Should you 'stop trying' to get a good night's sleep?

Is your fixation on getting a good night's rest counterproductive?


Marianna Kilburn
@MariannaKilburn


08 August 2014

Should you 'stop trying'?

A couple of years ago, I went on an amazing retreat in Italy. The couple who run these retreats have their own philosophy of, essentially, taking life less seriously, accepting yourself as you are, and that when faced with a problem, the best thing to do is (wait for it): absolutely nothing.

This is, of course, a hideous concept for the typical modern ‘type A’ person. We like to be in control. And the idea that all you need to do, faced with a problem, is throw everything at it to fix it, is deeply ingrained – we are often told as children that effort always equals success.

On the retreat, they introduced the idea that focusing all our energy on a problem, even if trying to solve it, just amplifies the problem and tends to create a very rigid situation where we are so fixated on a certain outcome we do not realise that other solutions are possible.

So instead, we should relax, let go of the outcome, and let the situation unfold. Which is obviously easier said than done. But it did sow a little seed in my brain, and since then I have stepped back from a few situations and thought ‘am I trying too hard here?’.

On the few occasions I have then been able to let things just happen, the results really have been miraculous.

The ‘stop-trying’ approach

So I was interested to read about a book (The Sleep Book, by Guy Meadows) that suggests that the ‘stop trying’ approach is the best one to take with chronic insomnia.

It looks at how insomnia is a very good example of where trying to fix something can become the problem in itself. Reading about this, the logic made perfect sense to me as I can see, and have experienced for myself, how easily insomnia can become a vicious circle: as you lie in bed, eyes jammed shut, thinking ‘why can’t I sleep, come on brain just switch off, maybe if I count sheep’ etc., you are creating more and more adrenaline and tension in your body, which of course makes it harder to fall asleep.

Many, many people I have talked to in health food stores say that they spend all day worrying about whether or not they will be able to sleep that night, and so they will be producing stress chemicals all day as well. 

This kind of chronic insomnia often starts with a stressful event or trauma. People going through, for example, a bereavement or divorce may naturally not sleep so well for a while, but it is when the brain starts to associate sleep with stress that long term problems can develop and the insomnia can last for years after the event.

People stuck in this pattern have normally tried every pill/potion/pillow spray etc. going, but because their brains have come to associate everything to do with sleep and sleeplessness with anxiety, insomnia has become a learned response.  By this stage, some people may only have to look at their bed to get their adrenaline pumping.

A sleepy read

This kind of pattern is what ‘The Sleep Book’ is looking to break – by, yes, essentially doing nothing. No elaborate rituals like warm milk and lavender scented baths, they say, just lie in bed and accept that you are awake – rather than focusing on the fact that you should be asleep.

The approach is based essentially on mindfulness, the Buddhist approach of focusing on staying present in the moment. Like many of these things, mindfulness is in itself an incredibly simple concept, but it does seem that for the human brain, the simple things are often the most difficult things to do.

I would suggest that the book is essential reading for anyone looking to break the pattern of chronic insomnia, particularly those who feel they have tried everything going and would like a new approach.

To buy the book or find out more information, go to www.thesleepschool.org. And if anyone tries the ‘do nothing’ approach, I would love to hear your feedback – positive or negative!

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