I sometimes struggle with insomnia. I say struggle with, not suffer from, because it is most definitely a struggle. I struggle to get comfortable. I struggle to clear my mind of thoughts so I can sleep. I get very anxious and frustrated when I’m lying awake and it makes me want to sleep that much more. It’s a vicious cycle; the longer I lie awake, the more frustrated I become and the harder it is for me to get back to sleep. Since I see my insomnia as a result of an internal struggle or some reflection of personal resistance, I’m beginning to think there are a few things that I can do to make it more manageable. I’ve tried meditating, but that has never worked for me. I’m done with trying to force the thoughts out of my head because, for me, it’s never worked. Instead, I want to identify and assess the patterns that surround my insomnia, particularly the sense of frustration I feel every time it happens. I want to identify the subconscious messages I’m sending myself and intentionally shift them. For me, this is one of the most powerful ways to create lasting personal change.
Step 1: Identify Your Messages
It has taken me a long time to realize how very powerful our thoughts really are. Even once I recognized that the messages that I send myself play a huge role in what I see unfolding in my life, it’s not always been easy to identify the messages that I’m sending. So often the messages that really get in the way are subconscious, or at least buried under layers and layers of thought. The underlying thoughts, the thoughts that get repeated, begin to surface when you begin to look at patterns of events and emotions.
When I was in Costa Rica for my yoga teacher training, there was a particularly steep and slippery section of the jungle path we walked every day. Since I had to face this obstacle so often, and we were discussing intentions and thought processes in our training, I began to hear my thoughts more clearly. I realized that for years my thoughts in that type of situation were “Oh man, if I’m not careful, I’ll fall.” Every time that I can remember that I’ve fallen painfully, it was shortly after having those thoughts run through my head. It never once occurred to me that I was setting myself up; I just thought I was getting clumsier which made me all the more determined not to fall the next time. I never thought about the fact that the message I was sending myself was conditional. By starting this kind of if/then thought process with a negative statement, I was telling myself that if I lost my focus for just a second I would actually be very likely fall. In Costa Rica, I had to face this steep, slick path every day, and as I did, I began to hear my thoughts for what they were. I wondered what would happen if I flipped this if/then statement around. What if I moved the NOT to the effect instead of making it part of the cause? From that point on, every time I would walk this part of the path I would chant this phrase to myself: “If I’m careful, I won’t fall,” and it absolutely worked. I never once fell on the jungle path, and the only time I’ve fallen since then was on a very icy trail— so icy that once I was down I had trouble getting up again! I’m not sure there was anything I could have done to prevent that one.
Step 2: Reprogram Your Messages
As I mentioned earlier, I get really frustrated when I can’t sleep. This is an emotional pattern, and there are thoughts that go along with it. I’ve taken the time recently to notice them, and I’ve begun to wonder if they are actually creating my sleep problems the way my thoughts created my tendency to fall. So, this week I’m conducting a little thought experiment to see if I can re-frame the messages I’m sending myself about sleep. Instead of focusing on how much I want to go to sleep and how frustrated I am by the fact that I am still awake, I am actively thinking of some healthier messages that I could send myself. Here’s what I have come up with so:
“I have a hard time falling asleep when I’m lying on my back,” is now “I can rest most comfortably on my back.”
“The cat keeps waking me up early and I can’t go back to sleep,” is now “I can always choose to go back to sleep when the cat jumps on me or is purring by my ear.”
Most importantly, my response in any situation that would normally trigger those “I have a hard time sleeping when…” or “why can’t I go back to sleep?!” type of thoughts is now “I am good at sleeping through the night.” Period.
It seems to be working. There are still times where I don’t fall asleep immediately, but I’m no longer getting wound up about that. I think, in the past, my frustration about not being able to sleep only made the problem bigger.
Breaking the Patterns
What do you think? Are there patterns in your life that you’d like to change? Can you identify any pattern in your reactions when these situations arise? Are there specific thoughts that go with these reactions? Have you ever tried shifting these thoughts as a way of breaking the pattern?