You guys. You GUYS! Did you HEAR? THERAPY is better for insomnia than PILLS!
Duh, therapy is better than a pill. Therapy trains your brain to wind itself down, while a pill ninja-wacks your brain into submission, thereby encouraging your victimized brain to -over the course of continued use- fight harder against relaxation.
Anyway. So HOW does therapy help one learn to quiet one’s mind? Here’s a few of the main therapeutic strategies for addressing insomnia:
1) Learn that it’s not the stress itself; it’s how your brain handles stress. Some brains have neurochemistry that easily becomes perseverative/obsessive about stuff. These people are “what-iffers” and “oh-noers,” by nature, and may even worry and analyze “compulsively” because their brains “feel” that thinking is doing something helpful to address the problem…
Intentionally NOT doing anything about an unchangeable thing is just a weird option that most people don’t consider or practice without therapy.
2) Ok, sometimes the stress itself kinda matters. Unless you’re an zen-enlightened monk, surfing the clouds in Nirvana, completely detached from outcomes, taking a critical look at what’s on your plate probably wouldn’t hurt.
People with anxiety tend to avoid attacking stress head-on, and thus their anxiety only gets worse. Therapy helps identify stressors that can actually be taken off your plate, or which things you can change about your life to alleviate general stress. And then it encourages small, realistic steps toward those changes.
Maybe you need to accept that the kids will be just fine in public school or downsize so that retirement savings actually becomes possible. Maybe you need to have an assertive conversation to set a limit with the mom who keeps bringing peanut butter crackers to play dates with your allergic kid; maybe you need to give yourself permission to say NO sometimes, or surrender to the fact that you can’t please everyone, or even attack the looming graduate school application and refinance paperwork. The best way to address an overactive brain is actual action….
3) Except for when action is actually not possible. Therapy also helps people practice acceptance, distraction, and perspective for the times when there’s not a damn thing you can do about the stressful situation.
Usually this process includes accepting unsettling changes to one’s identity (one’s role as a competent and necessary parent, an effective provider, a secure and valued spouse, etc) and accepting a loss of power and control, or capability (or the reality that you never really had it).
Therefore, a grief emerges that can either be denied and felt as a heavy and frantic anxiety OR can be identified, contained, and felt for what it is. So much of anxiety is a stubborn resistance to grief.
4) When it seems like you’re not actually spinning and ruminating about stress and worry, but just generally alert all night…. Therapy can teach you Jedi mind tricks to quiet your mind. Good sleep hygeine practices seem obvious: Lay in a dark room without having blasted your brain with screens or caffeine for hours prior. But what do you do with your MIND while your staring at a dark wall, listening to your smug spouse snoring beside you? Noticing and releasing the thought is a good place to start (and will take 100 practice sessions before its effective, but IS effective.) There are also visualization and boring-ass word “stories” that block-out other verbal information (stuff that may trigger the alert emotional part of the brain.) and, eventually, after becoming distracted and having to go back to the script 45 times in a row, lead to passing out. There are mental math games that occupy the brain in the most dull ways inaginable, and even soothing audios that supposedly trigger relaxation in many people. Suffice it to say, these strategies work.
Just something to think about, from the therapist who is not actually against meds to sleep or anything else related to mental health, but just isn’t a fan of habit-forming substances unless they’re actually necessary.