Is Acceptance the Key to Treating Sleep Problems?

By: Jennifer Chu

What happens when you find yourself having difficulty falling asleep, let’s say, by 2am in the morning?

You’ve been trying to fall asleep for a few hours by this point. You can hear the clock ticking away, you can hear the dog snoring, your eyes wide open, perhaps your brain feels too active, and emotionally? You are probably anxious, frustrated, or even angry.

I think everyone can relate to this scenario at some point in our life. For those with sleep problems, we hear GPs or psychologists talk about the importance of keeping the sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of principles that can be very helpful for us to train our body back into a good sleep routine. However, from my clinical experience, I often find managing the emotions that are associated with the sleep problem a vital step in regaining the ability to fall asleep.

The emotions come from all sorts of meanings that we attach to our inability to fall asleep. “Why am I still not falling asleep? It’s been 4 hours! This is ridiculous!” “If I don’t fall asleep any time soon, I won’t be able to function tomorrow!” “If this lack of sleep continues soon my health will suffer!” These are common thoughts that we tend to have in this situation. We can easily recognise that this inability to sleep is wrong, our body shouldn’t operate this way, and think of all the potential doom that this lack of sleep will bring.

This train of thoughts usually leads to intense negative emotions such as frustration, anxiety, or anger. While they are understandable emotions, they are certainly not helpful ones in this situation. When you are feeling anxious, your body is actually in a state that is the opposite of where it should be in order to fall asleep, which is being really relaxed. When we are feeling frustrated or angry, our body is actually “gearing up” with a surge of energy inside us for attack, which is certainly going to keep us wide awake for a good while, until the emotion subsides.

Just like one cannot force oneself to relax, as the words “force” and “relax” are mutually exclusive in meaning, we also cannot force ourselves to sleep. Therefore, instead of giving ourselves pressure to sleep by listing out all the impending dooms that is going to fall on us, the best thing to do at this point is actually to normalise the experience of our sleep problem. It is true that tomorrow we might not feel fantastic, but by 10am our energy level would actually pick up, we will probably forget about our lack of sleep the night before, and function normally. It is a common human experience to have sleep problems from time to time, so we are not going to catastrophise the situation. Jumping to conclusions about how much it will impact our health is not beneficial when this problem is not considered chronic. When we think about many new mums who consistently have very little sleep for the first few years of their child’s life, we realise that lack of sleep is natural and part of the human experience.

Next time when you have difficulty sleeping, and you notice negative emotions rising inside you, it might be helpful to drop your expectations on sleep, accept that we are not robots, and sometimes sleep does not happen quite the way we expect it to, but it is OK. If we are not sleeping, we are resting, which is also restorative. If we don’t get much sleep, chances are we would still be able to work, laugh, and do life tomorrow.

One of my clients once told me a beautiful analogy about sleep. He said that sleep is like a butterfly. If you chase after it, chances are it will slip through your fingers. But if you decide to not worry about the butterfly, and sit down, pick up a book to read instead (or do something else for that matter), the butterfly might just land on your shoulder. Once we toss the agenda of falling asleep out of the window, we create an emotional state inside us that is more relaxing and peaceful, and that, might just be enough for sleep to happen.

Article supplied with thanks to The Centre for Effective Living.

Feature image: Photo by Kinga Howard on Unsplash

About the Author: Jennifer Chu is a psychologist who is passionate about therapy, experienced in a range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social adjustment issues, stress management, and cross-cultural issues and more.