People with sleep problems, such as an insomnia, tend to be particularly afraid of being awake in the middle of the night.
Specifically, they find this situation to be quite dangerous and they are filled with thoughts about the implications:
- “I’m going to be awake all night”
- “I’m never falling back asleep”
- “Tomorrow is going to be terrible”
- “This can’t be good for my health”
Unfortunately, these thoughts tend to ramp up our anxiety and make sleep even less likely to come. Moreover, people who find themselves awake might spend the night in distress, worrying about the fact that they cannot sleep. These negative thoughts can lead to a negative association between the bed and being awake.
All in all, a fear of nighttime wakefulness can be a key problem that leads to insomnia.
Why we should get over our fear of being awake at night
In clinical practice, big symptom relief in insomnia is found in an experiential shift in how we see the night. When we see it as a place of fear, insomnia persists. When the same person begins to see the night as something more benign, our insomnia symptoms begin to dissipate. This is a key concept in paradoxical intention, which is an evidence-based therapy where a person tries to stay awake (as opposed to trying to sleep – hence, paradoxically) for as long as possible.
In this post, I discuss some strategies to change the perspective of a wakeful night from disastrous to something a tad more enjoyable.
1. Understanding the sleep systems
One way to alleviate our fears when it comes to being awake in the middle of the night is to understand how our sleep systems work.
This is especially true for the sleep drive. The sleep drive is our propensity to fall asleep at any given moment and builds up the longer we remain active and awake. When we sleep, we expend our sleep drive to produce the deep sleep that we need.
For people with insomnia, they often have high anxiety about their sleep, which runs opposite to their sleep drive. Moreover, they may engage in behaviours that make it hard to build sleep drive, such as lying in bed for long periods of time, cancelling plans, and getting sleep whenever they can.
One way to reframe from the fear of being awake is that we’re actually doing our sleep drive a favour when we get up and engage in something pleasant. We are building sleep drive for the next night. As long as we stay the course (and not nap or rest all day), the next night will be better.
2. See the awakenings at night as an opportunity
During the day, we are often drowning in commitments: to our job, our partners, our friends, our family, and other obligations.
For some, it can be helpful to reframe the nighttime as a time to spend with oneself rather than a time of despair. For example, being able to finally watch that show or movie you never get a chance to see; or read a book that is usually sitting on your shelf. Regardless, to treat this as a time for yourself as a nice and peaceful night can help reduce distress. Ironically, this acceptance and embracing of the night may actually let you fall back asleep quicker!
3. Challenge the scary thoughts
Oftentimes, the reason why someone is afraid of being awake in the middle of the night is because of a strong underlying belief or scary thought.
- “What if I never fall asleep?”
- “I won’t be able to function.”
- “My health is going to deteriorate.”
In these cases, it is often helpful to directly challenge some of those thoughts. For example, is it really true that you cannot function at all if you don’t sleep – or is it just harder? Will you really never fall asleep? Would one poor night truly destroy your health?
Often times, we are able to still get the most important tasks done in a day – though they may feel more uncomfortable and effortful in insomnia. As discussed before, we are also continually building sleep drive the more active we are, so at some point the sleep we desire will come (and we are simply getting out of the way of these processes).
By taking a moment to evaluate these thoughts, we might come to the conclusion that perhaps our thoughts are a bit excessive and we can come across a more balanced thought. Thought records can be a helpful tool to evaluate these thoughts.
4. Change our relationship to our thoughts and emotions
Besides changing our thoughts and emotions directly, we can also change our relationship with these experiences through regular mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness teaches out to become more present and aware of our inner and outer experience, but in a non-judgmental manner. We learn to attend to thoughts, emotions, and sensations objectively and then let them go.
When we really think about it, there may not be as big of a difference being awake in the day compared to being awake at night. We place a lot of significance in being awake at night, but perhaps that’s more of a subjective perception rather than
If the nighttime still elicits a bit of a fear response, hopefully some of these strategies can be helpful to change your nighttime experience.