What worries you most about not sleeping? When I had insomnia, I worried about the aftereffects of not getting enough sleep. That makes sense. After all, if there were no aftereffects, if everyone felt just as fine after not sleeping as we do after sleeping, there would be no problem. Why sleep much at all in that case? We could get a lot more done and have a lot more fun if not sleeping had no consequences.
But that’s not the reality, of course. Most of us feel a bit tired after a night of poor sleep, and after several nights, weeks or months of poor sleep, we feel like, well, you know, we feel a lot worse.
Now it’s one thing to feel terrible after a few or few dozen restless nights. It’s still another thing to feel anxious, fearful and worried in anticipation of how bad we are going to feel after a bad night. This is the essence of sleep anxiety, of course. Sleep anxiety adds layer upon layer of distress to an already distressing situation. That is because—as we all well know—when you worry about not getting enough sleep, you sleep less than ever.
So let’s recount the worries:
Fatigue, tiredness, exhaustion. This category is the obvious one, right? We worry about feeling tired and fatigued, not only because it is an unpleasant feeling, but also because it prevents us from being effective human beings. When we’re tired, we can’t think straight, we can’t be ourselves, we can’t be nice, we drop things, we can’t do math in our heads… well, some of us can’t do that anyway, but you know.
Becoming ill, losing resistance to illness, catching colds. We all know that getting less sleep could compromise our immune systems. The actual evidence for this is scant, but we hear so much about it that we often believe it to be true. And sometimes, we do get sick when we can’t sleep. So of course we worry about it while we’re not sleeping, because… that’s how it works.
Losing our minds, mental illness. It is very common for tired anxious people to feel like they are close to losing it altogether. So we start noticing strange things we do, odd thoughts, weird sensations that we never remember having before. And we all know what that means—once we start noticing symptoms of insanity, we get even more anxious, bringing on more symptoms—yep, the anxiety paradox-snowball at work! And once you lose it, how do you get it back? Maybe we can’t—maybe life as we know it is completely ruined forevermore! So this is another big worry.
Losing our reputations as reasonably competent people. Lots of insomniacs worry about their jobs. And that means they worry about not doing well, about their fatigue and anxiety compromising their performance at work. And of course this leads to the possibility of people noticing our weaknesses. And the only way this scenario can end is in the unemployment line. Or so we think… in the middle of the night when we are trying desperately to get more sleep.
Damaging our relationships with others. When we’re feeling tired, upset, frustrated and depressed from not sleeping—and worrying about it—it’s hard to be a good spouse, parent, friend or relative. And when we’re not functioning at our best, when we don’t have the energy to do what we have to do to maintain and nurture those relationships, especially the ones that are most important, we begin to worry about that too.
Never sleeping well again. It is quite common for people suffering from insomnia to assume it will last forever. With no sign of it improving, what else could we think? And sleep anxiety always seems to culminate in this doomsday scenario. Because we are feeling terrible now, we think, it must mean we will feel terrible for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t make sense… but it’s a big worry. Might as well admit it.
OK, those are the most common worries insomniacs tend to ruminate over in the dark of the night. There are lots more. You have your own unique set or worries.
But why are we even going through this exercise? Haven’t I already covered the details of chronic sleep anxiety in plenty of other articles? Well, yes, but it cannot be overemphasized or repeated enough: sleep anxiety means we worry not only about the current sleepless night we’re having now—we also worry about tomorrow night and the night after that, and all the nights stretched before us in an endless hall of misery. But most of all—we worry about the aftereffects of not sleeping.
What it means and how to step out of the river of worry
Sleep anxiety, as I have said numerous times before, manifests as layers. Now here you see a cake, a much more appealing example of layers. Let’s suppose the bottom layer represents the reality of not sleeping. The layers on top represent our thoughts and feelings about the reality of not sleeping. Let’s suppose each individual layer is another worry we have about insomnia. How tall is your own cake? For some of us, our cakes can almost reach ceiling height. And that’s because not only do we have layers for worries, we also pile on layers of anxiety about worrying!
My insomniac friends, it is time to eat those layers one at a time. And to continue the metaphor to even more ridiculous levels, look upon CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques as your fork. Or, if you prefer to eat cake in a more primitive way, your hands.
OK, maybe forget the cake metaphor. Learning and practicing CBT is the only way I personally know of to change your anxious thoughts. It is not the magic bullet, the magic wand, the magic pill or anything magic at all. It takes hard work and consistent practice to get results, but if you get going now and keep going for a while, you will get results.
And the best way to start is to ask yourself the age-old question:
What worries me most about not sleeping?
Then write all your worries down on paper with a pen, sloppy-like, or type them up in a bulleted list all nice and neat—either way, GET THOSE THOUGHTS OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND ON THE PAPER. Or the screen, of course. Then once you have, oh, maybe 10 to 12 worries to work with, start your inner dialogue.
Remember, you have two voices within you—your anxious voice and your calm, rational, encouraging, supportive voice. With your calm and rational voice, start talking back to the anxious voice. Unlike your loud, whiny, anxious voice, your rational side has infinite patience and is a never-ending source of reassurance and rationality, kind yet firm in its insistence to point out that things are not nearly as bad as you think they are and that you will, if not sooner then definitely later, sleep well again.
Stay tuned for more examples of the inner dialogue at work!