Coping With Insomnia

The following question about insomnia came through the other day, and I wondered why I’ve never addressed it before. So here it is:

‘Hi Roger … I’ve suffered from insomnia for the last year. I don’t know why but I have a terrible time getting to sleep, often lying awake for hours and only getting 4-5 hours of sleep each night. The longer this goes on the more I’m scared of going to bed because I know it’s going to be another restless night. I’m wondering if there a special way of beating this, because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t, and I don’t want to take drugs.’

And my reply:

You mentioned the insomnia began a year or so ago so as well as trying what follows, I’m thinking it would be wise to look into the reasons why you began experiencing difficulty. Whether the insomnia is the result of stressful situations that have recently occurred, or a health condition – whatever it is will need to be resolved in some way.

Having said that, try the following.

The biggest obstacle to sleep is an overstimulated mind. If the mind is churning with activity it energises the body, and that causes a feedback loop that ties you in knots – mind stimulating body, which in turn stimulates the mind and so on – a feedback loop that spins ever faster, making sleep extremely difficult.

So you’ve got two energy sources driving this feedback loop – mind and body. Of the two, it’s pointless to try soothing an overstimulated mind. However you might struggle to quell the thinking, it will keep bursting forth from the unconscious, each thought drawing forth thoughts that follow. This is because thoughts have their own magnetic energy, attracting similar thoughts in streams of consciousness. And the more you try to ignore the thinking, the more it will nag – simply because that is the role of a mind that has been energised. Essentially, the mind is nagging you to take action of some kind, to find a solution to whatever is causing your energised state. And in this case, you probably don’t know what’s bugging you – so there is no solution to be had. And even if you did know the problem, lying in bed as you are, you’re in no position to do anything about it. So the mind keeps concocting thought energy. And you cannot stop it by struggling with t. This will only energise it even more.

So, forget the mind. Let it blather, squeal and worry.

Take command of your attention and go to the other part of the reactive loop – your body.

Your body is much more straightforward than the mind. Its language is sensations – that’s it’s way of telling you its truth. As such, the excess energy that’s keeping you awake will appear as tension in various parts of your body.

In this, it’s different for everybody. For example, if I’m bugged about something, it appears in my jaw, neck and shoulders, and my breathing shortens. My girlfriend, however, experiences different physical reactions – her stomach, back and thighs tighten up, and her breath tightens.

So, unlike the mind, which resists any attempt to quieten it, your body presents you with clear opportunities to soothe the feedback loop of energy that’s keeping you awake. The main thing is to get your attention out of your head and into your body. After all, if you can quieten your body, then the mind will naturally follow, and sleep will naturally occur. And even f it doesn’t, at least you’ll be resting efficiently instead of lying there stiff as a board.

Another way of falling asleep is what I call ‘the military method’, a method I describe in my book, ‘Being Still’. I learnt this method from a British ex-army guy I met in Thailand, and found out later that it’s used by the British and US army to help soldiers sleep anywhere, whether in barracks or battle.

It goes a bit like this:

  1. Begin by relaxing the muscles in your face, particularly the tongue, jaw and muscles around your eyes
  2. Then relax the muscles in your shoulders, allowing the shoulders to drop.
  3. Relax your arms, one side at a time.
  4. Relax your chest, then your torso, then your legs, starting from the thighs and working down.
  5. Focus on letting go of the OUT breath. Not the IN breath – only the OUT breath.
  6. Spend a few minutes with a soothing visualisation. For example, imagine you’re floating in a crystal-clear rock pool with a clear blue sky above. Alternatively, imagine you’re lying in a soft feather bed in a silent, dark room, with the sound of rain on the roof.
  7. When you’ve finished with the visualisation, to complete this process, chant ‘sleeping, sleeping, sleeping’, to yourself over and over for about 10 seconds.

The guy I learnt this from assured me I’d be fast asleep in about two minutes. The following night I tried it on an extremely uncomfortable overnight flight to China, and though it took a little longer than two minutes, it worked perfectly.

Another way to fall asleep is a set of protocols I use every night, similar to the ‘military method’ but simpler. I use it all the time, whether for a short ten minute nap or a full night’s sleep, and t always works for me.

As soon as I’ve settled myself, I take my attention into my body, and start follow it wherever it goes.

  1. Each part of the body my attention lights upon, I make a small mental note of where it is, until my attention goes elsewhere. For example, if my attention goes to my foot, as I check for tension, I note ‘foot’, to help me remain aware of where my attention is. Then I follow my attention to wherever it goes next. It’s a game – a bit like following a mouse as it moves among bits of cheese.
  2. So let’s say my attention goes to my shoulders next – I note ‘shoulders’ while checking for tension – and if I find tenson there I’ll give the muscles permission to let go.
  3. By which time my attention has gone somewhere else – perhaps my neck. I’ll note, ‘neck’, while letting go of whatever tension is there.

And so on.

In doing this, I’m not forcing me attention to go anywhere – I’m passively following it, and relaxing where it goes.

This does two things:

  1. It keeps my attention away from the mind, which, without the stimuli of the attention allows it to calm down.  
  2. It relaxes my body, and sets me up for sleep.

  So try these suggestions out, and let me know how you go.


‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.


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