6 Ways to Overcome the Paradox of Insomnia
- It dumbs you down
- It gives you serious health problems
- It makes you depressed
- It makes you look older
- It may kill you
And much more… (Check out my article on the downside of a lack of sleep.)
In this article we’ll look at the classic paradox of insomnia:
Wanting sleep so badly that you can’t get it.
(Stolen from David K. Randall’s book Dreamland.)
This is crazy, right?
Wanting sleep so badly that you can’t get it.
Let’s find out where that comes from, and what to do about it.
YES, you can do something about it.
What the Heck Is INSOMNIA Anyway?
There are mainly fuzzy definitions.
The best I find is the National Institutes of Health’s definition of insomnia:
“Difficulty getting or staying asleep, or having non-refreshing sleep for at least one month.”
Insomnia is if you don’t sleep well for a prolonged period of time.
- It’s NOT insomnia if you can’t sleep because of your neighbor’s moaning.
- It’s NOT insomnia if you can’t sleep because your spouse’s snoring like a chain saw.
- It’s NOT insomnia if you can’t sleep because you’ve enjoyed a double espresso before bed.
Apparently, there are 3 main different causes of insomnia :
1. Psychological causes such as anxiety, stress, feeling depressed, and just being unable to shut up the INNER CHATTER.
2. Medical causes such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or chronic pain.
This article focuses on psychological causes --> mainly on our mind.
Insomnia often is self-inflicted…
The cause often is the inability to quit thinking.
Let’s find out wtf I mean…
The Crazy MIND Trap
Don’t think about the blue elephant.
I know you did it.
Pssst… don’t look at that man over there. à Shwoops, you just checked him out.
It’s the same with sleep.
Here’s what concentration camp survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl said about sleep (50 years ago):
Sleep [is like] a dove which has landed near one's hand and stays there as long as one does not pay any attention to it. – Viktor Frankl
Cool comparison, right?
And I’m sure you’ve been there.
Have you ever fallen asleep in front of the TV but when you went to bed and tried to fall asleep, you couldn’t?
Or, I remember when I studied for an exam: When I read some stuff in the evening I almost fell asleep, but 10 minutes later in bed I was wide awake… What the hell?!
Basically, if you really want something, you don’t get it. That’s the TRAP.
Harvard professor Daniel Wegner called this “the ironic process of mental control.” If you really want something your mind constantly monitors its progress and gets caught up in the second-by-second self-control.
Wegner made a cool study (more complex than illustrated here) :
Group 1’s task: Try to fall asleep in RECORD TIME.
Group 2’s task: Fall asleep whenever you like.
As assumed, group 1 took longer to doze off. Their minds were concentrated on falling asleep so that they constantly checked on their progress. That’s why they were unable to let their thoughts drift off into dreamland… Tricky.
But wait, it gets even WORSE.
Group 1 not only took longer to fall asleep, but they also woke up more frequently, took longer to get back to sleep, and felt less rested the next day.
Author of Dreamland, David K. Randall, wrote about this group that “they wanted to sleep so badly in those first minutes in bed that they couldn’t calm their minds down throughout the night.”
And that’s exactly what happens when you suffer from insomnia (from psychological causes). It’s a vicious cycle.
The DEADLY Cycle of Insomnia
(This is for psychological causes of insomnia only.)
Let’s say you have a bad night. Maybe because of your loud neighbors, or because of the street kids playing ping-pong all night long, or because your sleeping pillow is too hard, too soft, or too warm...
So, you have a bad night’s sleep. That’s the trigger.
You feel tired the next day. You acknowledge that you’re less focused than after a normal night. You’re just not at your best.
The next night, you definitely want to sleep more & better. Because you’ve experienced that too little sleep isn’t good for you.
Back in bed you really want to fall asleep quickly so that you’ll be better off the next day. And BAAAM!
Now that you want sleep so badly you can’t get it. Your mind can’t stop checking on your progress of falling asleep.
It gets WORSE. After just a few minutes you realize that you’re still awake. You struggle with yourself. You’re afraid of another bad night. And that you’ll be worse the next day. But you have an important meeting etc… DAMN, STILL AWAKE.
You’ll check the time. And now you’re just being awake, with an omnipresent mind, but this time no kids playing ping-pong, and no moaning neighbors. Just you and your mind being wide awake, lying in the dark, and being dissatisfied with yourself.
There you go: Another night of poor sleep.
And guess what…
The pressure isn’t getting any smaller.
And that’s just the beginning of the deadly cycle of insomnia. It gets worse as you go to bed anxiously, already knowing that you won’t sleep, and that your mind won’t shut up...
Pressure gets bigger --> sleep gets worse.
If you are in that “too much pressure to sleep” cycle, then you have 2 options. But first, read that quote.
Patients with insomnia tend to think that one night of poor sleep leads to immediate health problems or has an outsized impact on their mood the next day, a mental pressure cooker that leaves them fretting that every second they are awake in the middle of the night is another grain of salt in the wound. In the inverted logic of the condition, sleep is extremely important to someone with insomnia. Therefore, the person with insomnia can’t sleep. – David K. Randall
2 Options: Controversy vs. HALLELUJAH
Did you know that by 2010, about 1 in 4 adults in the US had a prescription sleeping pill in their medicine cabinets? 1 in 4!
Fun story from the book Dreamland:
Sleeping pills accounted for more than $1 billion in advertising between 2005 and 2006. The sheer number of commercials may have caused as much insomnia as the drugs treated. … [C]onstant reminders and advertisements about obtaining good sleep would be enough to push anyone into the cycle of insomnia.
So, sleeping pills are an option. They’re controversial though. They help you fall asleep faster and sleep longer. But they should only be used in the short-term. 
David K. Randall hits the bull’s eye:
Many people who take sleeping pills find that their sleep quality reverts to its previous, poor state the night they decide to go without medication, a vicious cycle that increases the dependency on a drug approved only for short-term use. Facing a night of sleep without backup produces the same form of stress that originally caused the insomnia cycle to begin.
– David K. Randall
Takeaway --> No long-term help in sight with sleeping pills.
(*Note: If you still want to take the easy way and swallow some pills, you might want to try some natural alternatives à I’ll write an article on that and let you know ASAP.)
Let’s look at the other option, the HALLELUJAH option:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT
What the Heck Is CBT?
CBT for insomnia helps change the sleep behavior and negative thought patterns that cause the deadly cycle of insomnia.
As you remember it’s mainly our mind that stops us from falling asleep.
CBT now helps to change our thoughts for the better.
1. CBT looks at our sleep habits (clear rhythm, no caffeine, no light exposure etc.)
2. CBT helps to change our thoughts and take off the self-imposed pressure.
(You can read more about CBT here.)
Charles Morin, a professor of psychology at Laval University in Quebec, and his team made an interesting study about treating chronic insomniacs.
The results are crystal clear:
In the short run, medication is helpful, but in the long run, people need to change their actual sleep habits – that’s what CBT helps them do. – Charles Morin
All good, but one in-person CBT session costs around $100 to $150 – and you’d probably need 4 or more sessions…
(I also learned about this cheaper online treatment course that could help.)
So, what do I suggest?
I suggest you start with the 3rd option: treat yourself.
RELAX and Sleep like a Baby
The third option is to relax before you go to bed.
This is KEY as it shuts up the inner chatter.
Before we get into relaxation mode, let’s look at some ways to improve your sleep habits.
Here are the most important ones (you can also find them in this article):
- Develop a regular sleep pattern
- Limit caffeine (after 2pm), alcohol, and nicotine
- Move a lot throughout the day
- Limit your nap to 30 minutes, and nap between 1pm and 4pm
- Get some sunlight throughout the day (preferably in the morning)
- Limit artificial light exposure in the evening (learn more here)
- Eat some carbs after dark
- Turn off any screens 1 hour before bedtime
- Make sure your room is dark, quiet, and cool
- Sleep and sex, that’s what you get in the bedroom, nothing more
If you want to make sure that you have great sleeping habits, use this FREE checklist that helps you develop the best sleep habits. It helps you fall asleep faster and sleep better.
Now, let’s find out how to beat insomnia with some relaxation techniques.
Earlier, we learned that it’s mainly our mind that hinders us from falling asleep as it won’t shut up. It just won’t stop thinking, right?
So, we need to trick our mind in order to fall asleep.
There are uncountable relaxation techniques out there. Let’s look at the top 5.
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #1
Deep Belly Breathing
This is the classic.
Focus on relaxing yourself instead of trying to fall asleep. Forget about the latter. Just try to completely relax.
Breathe in deeply into your belly. Breathe out fully. And again. And again. Breathe in and out through your nose, and keep your jaw relaxed.
There’s also a breathing technique called 4-7-8 by Dr. Weil. This technique works for many people. Here’s how it works.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #2
This is about progressive muscle relaxation.
The idea is to slowly tense and then relax each muscle group. Start with your toes. Tense for five seconds and then relax for thirty seconds. Then progressively work your way up to your neck and head. Breathe slowly during the exercise.
Personally, I like imagining that my body parts are made out of concrete. I imagine that they’re heavy and sink into the mattress. I start with my legs. Then arms and torso.
This is a great relaxation technique.
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #3
Think Sunshiny Thoughts
Here’s a cool study with insomniacs: 
How long does it take to fall asleep for 3 different groups…
Group 3: No guidance. --> more than 1 hour (to fall asleep)
Group 2: Forget about your worries and concerns. --> 40 minutes
Group 1: Imagine a pleasant and relaxing situation. --> 20 minutes
So, the next time you have trouble falling asleep, create a wonderful fantasy in your head, but avoid sexually arousing imagery… this will only make you wide awake and horny.
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #4
The Magic Yawn
Haha. I like this one.
I stole it from Richard Wiseman’s book Night School (This book is a fun and enriching read that I highly recommend).
When you behave as if you are sleepy you become tired. To take advantage of this strange effect, let your eyes droop, your mouth hang open, and your arms and legs feel heavy. Sink into your bed as if you have had a long and tiring day in the office. Even fake a yawn or two. In short, fool your body into thinking that it is time for bed. – Richard Wiseman
This is awesome.
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #5
What the Frog?!
It gets even more interesting…
Medical researcher Niall Broomfield found out the following: 
Group 1: Try to stay awake for as long as possible.
Group 2: No instructions.
Group 1 felt less anxious at bedtime and reported falling asleep quicker!
So, if you want to fall asleep, try to stay awake.
However, you’re only allowed to use your mind. So, no TV, coffee, other drugs, or exercise etc. Basically, behave as usual and when you lie in bed, try to stay awake just using your mind.
That just undermines how crazy our minds can be…
Relax to Fall Asleep Tip #6
Simply Know THIS
We SUCK at estimating how much sleep we get.
We can’t easily judge the time that we are asleep because that time feels like an absence. The times that we do remember are those that we wish we couldn’t: staring at the clock in the middle of the night, turning the pillow over desperately hoping that the other side is cooler, kicking the covers off or pulling them up close. Those experiences, even if they last only three minutes, often become exaggerated in our minds and overshadow the hours that we spent sleeping peacefully, simply because we remember them. – David K. Randall
Research shows that insomniacs tend to think that they’ve slept far less than they actually did. So, you’re probably getting more sleep than you think. 
Simply KNOW that you most certainly get more sleep than you think. With that in mind you’re less stressed and that again helps you sleep.
And also KNOW this: Simply relaxing in bed is good for you, even if you’re awake. Just try to relax as seen in Tip #1 and #2.
Alright. Let’s sum this up.
Let’s make this simple.
Insomnia: You don’t sleep well for a prolonged period of time.
One cause of insomnia is psychologically: You can’t stop the inner chatter.
--> Insomnia is self-inflicted in that case.
That’s the ironic process of mental control: If you really want something your mind constantly monitors its progress and gets caught up in the second-by-second self-control.
--> Checking whether you’re already asleep does NOT help you fall asleep.
This explains the deadly cycle of insomnia. One bad night of sleep puts pressure on you so you really want to fall asleep fast. And BAAAM, you can’t fall asleep.
The cycle starts rolling... It gets worse as you go to bed anxiously, already knowing that you won’t sleep, and that your mind won’t shut up... All because of a mind that won’t stop checking on the progress of falling asleep. Evil evil evil…
Now you have 3 options:
Option 1: Sleeping pills. They only help in the short term. (Not really an option…)
Option 2: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Improve your sleep habits and change your beliefs that hold you back from falling asleep. (Try that if option 3 doesn’t work.)
Option 3: Improve your sleep habits and relax.
How to relax?
- Deep Belly Breathing
- Concrete Legs (progressive muscle relaxation)
- Think Sunshiny Thoughts
- The Magic Yawn
- What the Frog?! (Try to stay awake mentally only)
- Simply Know THIS (you sleep more than you think you do)
Cool. That’s the quick recap.
Let me know if the Magic Yawn or one of the other tricks works with you.
(NOTE: Do you want to fall asleep within a few minutes every night? Use this checklist which outlines the 4 steps I personally use. You can get it for free here.)