Right now millions of people are trying to sleep, struggling to get the rest they desperately need. They are tossing, they are turning, their minds filling up with catastrophic thinking that only serves to make them less likely to fall asleep. “When it’s two-thirty on those mornings,” says Stanford professor and authority on stress physiology Robert Sapolsky, “I always have a brain tumor.”
There are few things that can bring out our common humanity more than the maddening struggle with sleeplessness. And a distressingly large number of us wrestle with sleep:
- The average person in the United States today sleeps 20% less than they did 100 years ago.
- More than 30% of the US population suffers from insomnia.
- Between 40% and 60% of people over the age of 60 suffer from insomnia.
- More than half of Americans lose sleep due to stress and/or anxiety.
So how can we get more sleep? Creating an external environment that’s conducive to sleep can help. Making sure our bedrooms are dark, quiet, and cool, as well as following a regular sleep schedule, and banning screens from the bedroom, all lead toward more restful slumber. But focusing only on the external environment is not enough. We also need to address the internal environment. That’s where Mindful Self-Compassion can help.
We can’t just make ourselves fall asleep. You can lie in bed telling yourself go to sleep now, but it is the particularly maddening nature of insomnia that the more you try to bully yourself into going to sleep, the more your mind and body rebel. Think of lying down with a toddler who’s just not interested in taking a nap. No amount of commanding or pleading can make the child fall asleep.
What we can do, however, is create the conditions, internally as well as externally, that make sleep more likely to happen when we do lie down. You can allow natural sleep to come by working mindfully and compassionately with your mind and body.
This is work that has to happen during the day as well as when we’re lying in bed. Developing mindfulness and self-compassion throughout the day teaches us to adopt a more gentle and kind way of relating to our inner selves. That can help change the condition of our mind and heart when we do lie down to go to sleep. Rather than trying to directly change our sleep through behavioral approaches, we can help ourselves and others suffering from insomnia by learning how to be more accepting of our experience when having difficulty sleeping. It may seem paradoxical, but this willingness to accept the experience of poor sleep can lead to less anxiety and better rest.
This gentle training in encountering life in this way is like stopping a war – the exhausting war with life that we all wage by unconsciously grasping and resisting, trying to make things different than they are. This war is waged in our own minds and bodies, and it wreaks havoc on our well-being – including on our ability to sleep. Each time your mind creates catastrophic stories about the future because of how frustrated you are about not sleeping, you are continuing this internal war. The brain interprets this train of thinking as a threat and reactivates the stress response.
To really rest, we need to feel safe and at peace. Humans are programmed that way: our cave-dwelling ancestors survived because they kept one eye open for saber-toothed tigers. Mindfulness and self-compassion practice can give us that experience of peace because it’s a peace that does not depend on an absence of difficulty. We can learn to encounter ourselves, encounter our lives, with acceptance and compassion, and in doing so, bring about the conditions where we can let go into rest.