I read your post on psychological insomnia, and that definitely seems to be what I’m dealing with. Your post was a very interesting read, and now I feel like I’m understanding why my mind is keeping me up, but do you have any advice for how to get it to relax?
As you know after reading my previous article, the culprit here is your subconscious. It’s feeling stressed and agitated, and as a result, it is nervous about allowing your body to shut down because it relies on your body to monitor your surroundings.
Now it’s not realistic to expect this kind of insomnia to have a quick fix, so let’s start by setting reasonable expectations. When your subconscious is feeling agitated, it is very likely to produce a lot of disturbing dream material. Dreams are essentially your subconscious talking to itself about its pending problems and concerns. The more serious the worries are, the darker the dreams become. When your mind is agitated, it’s also normal for it to keep waking you up a lot during the night. As aggravating as this behaviour is, it makes sense when you remember that your subconscious doesn’t ever go to sleep personally, and it finds it stressful to be cut off from all of the environmental data your body collects.
Imagine if you were very worried about being robbed during the night, so you set up a bunch of security cameras and you sit at a desk closely watching the feeds that those cameras are sending to an array of monitors. What’s going to happen to your stress levels if all of those monitors suddenly go dark? You’ll be more stressed, of course, and this is how a very agitated subconscious feels when your body’s “cameras” suddenly stop streaming in data. Your body still collects some data while you sleep, which is why it’s possible for you to be woken up by someone shaking you or by loud noises. But the volume of data it’s collecting is drastically reduced, so by forcing your body to wake up frequently during the night, your subconscious feels like it is reducing how much time it’s left in the dark about what’s happening around you. Let’s remember that as aggravating as your subconscious can be, it is always trying to help you, so we do want to appreciate that its motivations for frequently prodding you awake during the night are positive. It’s trying to be extra vigilant in its efforts to monitor your environment and protect you from harm. It’s actually rather sweet if you think about it.
But now on to the practical stuff. Your body needs sleep, and your mind needs to let it go to sleep. So how do we get your mind to calm down here? Well, once you’ve identified that this is a psychological issue and not a physical one, it becomes clear that a lot of the common advice for insomnia is only going to make your problem worse. This is because most insomnia advice is focused on making the body more comfortable. Turn off the lights. Turn off the devices. Make your bed comfortable. Make the temperature comfortable. Lay off the caffeine. None of these things are going to do bumpkus to calm down your subconscious. In fact, submerging your subconscious in a dark, quiet room is often going to make it feel more agitated, not less.
It’s fascinating to realize that each of your elements (body, soul, conscious and subconscious) has a need to relax and recharge, but they each have different ways of doing this. If you want to help your body recharge, you need to reduce your demand on it. Sitting in a warm room puts a lot less demand on your body than sitting in a cold room where it has to internally rev to try to maintain its desired temperature. Relaxing on a couch is less demanding than walking around. Closing your eyes is relaxing to the body because it drastically cuts down on how much visual data it has to collect. Avoiding drugs like caffeine that force your body to rev when its already tired is helpful because it means your body isn’t being forced to use up its energy reserves. Since the common view of insomnia is that it has physical causes, the common advice for dealing with insomnia is focused on helping your body relax by reducing your demand on it.
Well, your subconscious is an entirely different deal than your body. Your subconscious never turns off, and it never takes a break. So how do you relax a creature who is designed to perpetually rev? The fascinating answer is that you need to give your mind fun problems to solve.
Your subconscious is first and foremost a brilliant problem solver. It thrives on analysis. I’m not talking about doing complicated mathematics here, because a lot of subconsciouses strongly dislike crunching numbers. I’m talking about problems that seem fun and rewarding to your own mind. Here is where your mind’s unique personality becomes a very important factor because your mind’s idea of a fun problem is going to be quite different than another mind’s.
Some minds love to read stories. This is because stories are like puzzles. As your eyes scan over the words, your subconscious immerses itself in the task of sorting out what those words mean, and figuring out what is being said. Some minds love long, detailed descriptions of scenery because they like to create their own matching visuals by pulling data from their memory databases. Other minds find a bunch of description irritating because they are eager for the plot to advance and for new action to occur. What are your own mind’s favourite aspects of reading?
All subconsciouses prefer to use metaphorical images over words when they are musing to themselves or speaking to their fellow elements. But some minds also like to focus on images over words in their entertainment as well. These are the kinds of minds that prefer movies over books. They like to feast on the visual and audio data instead of working at deciphering the meaning of text. Minds that find text tedious will often do better with graphic novels (aka comic books) over books that only contain text.
To your analytical mind, stories are like puzzles that your mind enjoys analysing and trying to guess the endings of. In real life, your subconscious is constantly trying to anticipate what’s likely going to happen you in the near future. When you watch a movie or read a book, your mind gets to exercise these same skills only it can actually enjoy the analytical process because it doesn’t have the immense burden of feeling personally responsible for the outcome. When your own house is on fire, your subconscious feels extremely stressed and directly responsible for getting you to safety. When someone’s house is on fire in a movie, your subconscious gets to kick back and have fun analysing the possible ways the character might save himself. Your mind loves to analyse, but when it is plagued with stress, it doesn’t get to enjoy doing what it loves because it’s feeling so burdened with responsibility. When your goal is to help your mind get a break from stress, you want to present it with an opportunity to get to do the things it loves (analyse, problem solve, and anticipate) without the burden of responsibility. As it immerses in whatever activity you’ve provided, your subconscious gets to turn its primary focus off of how stressed it feels about taking care of you and focus on problems that are a whole lot easier and more fun to solve.
Now because your subconscious is such an intelligent little thing, it likes a degree of challenge to its entertainment. If the activity is devoid of any challenge, your mind will become bored and annoyed. But when your mind is feeling very stressed, it’s important that you choose activities where rewards are easily attainable. For example, some minds find adult colouring books very satisfying. What makes a colouring book “adult” is the complexity of the drawings. To fill in all of the small spaces, you must focus on what you’re doing. To come up with a pleasant end result, your mind must exercise its artistic skills and try to imagine which colours will look good in certain spaces. Every subconscious is extremely artistic, so making creative decisions like this can be very appealing. Minds that find colouring recharging enjoy not only deciding on colours, they also enjoy the reward of seeing the white spaces getting filled in one by one. Remember that frequent rewards are a vital part of making an activity feel fun to a stressed mind.
When you’re dealing with psychological insomnia, it’s helpful to do the exact opposite of what the “experts” tell you when it comes to lighting and devices. Stressed minds will often feel calmer in a room that is lit rather than a room that is dark, because they want to be able to monitor your surroundings. While you’ll find loads of people insisting that “blue light” is terrible, it’s worth trying a blue lamp in your bedroom at night. Many small diffusers double as nightlights that you can set to glow many different colours. Blue light is very easy on tired eyes (which is helpful to your body). But while it can feel very calm and pleasant, it also allows you to see your surroundings, which is helpful to your mind. Yes, I know there are loads of theories about the emotional effects of light, but such theories are far too simplistic to be taken seriously. In real life, the kinds of emotions you associate with a certain colour have to do with your personal life experiences and your own culture’s influence over you. There are no “one size fits all” rules here. For some, blue light is very calming. For others, it could be panic inducing because it reminds them of the blue strobe lights on top of the police cars that arrived on the night they were going through some terrible trauma. Get yourself a night lamp and rotate through various colours to see how you can reduce the light level in the room (to help your tired eyes feel less strained) yet still see your surroundings fairly well (so your mind doesn’t start stressing over shadows).
Once we’ve got some lighting worked out, we come to the devices. The goal is to be already in bed, ready to slip under those covers the moment your mind calms down enough to let you sleep. But to actually get it to calm down, you need to give it an interesting distraction that will help it take a break from feeling so stressed by the overwhelming responsibility of protecting you from terrible threats. In this electronic age, it’s most practical to use a device to provide yourself with that distraction in bed, so out comes your phone or tablet or handheld gaming console. You now need to choose an activity that your mind can really get into. Here are some ideas of things to try:
- Reading a book. Amazon and the Google Books both offer a vast library of ebooks to choose from. Try one that offers you a free sample first to see if your mind gets into the plot. Don’t bother with stories that don’t grab your attention very quickly.
- Watching a movie. Pop in some headphones so you don’t disturb the sleepers around you and sift through Netflix, Amazon Prime, or YouTube for some films you can watch. Pay attention to your mind’s preferences here. If you find yourself squirming and unable to focus, your mind might prefer short, random clips over full length films. Try looking up topics you’re interested in on YouTube and watching some of the videos that pop up. Leave a video as soon as your mind starts wandering and try a different one. The goal here is to keep your mind interested, and to do that you need to spark its curiosity. Also consider that some minds prefer the longer, more involved plotlines that television series offer over movies that have less than two hours to complete the story. Try different things. Focus on topics your mind finds interesting. Avoid topics that it finds stressful.
- Playing a game. I think this particular option is especially useful for upset minds, because it’s very easy to find games for your mobile or tablet that you can play for short bursts. By contrast, a lot of the bigger games that you get on things like Nintendo Switch and Stadia have very complex stories which can feel a bit too demanding to get into when you’re physically tired. But again, you need to leave room for your own mind to express its own preferences. Some highly stressed minds will only focus if they are given a highly complicated game which requires remembering a lot of tasks and constantly juggling many different priorities. Other minds will engage in something much simpler, like a “match 3” or “block puzzle” game in which simple finger swiping gives a satisfying sense of accomplishment. If you’ve never played mobile games, do some browsing in the Google Play store, which has every kind of game imaginable, and try some things. If you start getting some successes but the ads are frustrating you and you don’t want to purchase games, Google offers a “Play Pass” monthly subscription which allows you to play a wide variety of games for free that have no ads. The subscription is pretty cheap (currently £5 a month for UK players) and they do a good job of rotating their library so a wide variety of genres are offered. This is a good, cheap way to explore the world of mobile gaming and see what kinds of games own your mind finds engaging.
- In case anyone is wondering, I am not affiliated with any companies, sellers, or advertisers, so I have no financial incentive to mention certain products. I personally pay WordPress to block ads here so that people can read in peace, so I actually lose money running this site. I find it very off-putting to try to make money off of people who are in distress (for example, by covering my site in clickbait), so on the rare occasion that I do recommend something specific, it’s because I’ve received positive feedback from real people who have found it helpful in their own lives.
- Being read to. When sleep feels close, giving your mind something to focus on other than its own thoughts can be very helpful. Many sleep apps are available in which you can play tracks of people reading stories to you. Alternatively, you could just play any audiobook of your choosing. Consider that if the story is unknown to you, your mind will have to put more effort into focusing on what is being said, and that can increase the distraction value. Alternatively, if the story is one you know and like, your mind can find it comforting to hear it again. Encouraging your mind to create visuals to go with the words can be useful here. But don’t force this. Some minds loathe being read to, so if you get a negative response, try something else.
- Listening to music. This works best if you also pair it with pleasant mental imagery. Sleep apps offer calming, redundant music which is more likely to keep your mind distracted yet calm, whereas peppier rock or pop music can be too emotionally stimulating. When you’re trying to get your mind to relax (which is quite different than trying to help your mind vent stress), it’s best to try to avoid music that dredges up intense emotions like anger, sorrow, or fear. The value of music and other “white noise” is that it gives your mind something specific to focus on. Let’s go back to you sitting in your house, nervously watching all of those security camera monitors for signs of a robber sneaking towards your house. Suppose a cute family of cats comes onscreen and they start playing around in your front yard. Watching them would cheer you up and make you temporarily forget about your robber anxiety. This is the same goal that you’re going for with white noise. The goal is to put something on the monitors for your mind to focus on by feeding pleasant or neutral sensory data to your body. White noise or music is often more effective than silence in calming agitated minds, because in silence they focus entirely on their own worries.
The purpose of all of the activities I’ve listed here is to give your mind something to focus on other than its current concerns. This is how minds recharge: not by doing nothing, but by doing something different. The key is making sure that the something different meets the following criteria:
- It’s interesting, which means it sparks your mind’s curiosity instead of making it feel utterly bored.
- It’s challenging. So much so that to do it, your mind must reduce how much it is focusing on its own worries. All subconsciouses are designed to multitask, and they will never dedicate all of their resources to a single goal. But if you choose the right task, your mind will divert enough resources to significantly reduce how much it is focusing on its current worries, and that is when the psychological recharging will start to occur. To function well, all minds need daily recharge sessions.
- It’s rewarding. This means your mind feels a sense of satisfaction in doing the activity because it can see clear evidence that it is progressing and/or achieving specific goals. When an activity is too challenging, the rewards occur too rarely and your mind gets frustrated. When an activity is not challenging enough, the rewards occur so often that they feel meaningless. You need to experiment to find the balance that is right for you.
To recharge your body, reducing activity is the key. To recharge your mind, changing activities is the key. Different elements have different needs, which is why identifying which of your elements is keeping you awake (mind, body, or soul) is an important first step in identifying ways that you can try to ease insomnia.
Physical Assault Victims
Before I end this article, there’s a special note I should include for those who have a background of any kind of physical assault. In these cases, one of the reasons your mind can be so resistant about allowing your body to shut down is that it feels very concerned about you being physically attacked. You might think the world of the person who shares a bed with you, however in cases of physical assault traumas, minds will often remain extremely guarded, even towards your romantic partner. In these cases, a very useful calming tool to explore is physical props that will provide your body with a sensation of being surrounded by a protective barrier. Weighted blankets and pregnancy pillows are worth looking into here. You probably won’t need both, as they accomplish the same thing in different ways.
Pregnancy pillows are large, U-shaped body pillows which surround the body with a soft, thick barrier. Your mind will interpret that barrier as a comforting defence–rather like the wall that surrounds a castle and keeps out invaders. Alternatively, weighted blankets (or cheaper alternatives) create the same barrier effect by using downward pressure to make the body feel like it’s sheltered in a safe little cocoon of soft material. Both options can do a good job of eliminating air drafts, which can be anxiety triggering to minds dealing with physical traumas.
There is an additional caution here for sexual assault victims who found themselves underneath their attackers: in your case, the sensation of a heavy material pressing down on your body can trigger panic, so you should go with the body pillow option instead and keep the top layers lightweight.
In all cases where there is a history of physical assault and insomnia, I strongly recommend that you try wearing long sleeved, long-legged pyjamas to bed if you’re not already. This is because physical assault traumas (especially sexual ones) often result in the mind feeling extremely uncomfortable with you being physically touched by someone else–especially when you don’t have plenty of advanced warning. Since skin-to-skin contact is often anxiety triggering in these cases (even when it’s accidental), covering yourself with a layer of cloth can go a long way towards helping your mind feel less anxious about you sleeping in close proximity to another human being.
This post was written in response to Sara.