Self-Compassion For Sleep

Too Tired To Sleep

Let’s look at self-compassion for sleep.  It is one ‘o clock in the morning, and you peel the top of your duvet off.  Your body feels tired, but your mind seems wide-awake.  You turn over thoughts from the day, and think about tomorrow.  You feel restless.  Your head radiates warmth, which makes it hard to lie comfortably on your pillow.  You feel frustrated knowing that you have a full day tomorrow, and you silently wish you could stop time long enough to get a full night sleep.  You begin to feel helpless, which transforms into self-criticism.  If you can’t make yourself sleep, at least you can yell at yourself for withholding it, right?

Self-criticism is where we go wrong.  We come by sleep naturally.  It is not controlled by the conscious mind.  Thus, the conscious mind cannot be blamed for sleep happening or for sleep not happening.  Like you, the conscious mind is just a passenger on the bus that hopes that sleep is the next stop.  The conscious mind suffers as much as we do, when sleep does not happen.  Because it suffers, it deserves our kindness.

Treating Sleeplessness Like Sickness

One of my favorite mentors, Dr. Inna Khazan, says that many people turn on themselves, when they cannot sleep because they feel that sleeplessness is a sign of an active failure to do what is necessary to rest.  Dr. Khazan says that this is very rarely the case.  Sleeplessness tends to be caused by many factors, such as stress, fluctuations in noise or light at night, worries about family members, friends, or romantic partners, and somatic factors.  She asserts that self-compassion is always necessary not only for the self-critical mind that tends to accompany insomnia, but also for the activated nervous system that comes with not being able to sleep. 

Self-Compassion has the power to calm the nervous system, which has obvious health benefits.  Most notably, it prevents the overproduction of cortisol, the stress hormone, which negatively affects sleep, our stomach, our memory, and our heart rate.  Rather than criticize the body or the mind for not sleeping, she notes that it is important to understand that not sleeping is like being sick.  We understand the importance of soothing ourselves, when we are sick, so this re-frame reminds us how we should respond to sleeplessness.

So, how do we respond to ourselves when we are sick?  There are many variations, but most involve warm tea, comfortable blankets, a movie or television show that simply warms us like a soothing hug from a beloved family member.  Most importantly, we actively move to a place that is completely focused on soothing ourselves.  We are, in fact, not working.  We have already accepted that the sickness is real, and not our fault.  We realize that the only thing we can do now is to be kind to ourselves until the sickness passes.

Soothing Our Bodies To Sleep

Insomnia is no different.  Not being able to sleep is real, and not our fault.  Sure there are things that you can do during the day that might make getting to sleep easier (e.g., less caffeine, avoid activities including, computer or television monitoring, that evoke strong emotions and emit a lot of light), but the best way to find a more successful sleep pattern is to be kind to yourself when sleeping is not possible.  When the body and mind no longer fear not sleeping, they will be less likely to respond to sleep interruptions (e.g., sounds, light, thoughts) with sleeplessness.  This makes sense to anyone, who has tried self-criticism and forced sleeping.  The more we judge and force, the less likely we are to sleep.

The bottom line is that we want to deactivate the brain without yelling at it “Hey! Deactivate yourself!”  The best way to turn the brain off is to turn our experience towards the body.  We notice where there is tension in the body, and we slowly start to soften around that area.  We go to a place (if there is one) in which sleeping is not a requirement, but is a possibility (e.g., like a couch).  We engage in activities that soothe our body, such as listening to slow, relaxing music or doing a body scan.  When these things do not work, we opt for movies that we have seen a million times that simply bring us good feelings.  Our minds are activated just enough to move from perseverative thoughts about not sleeping, and our body begins to slow down and relax.  Sooner or later, we fall asleep.

Sleeplessness Strengthens Our Self-Compassion

Much like a cold, sleep issues tend to play out in cycles.  While some of us feel that we have trouble sleeping every single day (which can happen), it is more likely that we struggle to sleep for a few days in a row every month.  Like a cold, it is important to know that these sleep issues will pass, and they will pass with substantial accomplishment if we take the time to soften to our experience, and extend our ability to draw upon our self-compassion.

In this way, we finally understand that losing sleep is not there to punish us, but exists to remind us that there are some areas of our life in which we should think about reducing the stress.  Sleeplessness gives us an opportunity to practice soothing ourselves, and delving into our self-compassion resources.  This is important because we often lack these uninterrupted opportunities during the day, but still require strong self-compassion resources. 

So, when you cannot sleep.  Notice how your body feels.  Remind yourself that this is a form of sickness, and it will pass.  Take the time to quiet your self-criticism with self-compassion, and actively pursue a place to rest and soothe yourself that does not carry the burden of requiring sleep.  Then, let your body find sleep naturally.  It is, after all, something that comes without requiring our permission or intervention.  Wishing you warmth, kindness, and understanding on those nights in which getting to sleep takes a little longer than you would like.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 118.  In the Books.