Are You Accidentally Causing Your Insomnia?
Insomnia, which is defined as problems falling asleep, staying sleep, or waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep and these problems occur for 3 or more nights and for 3 or more months, can be caused by any number of stressors: a health problem, death of a loved one, change in job, or major relationship strain. Basically, insomnia can be caused by anything that causes you stress and keeps you up night after night. The stressor that causes insomnia, however, are not necessarily the reason that insomnia continues. Here’s how it plays out:
Stressor –> Poor coping habits that negatively impact sleep –> Conditioned Wakefulness in Bed
Basically the stressor results in us developing ways of coping. Some of these ways might be productive, but often times we use coping strategies that make our sleep worse. We lay in bed wide awake thinking or worrying, watching TV, reading, journaling, or praying excessively, etc. After a while, our body begins to associate the bed as a place to be awake rather than a place to sleep. And over time our bodies become “conditioned,” or “trained” to be awake in the bed. If you are familiar with the classic psychology experiment with Pavlov’s dogs, then this is essentially the same thing.
Two systems are at play when our bodies become conditioned to be awake in bed. The first one is the Sleep Driver system, which is the amount of pressure to go to sleep that your body produces. I like to think of this as the body’s gas tank. If you get a good night sleep your sleep tank is full when you start your day the next morning. The more active you are throughout the day, then the more gas you’ll use up, and ideally, when you lay down in bed at night to sleep your gas tank will be on empty and you’ll have a strong need (or there will be a lot of pressure) for gas, or sleep. The Sleep Driver is affected by your activity level during the 24 hour period. So the more activity you do, the more pressure for sleep you are producing; the less activity you do, the less pressure for sleep you are producing. A few other things can negatively impact your Sleep Driver system: lingering in bed in the morning, sleeping in, going to bed earlier than usual, reducing activities when you feel tired, depressed, anxious, etc., and trying to take naps.
The second system is your Body Clock. Your Body Clock determines the best time for your body to sleep. This is where we get the idea of being a “morning lark” or a “night owl.” Your body clock is impacted by several things, including shift work, having a sleep schedule that doesn’t match your body’s natural clock (e.g., having to be at work at 6am when you are really a night owl), not getting enough natural sunlight, not having consistent schedules of exercising, meal times, work times, etc., and not keeping a consistent sleep schedule (especially from the weekday to weekend).
Are there things that you are unintentionally doing that are messing up the effectiveness of these two sleep systems? Are you accidentally contributing to conditioned wakefulness and insomnia? I’ll be posting more tips on how to improve you sleep over the month of April. If, after making changes on a consistent basis, you are still not able to sleep well, give me a call at 539-777-1129 and we’ll talk about what’s going on and what can help you.
Dr. Melissa Leedy, Ph.D.
Legacy Counseling Service
2101 W. Concord Circle
Serving the greater Tulsa area and all of Oklahoma