It used to be that the only predictable thing about my insomnia was that it occurred at times of high drama.
Anticipation of a trip to the Canary Islands? Nothing like a little excitement to keep me awake at night. Difficulties with a colleague at work? Stress, too, was a set-up for trouble sleeping. Whenever my life got the least bit interesting or challenging, sleep went south.
Nothing was reassuring about this pattern. I never knew when a situation was going to come along to wreck my sleep or how long the insomnia would last. Resolving the situation didn’t necessarily fix my sleep. The insomnia could last for a few days or weeks, a vicious cycle spooling on and on. It felt like sleep was completely beyond my control, and that was scary.
“Sleep reactivity” is the term researchers at Henry Ford Hospital have coined for a trait they’ve identified in people who, when feeling the least bit stressed out, are likely to experience trouble sleeping. Whatever lies behind this trait—hyperarousal, or a bit of unfortunate wiring in the brain—I have it in spades. But it’s easier to manage now that I’m able to see more patterns in my insomnia and the insomnia of others.
For instance, there’s a seasonal aspect to insomnia that I’ve noted in the past few years. Starting around Thanksgiving and continuing through mid-March, my blog on winter insomnia attracts lots of readers. The story they tell is something like the one I used to tell: they start nodding soon after dinner and feel tired enough to drop off. Yet if the nodding prompts them to go to bed, try as they may, they can’t sleep.
A similar thing happens beginning in June. Suddenly lots of people are reading my blog on summer insomnia, complaining that they’ve got a sleep problem.
Both problems have to do with exposure to daylight—in the winter, there’s too little for some of us, and in the summer, too much—and the solution often lies in adjusting our exposure to bright light. Yet people who suddenly find themselves struggling with insomnia can’t always connect the dots and see a pattern. All they know is that their sleep seems to be deteriorating. And if this creates anxiety, sleep goes from bad to worse.
A Cyclic Pattern
Some people say they can’t predict when insomnia will occur from one day to the next. But even the worst sleepers report that some nights are better than others. “All week I got just 2 or 3 hours a night,” someone will tell me. “Then last night I got 8!”
Research shows that night-to-night sleep continuity in people with insomnia is quite variable, but that the variability often occurs at intervals. Normal sleepers can expect to get a good night’s sleep after a relatively poor one. But the average insomniac struggles through 3 lousy nights before she gets a good one. For some insomniacs, the ratio of good nights to bad is even worse: 1 to 5.
The terrific bouts of insomnia I used to have followed roughly the same trajectory: several nights of poor sleep followed by a night when I slept like the dead—only to have the pattern repeat like a broken record again and again.
I tended to focus on the bad nights and ignore the good. Now I wonder: if I’d seen not just the bad nights but rather a pattern of bad nights alternating with the good; if I’d understood that with the good nights, I was paying off my sleep debt in one fell swoop, would it have made my insomnia more tolerable?
Maybe so and maybe not. One good night in 4 is pretty cold comfort.
A Pattern I Had to Break
In any event, on the good nights I allowed myself to sleep in. That was a big part of my problem. Back then I had no use for alarm clocks. I wanted to sleep as long as possible to recoup all the sleep I’d lost. So I might not wake up until 9 a.m.
That felt fabulous . . . until night came around again. Then my insomnia and anxiety about my sleep were back with a vengeance. Without the knowledge of circadian rhythms and sleep drive that I later acquired, without understanding that I would thrive much better with a fixed wake-up time, I was sabotaging myself again and again.
Bodies don’t always behave predictably, and sleep can seem like the most fickle of friends. But sometimes there’s method in the madness—if we just make an effort to discover what it is.