You might recognize yourself: you are tossing and turning in bed and it’s 3:00 AM. You have seen the clock turn each hour so far. And still, you do not manage to sleep, already for three days in a row. You might be facing insomnia, just like I did one year ago. But I found my sleep back.

When you have insomnia, you have repeated difficulties with falling asleep, maintaining sleep, and sleep quality. Which all results in daytime disfunction. Insomnia can be acute when it appears for a few days a month. It can also be chronic and long-term.

My personal experience of insomnia 

I had acute insomnia precisely a year ago, at the beginning of 2020. I was attending a very relaxing yoga retreat. Afterward, we moved to another hotel, which was busy and noisy. The first night I was unable to fall asleep. I went for a walk around the hotel and even tried doing sports (yes, in the middle of the night!) to tire myself out.

But nothing worked; I still could not fall asleep. The next day I felt like a zombie, and I was just hoping for the night to come so that I could finally sleep. That evening, when I thought I would fall asleep immediately once I hit the bed, I could not sleep again! What a horrible experience during a holiday!

After two sleepless nights, I noticed that I was scared to go to sleep. I was anxious that I might have the same experience as the night before. I would start thinking: ‘I will not be able to sleep again’ and ‘I will be super tired the next day’.

In the end, I almost did not sleep for five days in a row, which never happened to me before! And after having one night of proper deep sleep (for which I took sleeping pills), the cycle repeated itself. In the end, for more than one month, I faced difficulties with acute insomnia, unable to fall asleep and maintain my sleep.

That sleepless month was a  real quest on how to conquer my insomnia. It was tough, but I got my sleep back in the end. What I learned the hard way is that negative thoughts affect sleep quality.

Three ways negative thoughts impact sleep quality

Negative thoughts are, next to medical and psychological conditions, the most common reasons for insomnia. There are three ways of how negative thoughts can cause insomnia by affecting your sleep quality.

1) Negative and stressful thoughts about life

Often, when people go to sleep and relax, their thinking tends to go towards life’s negative aspects. Stress at work and relationships stress are just a few examples. These stressful thoughts might cause you to wake up during the night or prevent you from falling asleep. Studies have found that (negative) overthinking impacts sleep quality.

2) Negative thoughts about sleep

Something I faced a lot throughout my insomniac period, were negative thoughts about sleep. Negative, stressful thoughts about sleep worsen insomnia by triggering emotions such as anxiety or frustration that mobilize the stress response and cause a negative cycle of stress and sleepless nights. In turn, the stress response strengthens the wakefulness system, weakens the sleep system, and makes it harder to sleep.

3) Obsession with perfecting your sleep

Next to negative thoughts about sleep, you also might start to obsess with improving your sleep. A study that explored the impact of using wearable sleep trackers showed that the unhealthy obsession with perfecting your sleep data could lead to worse sleep. Sleep trackers may heighten sleep anxiety, especially in those with insomnia.

What can I do if I have insomnia?

What is the best way to reduce your insomnia – without turning to the use of medicine, which might even have a contradictory effect?

Different research has shown that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for sleep helps as many as 70% to 80% of insomnia patients with primary insomnia experience improvements. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) (4) is a short, structured, and evidence-based approach to combating the frustrating symptoms of insomnia. Below, I describe the different aspects of such CBT-i approach.

  • Change your thinking pattern

People with insomnia face different worries about falling asleep. Hence, they also have negative thoughts about sleep. I often thought that ‘I am never going to fall asleep‘ or  ‘If I don’t sleep 8 hours, I will not be able to function tomorrow.

An effective way of overcoming this issue that helped me was keeping a worry journal, where I wrote down my negative throughs. In this journal, I wrote down all the self-criticising thoughts I had about myself and my sleep.

It helped enormously to have those thoughts out of my head and on paper.

  • Reduce external stimuli and impulses

Various external stimuli are causing negative associations with sleep, for example, watching TV or using the cell phone in bed. Such habits might harm your ability to fall asleep or to maintain sleep.  Use the bed for two things only – sleep and intimacy. If you lie awake for more than 20 minutes and can’t fall asleep, you should get out of bed. And only come back to bed when tired again.

  • Spend less time in bed

People with insomnia often spend too much time lying in bed awake. Sleep restriction limits the time spent in bed to reestablish a consistent sleep schedule. People with certain medical conditions, such as bipolar disorder and seizures, should not restrict their sleep.  Thus, we don’t advise on trying this method without the help of a professional.

  • Practice relaxation techniques

Relaxation and breathing techniques can reduce the thoughts and tensions in your body. Many relaxation methods are linked to yoga, meditation, and breathing work. Also, yoga Nidra or yogic sleep, a meditation technique that slows the wavelengths in your mind as you enter a sleep-like state, can support an insomniac in reducing sleep-related stress.

An easy technique you could try when you face difficulties in falling asleep (again) is the counting backwards technique: you focus on your breath and count inhales and exhales backward from e.g., 64 towards 1 (or from any number you like).

So what now?

Establishing a relaxation routine is one of the most effective ways to get over an acute insomnia period. In this free guide Getting a Good Night Sleep in 3 Nights, I teach you 3 proven relaxation techniques that you can do right before going to sleep or whenever you wake up during the night. They help you fall asleep back! Download the guide below.