Our Clever Brains Can Work Against Us in Our Battle Against Insomnia
Last updated: May 2022
Our brains are very clever. We wouldn't have evolved without a system that helps us pay attention and respond to things that are important to us. Some of the most important of those things are how to acquire food to feed ourselves and mates for us to reproduce. Even more fundamental is a need to keep safe so we can do both of those important things to keep the species going. However, our clever brains can work against us in our battle against insomnia.
Training our brains where to focus
Our brain takes in lots of information from the environment and sifts it according to priorities that start with safety, because safety is important to us. But it can actually pay attention to anything we tell it to – consciously or otherwise.
Unconscious attention to unimportant issues
Typically, we tell our brain to pay attention to things that are important to us in a very unconscious way. Ever decide you wanted a certain kind of car – or a certain color car? When they first came out, I decided I wanted to get a bright red Prius. I thought they were very cool and very unique looking. What happened? I had gone from NEVER seeing a bright red Prius (hence thinking they were unique!), to seeing them everywhere I went!
That’s because I unconsciously told my brain that bright red Prius’ were important to me, so my screening system started to filter those in a way that brought them to my attention more frequently than before.
What does unconscious attention have to do with sleep?
If we spend all of our days focussing on insomnia and the negative consequences of not sleeping, not only does it raise our arousal by constantly focussing on a ‘threat’ – it trains our brain to constantly filter IN even more negative things related to sleep.
It can feel like a snowball gathering speed as we go down a snowy hill. It becomes hard to see anything else, or anything good, or anything helpful or relaxing in life – our filtering system becomes well trained and strongly reinforced by all the ‘evidence’ it is showing us that not sleeping is making our lives a misery. This filter creates cognitive distortions that take a bad situation (not sleeping) and turn it into something worse.
Retraining our brains in our battle against insomnia
I’m not saying that not sleeping is a joy and that it doesn’t feel terrible – it does feel terrible. But we can retrain our brains to focus on things other than the negatives about not sleeping – and to instead filter in better things in our life. We might not immediately change the sleep, but we could reduce the suffering associated with not sleeping.
Cultivating a habit of positive thinking
The car example was an unconscious one, but what might happen to the quality of our lives if we try to cultivate a habit of focussing on some of the good things that happen in life, despite our insomnia? We could train that filter to start seeing more of them, which could improve our quality of life tremendously.
A side benefit of taking the habitual mental focus off of sleep would also reduce our arousal, making it easier for sleep to find us again.
Have you ever experienced the effects of this filtering system in other areas of your life? How about with sleep?
Do you think insomnia has an impact on your mental health?
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