For as far back as I can remember, I’ve struggled with bouts of insomnia.
When I was a young child, I remember dragging my sleeping bag into the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom door in the middle of the night, where I would curl up and try to fall back asleep with my German shepherd at my side.
When I was 12 years old and entering a new school in seventh grade, I battled with more intense insomnia as social anxiety took hold, and I found myself dreading the shift in light as night edged near, knowing that the misery of lying awake and staring at the clock was inching closer by the minute.
In my 20s, when anxiety dragged me by the heels into the underworld of my first spiritual awakening, insomnia punctuated the veil of sleep in the form of nightmares, begging me to listen to messages that could only be revealed in the quiet of night.
And, most recently, the hormonal cacophony of perimenopause has awakened me during the witching hour of 3 a.m. more times than I can count.
On one level, insomnia is a living hell. You’re lying there awake, staring at the clock as it rattles off the minutes, then hours, wondering if you’ll ever fall asleep. You’re thinking about all of the things you have to do the next day, your mind spinning into a tizzy of anxiety, which of course makes it more difficult to fall asleep. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and night’s stillness amplifies a fundamental experience of being human: loneliness. In those dark hours, it can feel like you’re the only person on the planet who is awake, battling with the demon of insomnia.
It’s important to know that you’re far from alone. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine cites that at least half of our population suffers from insomnia. That translates to millions of people in the United States alone who are awake alongside you. Misery loves company, which means that while you don’t want others to suffer, it can be deeply comforting to know that when you’re holding acupressure points or reaching for the melatonin, you’re far from alone.
While insomnia is profoundly stressful and the effects of long-term sleep deprivation can be devastating, there is another aspect of insomnia that is rarely discussed: insomnia is one of anxiety’s greatest emissaries and, thus, when approached with consciousness, can move us toward healing and the soul’s quest for wholeness.
Anxiety, as a gift and a messenger, is one of the ways the psyche alerts us to areas of our life that need attention, yet because we’re masters at staying busy, distracting, and running at top speed during the daytime hours, the stillness and silence of night is often the only time that we can hear anxiety’s call. Insomnia is the soul’s way of saying: Wake up and listen. I have a few messages to tell you.
What are the messages embedded inside the insomnia?
The first step in deciphering the messages is shifting from a shame mind-set to one informed by curiosity and compassion. This means understanding that insomnia, like anxiety, is not evidence of brokenness but is actually evidence of health as our psyche invites us to heal. Once we establish this framework of compassion, the possible messages begin to tumble forth.
These messages vary for everyone, of course, as we are not cookie-cutters of one another and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing. But a good place to start is by scanning through the four realms of self—physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual—and asking, “What is needed in each of these realms? How could I be listening to or taking care of myself in more loving ways?”
For example, in the physical realm, insomnia could be telling you that you need to limit your caffeine or sugar intake, or it could be urging you to move your body every day, even if only for a brisk 20-minute walk. These are basic recommendations for insomnia, but they’re well worth heeding.
Cognitively, insomnia might be alerting you to the need to be mindful about the brain food you’re ingesting during the day that may be creating anxiety at night. Are you reading too much news or junk headlines? Are you spending too much time on social media, which is activating your habit of comparison, which then leads you down the rabbit hole of shame?
Emotionally and spiritually, night is the time when the child’s cry pierces the shadows and you’re invited to pick her up and hold her to your chest; you remember to pour the nectar of your love into her empty places.
Night is the time when the forgotten words drips like moonlit dew into your skin and you realize it’s been years since you’ve written a poem.
Night is the time to listen to the nightingale’s song, which carries a melody of brokenheartedness and is also an intermediary between the worlds, and when we open our palms to receive its song, we become more comfortable with uncertainty.
This is obviously not the quick fix version of “getting over” insomnia. In fact, seen through this lens, it’s not about getting over anything at all as much as shining the headlight of curiosity onto the symptoms of insomnia until you slowly, and with great compassion, start to reveal some of the messages that write themselves onto the inky ribbons of night.
Are you ready to listen?