Fundamentally, insomnia happens because the mind cannot relax. When the mind cannot relax, then the body cannot either. Relaxation is a natural state in members of the animal kingdom. Our pet can be running around, playing with us, or wrestling with a toy. They have lots of energy and are stimulated. Then, a few minutes later we find them peacefully dozing while their bodies seem completely limp.
Babies are like this after being fed, and long ago adult humans were like this too. Early humans were right brain dominant, without language. The right brain is abstract, and emotional. With language came an increasingly dominant left brain, the logical analytical part.
Over time the left brain became more and more dominant. With the rise of technology, humans are more alert and tuned into that technology. The left brain became very busy. No longer thinking only of the next meal, fighting or mating, it was like there was ongoing dialogue within the brain. Everything speeded up.
Now we could worry about the future or lament the past. We could create worst case scenarios and wonder what others thought of us. The brain did not stop when we slept. We did not hear it when in deep sleep, but when we came out of that phase, the inner chatter woke us. If the chatter was about something we worried or were anxious about, a whole new train of thinking could begin so then we could not go back to sleep.
Further, if our life situation creates stress, the muscles contract which makes it harder to sleep. With a tense body relaxation is not possible.
Many turn to sleep medications, however those do not get to the root of the problem, and if we stop taking them, sleeplessness recurs. The body and mind have not learned to shut down.
Of course, caffeine, alcohol, a full stomach, and too much technology before bed also affects our sleep.
Notwithstanding a neurological disorder, I think most sleep problems would be resolved if we completely relaxed the body and quieted the mind. This is not something we can do overnight (pun not intended). We must train ourselves to relax our muscles and gain control of the mind, so at night we can shut it off just like a television.
The first step is to pay attention. Lie down and notice your body. Then tell the muscles to relax. You should feel a little release. Then tell it to relax more. You can keep doing this and never reach the point where there is nothing left to relax! You will become aware of how much tension is in your muscles. Yoga is great for relaxing the body.
Next, notice what your mind is doing. Is it re-running films of your past experiences? Is it worrying about some person or problem? Is it re-playing the day or planning or worrying about the next day? Is it re-playing conversations? All of these will make it hard, or for some, impossible to sleep.
Start with assessing yourself. Read up on sleep hygiene. You do have the power to learn to put yourself to sleep.
Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychologist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books, CDs or MP3s, visit www.gwen.ca. Follow Gwen on Facebook for inspiration.