How to get over insomnia by giving up on sleep

How to go to sleep fast: why letting go of trying to sleep could soothe insomnia

Posted by for Wellbeing

Insomnia can make us obsessive about sleep. It’s for this reason that insomniac Charlie Brogan finally gave up on trying to sleep – and that decision changed her life.

We’ve all been there – lying wide awake in bed as the night slips away and falls into the morning. The birds chirp outside as we panic at the thought of work in a matter of hours. Oh, my anxiety fizzes at the thought.

We’re experiencing insomnia in the UK at an increasing rate. In 2020, the number of us struggling with insomnia rose from one in six (15.7%) to one in four (24.7%) across a sample size of 15,360 respondents when compared to pre-pandemic figures. Given the timing of that study, it’s hardly surprising that, according to Formulate Health, ‘how to sleep fast’ is currently googled on average 6,700 times a month in the UK. Post-pandemic, it still seems a lot of us are trying and failing to sleep.  

I get it. My number one catchphrase is: “Sorry, I just didn’t sleep last night.” When insomnia appeared in my life for the first time aged nine, I started tackling it with easy stuff like lavender baths, warm milky drinks and early nights. 

That accelerated when I was in my 20s to multiple rounds of CBT, hypnosis and prescribed sleeping pills – none of which had any long-term success. And although you can sometimes get to the root of the issue, for many of us, the causes of insomnia aren’t obvious. Sleeplessness often just appears the way the sun does, harsh and without warning.     

Can focusing on your health improve your chances of sleep?

My desperate quest to turn myself from ‘bad sleeper’ to ‘good sleeper’ wasn’t so much due to how unpleasant I found it to lie awake all night, but how tiredness affected my health and everyday life. I felt as though I was half existing and putting my health on the back burner as a result. When you’re impossibly exhausted, your only mission is to get through the day. The much-needed rest our bodies really deserve and crucially need is often cast aside and replaced with unhealthy coping mechanisms that offer momentary relief.

Though I was aware implementing a strict healthy routine in my life would improve my sleep, I found that striking this balance when utterly exhausted was near impossible. I’m sure you’ll agree that after a night panicking on sweaty sheets, the last thing we want to do is hop out of bed, make ourselves a smoothie and get on the train to the gym. 

But according to the many mental health professionals I’ve seen, it’s this exact kind of focus on our wellbeing that would help our sleep in the long run. 

Working out with insomnia can do more harm than good

If, like me, you’ve tried to keep up a regular workout routine while utterly exhausted, you’ll know that you can’t work against what your body is crying out for. Have you ever run out of a pilates class to calm a sleeping tablet-induced palpitation? I have, and it’s not fun. 

In theory, attending an early morning HIIT class while exhausted should really help induce sleepiness later on, but research shows it’s not wise. Inadequate sleep can not only affect your performance but also your recovery, rendering all of your hard work slightly pointless. Lack of sleep combined with exhaustive training can also lead to a weakened immune system, something I can vouch for – “Sorry, I’ve got a cold” is my second most popular catchphrase. 

So how do we strike a balance? While it came as a relief to find out that I shouldn’t try to work out after a sleepless night, eradicating exercise from my life altogether isn’t really going to work. 

To try to find a solution, I put all my focus on my sleep as a means to get a grip on my wellness. I focused on my sleep hygiene, which entails keeping a strict sleep schedule and only using your bed for sleep and sex, and gathered an array of sleep tools – eye masks and essential oils, meditation tapes and black-out blinds. Despite all this, I still couldn’t manage to sleep. Not only that, but I was restless as a result of my new sedentary lifestyle.  

Giving up on sleep as the best means of getting a good night’s kip

Dr Guy Meadows of The Sleep School would argue that this is due to the fact that ‘trying to sleep is a pointless mission’. In The Sleep Book he suggests a blend of mindfulness and ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’ (ACT) as a reliable route to sleep.

The more tools we have to ‘try’ to sleep, the more frustrated we get when they don’t work – leaving us anxious in bed. His argument? The best way to sleep is to stop trying to get to sleep.

This advice can at first read as absolutely terrifying. But having given up on my fitness and health to focus on ‘trying’ to sleep (and feeling worse as a result), I found myself turning to ACT as a last resort. Instead of giving up on my fitness, I had to give up on ‘trying to sleep’.  

Giving up on trying to sleep

Of course, if you’re new to sleeplessness, there are many things to try that may suit you. I wouldn’t hesitate to implement meditation and mindfulness into your daily routine. Focusing on good sleep hygiene couldn’t hurt either. But if all else fails, accepting my invitation into the ‘bad sleeper’ club might be your final solution.

A semblance of balance has been restored in my life as a result of giving up on trying to sleep. I’m now under far less pressure and, as a result, I’ve implemented gentler routines. My mornings are filled with coffee, stretching and long walks. I work in exhilarating HIIT classes when I feel like it’s a healthy option. 

Baths are my thing, so is dancing during work breaks in my bedroom. I’ve accepted where I’m at and just started living. And I can already feel sleep coming back to me.

For more sleeping tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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