the stress response — and turning that state into a chronic, everyday thing rather than the temporary coping mechanism it was meant to be.

So let’s talk more about what causes this hyperarousal state, which is one of the leading causes of chronic insomnia.

Wired and Tired — A Frustrating State of Mind

Probably the worst thing about a chronic hyperarousal state is the feeling of helplessness. It feels like your own brain and body are conspiring against you. You are physically tired and want to sleep — but you can’t. You are mentally exhausted and want to relax — but you can’t. You are sick of the inner dialogue and want to shut it up — but you can’t. You want to escape those racing, repetitive thoughts, but no matter what you do, you cannot get rid of them. They keep hanging around.

So it really can feel like you’re not the boss of your own mind. And since your brain is the boss of your nervous system and all your connected organs — your body feels out of control as well.

But just as insomnia can only get better after you discover what the causes are, the same is true of hyperarousal. You must understand what is causing this overdrive state of your nervous system before you can expect to improve.

The Most Common Cause of Hyperarousal — Misplaced Sense of Danger and Threat

Since a major culprit behind hyperarousal is the “fight or flight” response, which is part of the human survival instinct, it needs further investigation. This response is designed to protect us from danger. It is meant to help us stay alive and healthy. So why does it get corrupted and cause so much grief in modern times?

Well, one possibility is that we attribute the same sort of life-or-death urgency to all kinds of everyday situations and events that our primitive ancesters might only attach to large, ferocious predators.

So things like meeting deadlines at work, financial problems, criticism from authority figures, conflicts or arguments in close relationships, having to compete for promotions, and even going shopping… and a long list of other daily challenges… seem nearly as threatening to us as the saber-toothed tiger or giant grizzly bear were to our ancestors.

Since we have to face these situations and events so often, and since they rarely get totally resolved in the same way we could run from a predator in the old days (really old days), it seems that we never have a chance to relax and recoup. We get to feel that we must always be on guard, and the nervous system responds accordingly with all of the physiological reactions I explained in my previous hyperarousal article.

Another Kind of Hyperarousal — Not As Stressful But Just As Exhausting

What if you are feeling “wired and tired” in a more positive way? What if you don’t really feel all that stressed out, but are simply dealing with a lot of pent-up energy? What if you just want to keep going and going, like the energizer bunny, but can’t seem to wind down enough to sleep?

Rather than attribute this type of hyperarousal-caused insomnia to the stress response, we can align it with over-stimulation. This is what happens when the mind becomes overwhelmed with possibilities and experiences, and loses its ability to strike a balance between the relaxed state needed for sleep and rest and the energized state needed for action, work, entertainment and creativity.

This kind of hyperarousal is often related to the 24/7, always-on, always-connected nature of modern, urban culture. You know, where you can play World of Warcraft in Milwaukee at 2:00 AM with your pals in Melbourne…
This continuous connectivity affects techies and non-techies, young and old alike. It’s such an obvious force in our lives that it seems almost silly to point it out, but I will anyway.

This kind of hyperarousal is often a part of what I call the “Night Owl Syndrome” where you are certain that you do your best creative work at night rather than during the day.

It is also part of a slightly manic state, one that’s too mild to fall into the serious nervous system imbalances of bipolar disorder or manic depression… but still can be quite disruptive and can also result in mood crashes, exhaustion and oversleeping when the hyperstimulation finally goes away.
(Of course oversleeping then leads to undersleeping, as I have brought up in my article about keeping a consistent sleep schedule.)

How to Deal with Hyperarousal Related Insomnia

Since there are these two main types of hyperarousal — one that stems from stress, and one that stems from overstimulation which can sometimes feel positive and exciting (at least until you “crash”) — you would think there would be two different approaches to solving it. But in reality, there is really one approach that works for both but can be tweaked according to your needs.

And here it is in a nutshell:

  • Strive for balance, consistency and moderation in everything that is within your control — this includes diet, exercise, sleep schedule and other sleep hygiene methods you can check out in the insomnia self help tutorial. Exercise is especially important for those with hyperarousal from overstimulation. You need to work off that energy physically as best you can, but at least five hours before bedtime.
  • Start learning stress relief techniques NOW, such as the relaxation therapy techniques I talk about here, or any other technique that may help you. There are dozens of them… yoga, tai chi, breathing exercies, meditation, progressive relaxation. visualization. With so many to choose from, you don’t have any excuse except your own reluctance and resistance. Don’t give in to this as stress release techniques can literally be life savers when practiced over time.
  • Begin developing the mental “on and off” concept. You can get an idea of such a concept in the cure for worry article here. Basically it is this: You must deliberately set aside “on” periods –literally scheduling them into your daytime hours. Once you do this, you must give whatever you are dealing with right now in your life your full, undivided attention.
  • Whether you use this time to consciously worry about a problem (facing both the problem and your feelings about it full on, with no escape or distractions), creating your next project, solving your current problems, or developing a new skill (even one that will help you get to the next level in whatever game you’re obsessed with right now), just make sure you do it fully. That means NO multitasking, NO texting your friends, NO tweets on Twitter. It means intense concentration and focus on just that one problem, project, worry, anxiety, fear or stimulus.
  • Keep a journal for freewriting your thoughts and feelings. Free expression is one way to get rid of both stress and overstimulation/hyperactivity. This activity should be strictly private. Once you start writing for an audience, even an imaginary one, stress and/or stimulation will increase.

Now, it is my own contention that a secret cause of hyperarousal is the constant effort to resist, ignore or escape our subconscious emotions and thoughts. But that’s a topic for another time.