Psychological Insomnia: Why Your Mind Keeps You Awake

Insomnia is an extremely aggravating problem to have. It’s also shrouded in mystery, with no one able to offer a clear, logical explanation of why you’re lying there pop-eyed in bed for hours and hours even though you desperately wish you could sleep. While there are many kinds of remedies offered (take a relaxing bath, don’t watch television right before bed, avoid caffeine in the afternoon), in practice, they often prove quite useless. Insomnia sufferers usually learn the hard way that they’re just going to have to accept being awake–no matter how miserable they feel–until some magic switch inside allows them to finally get some sleep.

So what is going on here? In this post, I’m going to explain some fascinating internal mechanics that can help you understand why you’re so annoyingly alert, and why there really isn’t a “quick fix” to this kind of issue. I believe that understanding always helps, even when the problem is complicated. Once we understand what’s really going on, we at least have the chance of choosing better strategies to help ourselves, even if none of those strategies will provide a permanent fix.

Getting Specific

I need to start by clarifying which kind of insomnia I’m talking about in this post. Remember that all humans have four elements to their beings: a body, a soul, a conscious, and a subconscious. As a psychological & spiritual counselor, my focus is on the last three elements. When you go see a medical doctor, he’s focused on the body. Any kind of “specialist” will naturally become biased in their focus. Medical doctors are prone to focusing on the body so much that they don’t take into account the influence of the mind and soul. Psychological counselors are prone to overemphasizing the mind, and spiritual counselors are prone to focusing too much on the soul. Whenever we specialize in a certain field, we need to put effort into keeping a balanced view. We should also be helping our clients keep a balanced view, by reminding them that there can be multiple causes for a certain issue. This is the case with insomnia. There are two kinds of insomnia that you should be aware of: one is caused by the body, the other is caused by the subconscious. In this post I’m going to be talking about that second kind, which I believe to be the kind people are usually dealing with when they become very frustrated by not being able to sleep and the problem drags on for quite a while. Psychological insomnia is much harder to correct than physical insomnia, so naturally it has become the more dreaded version.

Degrees of Influence

To understand the difference between these two types of insomnia, we first need to understand a few fascinating mechanics about how your elements relate to each other. The following diagram illustrates the different degrees of influence that your elements have on each other. The thicker the arrow, the greater the sway.

Notice how your subconscious has a powerful influence over both your conscious and body. Those are some very thick black arrows. The soul has a much weaker influence overall, but notice how its ability to influence your conscious is significantly greater than its ability to influence your body.

This diagram helps us understand the biases that occur between your elements. Suppose your subconscious and your soul start pressuring your body to do two different things. Which element is your body likely to listen to? Your subconscious, because it has the greatest influence.

Have you ever found yourself unable to resist doing something immoral? Porn addicts often experience this kind of conflict. Their souls are often horrified by the images they are watching, yet in the moment of crisis, the subconscious starts pushing very hard for the body to use its hands to type in that URL and click play on that video. Who does the body give into? The subconscious, because it has the greater influence. So even while internally, the porn addicts soul is shouting “No, no, no, this is disgusting!!”, he reaches for his laptop, pulls up the video, and physically sits there, taking in the the visuals with his physical eyes.

There are countless other examples I could give in which you find yourself physically doing something that you spiritually hate. We all experience this uncomfortable dilemma many times in life, but we are rarely given a correct explanation of what’s really going on inside of us. Understanding the “degrees of influence” issue helps you see why it doesn’t work to right yourself off as a moral scumbag or spiritual rebel just because you keep doing “bad” things. When God judges you, He focus on your soul’s motivations. He also understands that the balance of power is not equal between your elements. When humans judge you, they focus on your body’s actions, and they assume that your soul has far more influence than it actually does. This is why other humans will be quick to label you as an immoral creep if you do certain behaviors. If you try to say that you really don’t want to do those things, many humans will scoff and say, “Yeah, right. If you really cared about being a better person, you would behave better.” But is this really true? No. As we can see in the above diagram, wanting to do good doesn’t mean that your soul will be able to get your body to go along with its agenda. Your subconscious is a major factor in these situations. If it is opposing what your soul wants, than its greater degree of influence over your body gives it a massive advantage.

This same problem holds true with your conscious. Your conscious is the part of you that forms your thoughts. Your thoughts are translations of things that your conscious hears your other elements saying. So some of your thoughts are translations of soul talk (“I’d like to know God better”), others are body talk (“I’m hungry”), and others are translations of what your subconscious is saying (“That guy on the bus looks shady. I’d better sit farther away.”) Many religions teach that your soul has the power to control what your conscious focuses on. But is this really true? Let’s compare the arrows. Who has the greatest influence over the conscious: your subconscious or your soul?

This time your soul has more sway than it did over your body, but it still can’t compete with your subconscious. That black arrow is just so thick. This is why religions that pressure you to “keep your thoughts (morally) pure” are setting you up to feel like a spiritual loser. Sure you can “dwell on the things above” no problem if your subconscious doesn’t interfere. But if your subconscious decides that it has a more important focus for your conscious, your soul will usually be forced to take a backseat.

Can you see why it’s so important to understand about how your different elements relate to each other? By understanding these things, you can set more realistic expectations for yourself. You can also understand why it’s possible to be spiritually on the right track, even if your internal thoughts and external actions make you look like a jerk.

Now in the above diagram, we see can see that your conscious and body have an equal degree of influence over each other. What happens to your body when your mind is full of stressful thoughts? It becomes tense and agitated. You start getting squirmy or fidgety. You might have trouble digesting your food or even eating it. You might develop aches and pains or come down with a stress cold. Your conscious is always relaying general status reports about how the whole system is doing. When your conscious detects a high degree of stress in either the soul or the subconscious, it feels very flustered. Your body picks up on that tension and it becomes stressed as well.

So how do things work in reverse? How does your body influence your conscious? Well, what happens to your mental focus when you accidentally ram your toe into a piece of furniture? OUCH. Suddenly all of the other thoughts you were thinking get dropped and your conscious hyper-focuses on your throbbing toe until your body comes down off of red alert.

When you are awake, your conscious and body carry on like two good pals who view each other as equals. They work together to collect sensory information about your environment (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), and they relay that information to your subconscious. Your conscious and body also team up to help you communicate with other creatures. Whether you’re patting your dog or catching up with a friend, you are relying on the coordinated efforts of these two elements. Even though the body and conscious have the least amount of influence over their partner elements, they both make critical contributions in allowing you to move about, understand your environment, and communicate with other physical beings.

The last thing I want you to notice about our festive diagram is how the soul and subconscious have equal influence on each other. This gives us two pairs of elements with equal influence on each other: body/conscious, and soul/subconscious. In the case of the soul, we can see that of the three elements it interacts with, its greatest influence is on the subconscious. The opposite is true for the subconscious: from its perspective, it has much less sway over the soul than it does over your other two elements. This difference in power is a big factor in why the subconscious is so secretive with your soul. The fact that its power over the soul is equal, not superior, makes it feel more threatened by what the soul is doing.

Because the subconscious has so much power over your body and conscious, it can completely override those two elements when needed. But it can’t pull off this kind of stunt with the soul. Because the balance of power is equal between these two alpha elements, the subconscious has to use different tactics to make that relationship work. Your subconscious does not like being bossed about by the soul. Your body and conscious know they are too weak to try to order the subconscious around, but your soul is another story. Your soul can be quite a formidable force against your subconscious when it wants to be, and vice versa. So there is often a lot of tension between these two elements, and a lot more pressure to compromise with each other just to keep the entire system in balance.

Physical Insomnia

So now that we understand all of that, let’s move on to the subject of sleeping. This is a very bizarre behavior when you think about it. You just lie there like a lump for many hours at a time. Then you get up and act normal again for usually a bit longer than you slept for, but then you go back to being a boring lump again. What’s the point?

Humans are extremely limited beings, and those limits must be respected for us to function well. In general, your alpha elements are a lot tougher than your body and conscious. Your body can only operate in “awake” mode for a limited amount of time before it needs to re-calibrate. Your conscious has a similar problem, only its fatigue is a bit different than your body, and its form of “rebooting” is different as well.

When you sleep, three vital things happen. First, your body switches into self-maintenance/repair mode and performs many tasks that it simply can’t get to while you are awake. When you are awake, your body is given an unending stream of tasks to do–so many that it gets behind in its core maintenance work. Something as basic as walk around the block requires your body to pull off an immense number of highly complex movements in rapid succession. If it doesn’t keep on top of things, you’ll trip and fall flat on your face.

None of us appreciate the sheer volume of work that the body takes on during the waking hours. The human body is a truly marvelous machine. Despite thousands of years of trying to understand the body, we simply don’t. Not consciously, anyway. In our daily routines, we take the body’s incredible feats for granted: eating, walking, texting on our phones–what’s the big deal, right? Well, to the body, these things are very big deals, yet nothing it can’t handle. The body is incredibly capable, but its extremely intricate design also requires a ton of maintenance. Some of those maintenance tasks can be performed in the background while you go about your day. But other kinds of maintenance can only happen when your body can get a true break. Just a quick catnap isn’t enough. Your body needs a decent stretch of downtime to get all of its important maintenance tasks done. That’s where sleeping comes in.

From the body’s perspective, it never “sleeps” in the traditional sense. To humans, sleeping feels like a kind of shutdown. But the body doesn’t shutdown when you sleep, it simply moves its focus to a different set of tasks. This change of focus is only possible when it can stop doing waking tasks.

One of the most important waking tasks that your body needs a break from is collecting sensory data. When you are awake, your body is constantly collecting information from its various kinds of physical senses: your nose, your ears, your eyes, your skin, etc. etc.. It takes a lot of energy to do this–energy that can’t be spent on other things. When you sleep, your body cuts its sensory collecting down to a bare minimum. This is why you can be totally unaware of someone else coming into the room while you’re asleep, or someone else talking to you. When your body really dials down its senses, you can even be oblivious to someone trying to wake you up until they finally give you a hard shake. Even in its shutdown mode, the body maintains some degree of sensory awareness in case of emergencies–but it’s nothing compared to the level of alertness it maintains when you are awake.

Shifting into sleep is a process that the body intentionally engages in. For this process to be successful, certain factors must be in place, while other factors are absent. In the case of physical insomnia, the body experiences a physical block when it tries to shift into sleep mode. A classic example here would be you hyping yourself up on caffeine close to bed time. If your body hasn’t acclimated to a strong dose of caffeine in the evening, then it will be physically affected by that chemical entering its system. From the body’s perspective, anything that enters its system must be analyzed and processed. In the case of a malicious germ, your body puts its immune system into battle mode and attacks the unwelcome intruder. In the case of caffeine, your body finds its operations temporarily altered by the effects of the stimulant. It then works to process the caffeine through its system, as it does with other things that you ingest. But caffeine can only be processed so fast, and while it remains in your system, your body feels its effects.

From the body’s perspective, things that alter its ability to function often have both good and bad aspects. Sure, it sounds attractive to have an extra surge of energy. Under the influence of certain stimulants, the body can find it easier to perform certain tasks at a higher speed, which is why people on a caffeine high will often move and talk faster. Caffeine can also affect the body’s natural chemical balance in a way that affects its mood, and so we often feel more cheerful and chirpy after a strong dose of caffeine. But while we’re only focused on these perks, behind the scenes, the body also sees the negative side of being falsely revved. The fact is that there are only so many resources to go around, so when chemicals force your body to shove extra resources into one area, other areas suffer. We feel the effects of those shortages when we experience the “crash” of caffeine or the “hangover” of alcohol. To your body, there is no such thing as a free ride. It has limits. If you imagine a set of fences that are tied together, you can see how this works.

If the fences are arranged in a square and you are standing in the center, then as you try to push the fence in front of you forward, the one behind you will be dragged forward as well, since they are all tied together. Often we try to eat things that will temporarily push our “energy” fence forward, gaining us new ground in that area. But what we don’t see is that while we do that, we lose ground in other areas that are dragged along as well. So while one limitation is pushed out, causing us temporarily gain new abilities in that area, other limits are pulled in, causing us to lose abilities in those areas. This is why focusing too much on expanding a single area of physical ability always results in serious impairment in other areas. To function well, the body needs to retain some degree of balance among its various systems. If it becomes too imbalanced in one area, it becomes unable to perform certain functions.

To the body, “falling asleep” is a process which becomes impossible to perform if certain things are out of balance. Being hyped up on caffeine at bedtime is one of those things that can block the body’s ability to put you to sleep. In this situation, you’ll be stuck waiting for the body to process the caffeine through its system before that impairment can be removed. Maybe you’re too impatient for that so you ingest sedatives which are designed to force your body in a different direction. Now you’re pulling your body in two opposite directions at the same time, and in the process, messing up even more of its background processes. It’s not a great plan, but we can all identify with wanting a quick fix to feeling antsy at bedtime.

Now the caffeine example is just one of many situations in which the body finds it is being physically blocked from being able to perform its “go to sleep” process. The result is insomnia–you feeling unable to sleep when you need to. Because this is type of insomnia is caused by a physical problem, fixing it requires a physical solution. After being drinking coffee one night and being unable to sleep, the next night you might decide to adjust your physical behaviors by avoiding the coffee. If you are dealing with physical insomnia, then you will probably be able to sleep fine the next night–and you’ll probably sleep even longer than usual as your body tries to repair its fatigue damage from having such a lousy night’s sleep the day before.

Now not all cases of physical insomnia are this easy to fix. The body is complex, and sometimes we can’t easily pinpoint what’s interfering with its “go to sleep” process. As anyone who has dealt with hormone imbalances knows, sometimes the body gets off balance in a way that takes a long time to fix. So I don’t want to make light of this problem, because it can be very trying. But in many cases, this type of insomnia does have an obvious cause and an easy fix, and that makes it generally easier to deal with than the type we’re going to talk about next.

Psychological Insomnia

Here’s the main beast that we want to tackle. In most cases, it is this second kind of insomnia that drags on for weeks on end, or perhaps even years, and causes people no end of frustration. In this second kind of insomnia, your subconscious is intentionally trying to keep your body and conscious awake for as long as possible. After seeing those thick black arrows on our earlier diagram, we can appreciate why this is such a problem. Your subconscious has massive sway over your conscious and body–so much so that it can keep forcing them awake even when they both desperately want to sleep.

It’s extremely maddening to find yourself feeling desperately tired while sitting on your couch, only to find yourself feeling strangely alert the moment you lie down. The timing of the sudden surge of fresh energy indicates that there is a very precise strategy being used. In this type of insomnia, your subconscious is closely monitoring your activity, and the moment it sees your body trying to cycle down into sleep, it forces it to rev just enough to block that process from happening. At the same time, it is also forcing your conscious to remain awake despite the fact that your conscious‘ ability to function is growing severely impaired.

The Conscious & Sleep

Earlier I explained that the body views sleep as an important time to perform self-maintenance/repair tasks. So even when your body is asleep, it is still very active. For your conscious, things are different. Your conscious is the only part of you that truly goes “offline” during sleep. It is while your conscious is shutdown that your subconscious performs a memory sweep and basically deletes most of the conscious’ information files. These files aren’t lost, they are simply transferred to the subconscious and taken off of the conscious’ “hard drive.”

If your subconscious is a super computer, your conscious is a small flash drive with just a few gigs of storage space. As long as you are awake and your body is constantly collecting that sensory data, your conscious is constantly getting flooded new information files. When that stack gets too high, your conscious starts feeling overwhelmed and frazzled. It literally can’t juggle too much information at once, so it really needs a routine clearing out. The problem is that the conscious can’t perform this critical function for itself. Instead, it needs your subconscious to do it. When you sleep, your subconscious does just that: it analyzes the files that are currently on your conscious’ “hard drive”, deletes most of them, and just leaves a select few that it feels your conscious might find handy in the next waking period. This is why when you wake up from a long sleep, you can’t remember most of the things that you were fresh in your mind when you went to bed. If you only take a quick nap, you won’t experience this kind of memory sweep. But if you sleep for long enough, this process will occur and you’ll be left with just a few “highlights” of yesterday’s activities while most of the little details are lost. But since the data isn’t really lost, just relocated, it’s possible for you to re-access memories if your subconscious is willing to cooperate. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

The subconscious has many reasons for refusing to re-share files that it took from the conscious. Sometimes it feels the information being requested is too trivial and not worth the effort of digging out of its massive memory archives. Other times the subconscious is concerned that the conscious will be negatively affected by the exposure to certain memories, so it refuses to share them for protective reasons. This is what’s happening when you find yourself unable to recall details of painful events from your past. When asked about those details, your mind feels blank. Often in these situations, we just assume the events happened too long ago to recall. Yet the assumption that old memories are inaccessible for humans is quite false. Your subconscious contains memories from your entire life (and that is a lot of information). Accessibility isn’t the issue to your subconscious, but it has strong opinions about the benefits and risks of allowing old files to be reviewed.

Now it’s worth noting that once a file gets moved to your conscious, that file becomes accessible to your body and soul as well. Earlier I explained how your conscious functions like a translator for the whole group, converting some of the personal musings of your various elements into verbal comments that you call your thoughts. When it comes to memory files, the conscious functions like a big of movie screen that everyone can easily see. As it plays the memory file it just received, your body and soul react to that file. But here’s a critical thing to understand: your memories don’t reflect true reality. Instead, they reflect your personal interpretations of reality. And here we come to another important concept for understanding psychological insomnia: information processing.

Information Processing

Imagine a little boy who has no idea what an elephant is. If that large animal should go lumbering past the boy’s house one day, he’ll be shocked by the sight of it and not know what to make of it. He’ll then turn to his father for guidance. The father’s reaction to the situation will tell the boy how he should react. The father’s explanation of the situation will tell the boy how he should interpret it.

This is how it works between your body, conscious, and subconscious. Your body and conscious collect loads of information about your life experiences, but they don’t know how to interpret that data. It is your subconscious that makes sense of things for everyone’s benefit. To your eyes, a bunny and a kitten are two complex looking balls of white fluff. Your body doesn’t know what to make of either one. Neither does your conscious. It is subconscious that analyzes the sensory data that the other two collect, makes sense of it all, then relays back an explanation of what is going on. Those explanations often come paired with specific instructions for how your individual elements should respond.

Suppose you spill hot tea on yourself. Your body says OUCH! Sensory data is relayed to your subconscious. It’s a very complex pile of data which includes some very angry comments from your body about feeling scalded, the amount of liquid involved, and the precise locations of the burning sensations. But there’s a lot more than just these facts. Your subconscious is also briefed about the expression on your date’s face, as well as any changes in the behaviors of the humans around you (is that woman two tables over snickering at you?). In less than a fraction of a second all of this data is transferred, a complex analysis is performed, and a set of detailed explanations and instructions are relayed back. Use that cloth napkin to blot up the hot tea; the paper one will be useless. Your body flies into action. Joe looks more sympathetic than mocking. Make a joke and laugh it off. Ignore that other woman. She is irrelevant to us. Your conscious forms the phrase “I’m such a klutz!” and your body says it out loud, tacking on a phony laugh. Joe says something in return. Another faster-than-lightning process takes place as his comment is relayed to the subconscious for interpretation and instructions are received. That’s a friendly comment. Proceed with the date. We’re okay. Your conscious and body relax and continue. Thank goodness for the subconscious.

As you can see, your subconscious plays a vital role in getting you through life. Without its input, all of the data your senses collect would seem meaningless. But while your subconscious is very much “the brains of the operation”, it can’t collect data on its own. For that, it relies on your body and conscious.

In this diagram we see the red sensory data flooding into the system and being relayed to the subconscious by the body and conscious. While both elements directly communicate to the subconscious, it is the combined messages from them both that the subconscious needs to make its analysis. Your conscious plays an important role in enhancing the quantity and quality of the raw data that reaches the subconscious. This is why your ability to be aware of your surroundings is severely compromised once your body goes into sleep mode. Once your conscious is offline, you’re missing out on a lot of stuff. But just as your television can still pick up a few channels when your satellite dish is down, your body still keeps a light monitoring of your environment going while it sleeps, and this is why you will respond to someone trying to shake you awake. When your body relays the shaking sensations to your subconscious, it will interpret that data as someone trying to wake you. The subconscious will then bring the conscious back online and tell the body to leave its sleep mode. You then “wake up” and regain your ability to have a meaningful conversation with someone, even though your body feels groggy from having to wake up before it was ready.

So what about the soul? Here’s where things get even more fascinating. Your soul is not able to interpret raw data. Instead, it has to rely on the subconscious for the first interpretation. But once it receives that information (shown by the grey arrows), your soul will then perform its own analysis and give a second opinion (the purple arrows). For example, you hear a creepy noise in your house at night. Your subconscious provides this interpretation: It’s either an intruder or the water pipes. Your soul then says: Or it could be demons. Both of these opinions get relayed to your conscious and body, and here’s where a lot of trouble can happen.

Your subconscious naturally wants everyone to focus on its own interpretation of the situation because, after all, it is exceptionally skilled at data analysis. When your soul’s spin on things seems to be making a tense situation even worse, your subconscious gets huffy towards your soul. Intruders and water pipes are physical things with logical behaviors. Your subconscious can understand physical, logical things. But supernatural entities are not physical, they can’t be monitored by your body’s senses, and they behave in strange ways that your subconscious has trouble predicting or understanding. So your subconscious doesn’t want to have to take the demon theory seriously when it’s trying to deal with a creepy noise in your house. The possibility of human intruder is enough of a threat without your soul introducing the possibility of invisible beings into the mix.

As much as your subconscious would prefer to ignore things that it can’t understand, your soul’s input is a valuable resource, so the subconscious knows it shouldn’t entirely fluff off what your soul is saying. Sometimes it fluffs off your soul…okay, maybe a lot of the time. But there are other times when your subconscious is entirely stumped by a situation and your soul is the one that provides the guidance it needs to choose instructions for your body and conscious.

Pending Threats

All of your elements have their own preferences, skills, and biases. Your subconscious’ top priority is to protect you from harm, and that causes its analysis efforts to be especially focused on any potential threats to your safety. There are many ways that harm can come to you, and your subconscious takes them all seriously. Some threats are immediate, like when you see grey smoke pouring out of a bedroom in your house. But other threats hang over you for quite some time, like when you find out that your abusive ex just moved into your apartment complex. Pending threats are very stressful to your subconscious. Until the situation is resolved, it keeps running through what if scenarios in an effort to prepare a good defensive strategy for every possible situation. Of course this is impossible to do. We humans can’t even imagine every possibility, let alone prepare for all of them. But your subconscious still tries, because its devotion to your well-being is immeasurable.

Once your subconscious finds itself on continuous “red alert,” it has a choice to make. How much should it reveal to your other elements about the pending threat? Remember that your subconscious wipes your conscious’ memory every time you sleep, so keeping your conscious out of the loop is a breeze. Your body doesn’t have a way of storing the kind of memory files I’m talking about here, so it will also remain oblivious to any threat unless your subconscious says something. As for your soul–well, that’s a bit trickier. Your subconscious doesn’t have the ability to wipe your soul’s memory files. But your soul doesn’t have direct access to your subconscious’ massive memory database, either. All your soul can work with is the interpretations that your subconscious gives it. Should your subconscious refuse to offer any alerts, your soul will remain in the dark about what’s going on.

Once you understand how the flow of information works for your elements, you can see that the subconscious has some prime opportunities to deceive everyone about what’s going on. The critical opportunity comes when your subconscious hands out its first interpretation of the raw data–as shown by the grey arrows in our chart.

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Suppose your subconscious detects a major threat to your safety in the data it receives. What if it lies? What if it intentionally hides the truth? The fact that it has such sway over the body and conscious means it could simply bark some orders at them, and they would comply. That might be enough to move you out of harm’s way. An example of this would be you walking into a coffee shop, and having your eyes fall on a woman who seems like a total stranger to you. Yet something about her bothers you. Really bothers you. You can’t articulate what it is, but you suddenly get a strong urge to leave the shop. And so you do. Problem solved. You don’t understand why you did what you just did, or why that woman bugged you so much, but whatever. You go on with your day.

In a situation like this, your subconscious runs the image of that woman through its massive memory database, and comes up with some matches that it doesn’t like–the kind of matches that make it conclude she is a major threat to your safety. So it orders your conscious and body to leave the cafe. Is the problem solved? Not necessarily. Your subconscious might still be very concerned about the presence of this woman in your neighborhood. It might have a lot of questions that it now wants answers to. But while it ponders the woman, it wants to protect your conscious and body from unnecessary stress. It also wants your soul to stay out of it. So your subconscious intentionally lies to the other elements. It returns an interpretation that the woman is irrelevant to you, while at the same time demanding that you go to a different cafe. Your elements pick up on the way the subconscious is intently focused on the woman, and they sense there is something off about her, but with the subconscious clamming up, they soon forget about her and move on. In these types of situations, your subconscious will often intentionally distract your elements with some other focus to prevent them from probing it for more information. But while it gets your other elements to move on, your subconscious remains on high alert, mulling over that woman and the grave threat she represents. It mulls and mulls and mulls, but does so in the background, beneath the radar of your other elements. They continue on, oblivious to what the subconscious is thinking about, until it’s time to go to bed.

You reach the end of your day and your body starts dragging. It’s tired and wants to do its self-repair work. Your conscious is also feeling tired. So much information is cramming its system. It longs for a clean slate. So you try to go to bed. Two of your elements are eager to sleep. And yet you can’t sleep. Instead, you’re pop-eyed. Bizarrely awake. This is ridiculous. You toss and turn for a while, then finally decide to get up and do something to distract yourself from this frustrating situation. You turn on the television. Great. More information for your conscious to stuff in to its crammed files. Your vision gets blurry and your eyes keep closing. Your body is tired of collecting data. It wants to go to sleep. So does your conscious. Everyone’s getting cranky. Your soul picks up on the crankiness and agrees that these two need to sleep. So you trudge off to bed again. Surely this time, you’ll fall asleep. But as soon as your head hits the pillow, boing! your eyes fly open. That cement feeling in your body vanishes. Your hazy thoughts become crystal clear. What the heck is going on? Where is the exhaustion you felt seconds ago? You toss and turn some more, then get fed up with the boredom and head back out to your living room. This time you pick up your phone and try playing a game. Your conscious protests, this is too much information! Your body protests–you want a bunch of coordinated motions at this hour? Everyone’s cranky and you’re performing badly in your game because you can’t concentrate. The soul is getting irritated, sympathetic to the problem. It demands to know what’s going on and why no one can sleep. The subconscious says nothing. It just waits, ready to send another surge of alertness if you try to lie down again.

In the situation I just described, the insomniac does not understand he can’t sleep. He searches inside for a reason and hears crickets. Nothing. No explanation. No red flags. Just perpetual, nonsensical alertness. But while three of the elements are truly mystified by this situation, the subconscious is not. It knows exactly why it wants the system to stay awake. So why does it?

Maintaining Threat Detection

As soon as your conscious and body go into sleep mode, your subconscious’ ability to monitor your surroundings becomes severely crippled. Normally, this isn’t a problem when it feels you have a reasonably safe sleeping environment and you’re not in any immediate crisis. But when danger feels like it is hovering, your subconscious’ already strong desire to protect you becomes even more intense. Since receiving information about your surroundings is essential to detecting threats and launching defenses, a threatened subconscious can feel that it’s just too risky to let you sleep.

Now to your soul, this kind of logic might make sense in the case of a physical threat. But to your subconscious, this logic is also valid in cases where the threat is non-physical. For example, you have a job interview set up. It’s a huge opportunity for you–one that could radically change your life circumstances. How well do you sleep the night before your interview? Lousy, right? You’re lucky to get a few hours in. It takes you forever to actually fall asleep, because your mind is racing with “what if” scenarios and ways to polish your answers to any questions you might be asked.

Tossing and turning the night before a big event is a very common human experience. But it’s one that is caused by the same dynamics as psychological insomnia. In the classic “I’m too excited to sleep” scenario, it is once again your subconscious keeping everyone online. Why? Because it’s feeling very excited about what’s coming, and it’s keen to prepare the best that it can for handling this important situation. Since your subconscious feels the most secure in its abilities to protect you when all of its data collectors are online, it intentionally keeps your body and conscious awake. Brief experiences of this are something we all expect and even laugh about. But when your subconscious remains in this high alert mode for weeks on end, we’re no longer laughing. Instead, we’re feeling fed up and frustrated with a system that seems to be working against itself. But is it? It depends which element you ask.

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