What if my sleep gets worse again?
People with a past history of chronic insomnia are often very reactive about poor night’s of sleep. Even if they are generally doing well, there’s an underlying fear that ‘sleep is fragile’ and anything can upset the balance.
Just like one bad apple spoils the bunch; one bad night’s sleep could lead to countless bad nights for a person who has insomnia.
It’s a scary thought, especially for people who have had the displeasure of experiencing months – if not years – of chronic bad sleep. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The increased sleep anxiety makes it much more likely for one bad night to actually turn into chronic insomnia.
This article provides some information on how to avoid letting a bad night’s worth of sleep turn into insomnia.
I’ll start by providing some behavioural strategies based on sleep science to ensure that we don’t undermine our sleep systems. Afterwards, I’ll delve into how we might be able to change the ways we think about sleep to stay a good sleeper in the face of bad nights.
1. Disregard how the last night and focus on the next night
Most often, the issue when it comes to insomnia is that people get tripped up worrying about the previous night. They spend so much time and effort trying to ‘catch up’ on sleep from the past crappy night that it leads to them affecting their next night’s sleep.
For example, they may sleep-in to catch up on sleep, spend more time resting or trying to nap during the day, and getting to bed early to make up for some of the lost sleep.
Although these behaviours make reasonable sense, it actually affects our ability to develop sufficient sleep pressure for the next night, leading to more unrefreshing sleep. This creates a perpetual vicious cycle that maintains insomnia.
Perhaps the most simple and strongest evidence-based tip I can give is to focus on how to make your next night’s sleep better.
What would you do to ensure that our drive for sleep remains high for the next night? If you had to answer this, you’d probably say “wake up at the same time in the morning even if my sleep was bad; try to go about my day as usual avoiding naps; and going to bed at my regular bedtime”.
And you’d be exactly right! The best way to ensure that the next night stays consistent is to keep your behaviours similar to when you have a good night. When we are reactive to a poor night’s sleep, we open ourselves to behaviours that negatively impede our body’s natural ability to recover. Although this can be easier said than done when we are anxious, try to consciously decide whether what you’re doing is ‘making up for the previous night’ or ‘optimizing the next night’.
2. Becoming comfortable with bad nights
To support the above recommendations, it’s important to become okay with bad nights. Bad nights are common for everyone – even healthy sleepers. Most people with experience stressors at least a couple times a month and sleep is not always guaranteed to be excellent.
It is the paradox of insomnia that the more we try to get sleep, the further away sleep can get. In order to more consistently get good sleep, we have to become okay with crappy nights.
But how do we do that?
One evidence-based strategy is paradoxical intention. The idea in paradoxical intention is to intentionally stay awake for as long as possible when you go to bed. This way, you remove the fear of not being able to fall asleep, because that’s the goal. Through paradoxical intention, you reduce the anxiety surrounding not sleeping, which counterintuitive leads to falling asleep quicker.
Another strategy is to shift the way we approach being awake in the nighttime. Some of my patients found that the greatest shift in their subjective perception of their sleep was when they realized that being awake in the middle of night wasn’t so bad. It gave them time to enjoy shows or books they couldn’t watch or read during the day; it was a peaceful time away from the hustle bustle of work and family life; or it was a way to catch up on some work.
I might encourage you the next time you have a bad night’s sleep, to reframe the situation from “oh crap, I’m not going to sleep and my next day is terrible” to “this is an interesting opportunity to do some of the things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do. Yes, tomorrow will be a little tougher, but I’ve definitely gotten through bad night’s before”.
3. Take on the attitude of a good sleeper
Sometimes people with a history of bad sleep eventually incorporate that into their identity – also known as insomnia identity. They believe themselves to be a poor sleeper and that sleep is not something that comes easily to them.
As you can imagine, having an insomnia identity makes us susceptible to having insomnia because of our belief that sleep is fragile. But what if we were to put on a hat and assume the identity of a good sleeper? Would there be any benefits of this new identity?
One important question to ask is what makes a good sleeper a good sleeper? Some might say that it’s being able to sleep many nights in a row without a bad night’s sleep. Others might say that a good sleeper gets their 8 hours and then feels good the next day.
I would argue that it’s none of these. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that a good sleeper is not necessarily someone who has good sleep at all. A good sleeper in my mind is simply someone who is not worried about their sleep. They can have bad nights and simply brush off the consequences knowing that it doesn’t say anything about hoThere have been times during my schooling where my sleep was absolutely abysmal. It often took me hours to fall asleep and when I did, it was less than what I needed, and I felt unrefreshed.
However, the important piece was that I wasn’t anxious over my lack of sleep and knew that I could get my sleep back on track once my stressors (i.e., exams and assignments) were done. I realized my poor sleep had a cause and I knew what to do to obtain better sleep. This article is helpful in understanding how insomnia is maintained and use evidence-based strategies to break the cycle.
Although it may seem like a poor fit at first, I’d encourage you to try to put on your good sleeper hat to see how the hat fits. Our behaviours can sometimes precede our emotions – try to imitate what a good sleeper would do when they have poor nights.
- People with a past history of insomnia are often worried about one bad night turning into countless sleepless nights
- These individuals are often very reactive to poor night and begin to engage in behaviours that counterproductively affects their sleep
- To ensure that sleep doesn’t go off track, focus on the next night instead of recovering from the previous night and try to shift your perception of a bad night into an opportunity to enjoy things you normally wouldn’t be able to. It’s not an easy shift by any means, but if you are going to be awake anyways, might as well enjoy your time!
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