The Mantra That Made Me Stop Worrying About My Insomnia
When you tell a medical professional that you can’t sleep, they tend to reply with a familiar script: How’s your sleep hygiene? How close to bedtime do you check your email? Have you tried yoga or a mediation app?
How quaint, I think to myself. If all it took were a bit of lavender oil and foregoing an afternoon cup of coffee to ward off my recurring bouts of serious insomnia, I wouldn’t have found myself — after about three weeks of little to no sleep — at an emergency doctor’s appointment in February.
Begging for some way — any way! — to find sleep again, I tried to preempt the script by making the case that I’d already checked all the usual boxes: regular exercise, putting my phone away long before bed, cutting back on caffeine. I was there strictly for pharmaceuticals, preferably strong ones.
But this time, after listening to my spiel, the doctor looked at me matter-of-factly and said: “You know, insomnia will not kill you.”
I gulped back tears and said, “Well, yeah, but it makes life pretty difficult to live.” The doctor, no-nonsense but kind, agreed. But here’s the thing, she said: Plenty of doctors and military personnel manage long periods with little to no sleep. It’s unpleasant and far from ideal, but it’s not actually an imminent threat to one’s life. After all, you will likely fall asleep before your body shuts down.
Then she encouraged me to take some time off work to rein in my anxiety, and I left, prescription in hand. A few hours later, I reconsidered her point. What I had first taken as a kind of stiff-upper-lip Britishness (I live in London) started to seem more helpful and compassionate. It had been so many nights since I’d fallen asleep without worry, anxiety, or struggle, that sleep itself had become an obsession. I craved it so much, and it felt so unattainable, that I was unsure if I’d ever regain it again.
As with many insomniacs, my inability to sleep was compounded by anxiety about my inability to sleep. And my exhausted and catastrophizing brain had conflated never sleeping again with that ultimate thing we all fear: death. But maybe I didn’t need to go that far?
I began to see the doctor’s words as a kind of mantra — one that’s as brutal as it is reassuring: Insomnia will not kill you. Insomnia will not kill you. Insomnia will not kill you.
It took two weeks before I regained a normal sleep pattern. But after that realization, my anxiety around my insomnia became more manageable. Instead of saying to myself: “I will sleep tonight!”and feeling anxious every time I had that thought, I said: “Sleep will return one day soon. And I’m not going to be hard on myself in the meantime.” I let myself off the hook. I could finally separate my insomnia from the anxiety I felt about it.
Then one night, I turned off the light and simply fell asleep. My insomnia left as suddenly as it had arrived.
There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all cure for the insomnia so many of us are experiencing right now. But I’ve learned that like so many things in life, the way out of this mental spiral is rooted in kindness to ourselves. Insomnia is hard enough. There’s no need to make it worse by beating ourselves up about it.