The paradox of insomnia and why you can’t fall asleep

Insomnia is a paradox

Who hasn’t been there? Tossing and turning and trying to fall asleep for hours just to find yourself being wide awake and angry at yourself for not being asleep already – in the middle of the night of course…

In this article we’ll look at what author of Dreamland, David K. Randall, calls “the classic paradox of insomnia: wanting sleep so badly that you can’t get it.“ Plus, you’ll learn about 5 strategies that help you silence that sleep-stealing monster named mind. Let’s dig in.

Why you can’t fall asleep

There are three general causes why you can’t fall asleep at night:

  1. You have poor sleep habits. Maybe you can’t fall asleep because you downed a double espresso right after dinner. Or because you expose yourself to bright light right before you go to bed (maybe it’s your iPad). Or because of your irregular sleeping schedule. Make sure you develop good sleep habits.
  2. You have a medical issue. If you don’t sleep well because of medical causes such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or chronic pain, then you might want to check with your doctor.
  3. Your inner chatter won’t shut up. Bingo! That’s what this article focuses on.

So you can’t fall asleep because you’re unable to quit thinking. The background blah blah just keeps on making noise. And at some point you realize that you’re still awake and it gets worse and worse. Luckily, you’re not alone. And you’ll learn now why that happens and what to do about it.

The ironic process of mental control

Try not to think about a giraffe with a short neck…….Whoops, you just did it (looks funny, right?).

Interestingly, the same thing happens with sleep. If you really want to fall asleep, it’s almost impossible to stop checking whether you’re already asleep. Harvard professor Daniel Wegner called this the ironic process of mental control.”

He observed that if you want something bad enough your mind ends up constantly monitoring its progress and you get caught up in the second-by-second self-control.

Wegner tested this theory in an experiment with two groups of sleepers:

Group 1’s task: Try to fall asleep in record time.

Group 2’s task: Fall asleep whenever you like.

Yeah, you’re right, group 1 took longer to doze off. Their minds were concentrated on falling asleep in record time so that they constantly checked on their progress. That’s why they were unable to let their thoughts drift off into dreamland.

Further, group 1 also woke up more frequently, took longer to get back to sleep, and felt less rested the next day.

David K. Randall wrote about this group that “they wanted to sleep so badly in those first minutes in bed that they couldn’t calm their minds down throughout the night.”

You’ve probably come across similar situations yourself. The moment you say to yourself in bed, “okay, but now I really gotta fall asleep.” I remember when I was preparing for exams and nearly fell asleep while studying, but when I later went to bed I was wide awake and couldn’t fall asleep quickly.

What comes to my mind is Viktor Frankl’s words about sleep: “Sleep [is like] a dove which has landed near one’s hand and stays there as long as one does not pay any attention to it.

As soon as you think about sleep, as soon as you check whether you’re already asleep, you will be further away from actually being asleep.

This is what’s paradoxical about sleep. It’s the paradox of insomnia, that you want sleep so badly that you can’t get it. Usually, all starts with one bad night of sleep. This will trigger what I call the deadly cycle of insomnia.

The deadly cycle of insomnia

So, you have one bad night of sleep. Why you’re having a bad night of sleep doesn’t matter. Whether it’s loud neighbors, a high room temperature, or a crying baby is irrelevant. But this one bad night now triggers the vicious cycle of insomnia.

Let me explain. After a bad night of sleep you wake up in a negative mood. You’re annoyed about the fact that you didn’t sleep well. This mood accompanies you all day. Plus, you feel tired, less focused than usual, and you get bugged out easily.

You tell yourself that next night, you really need to get some great sleep because you acknowledge that you’re not at your best at all. So, you put some pressure on yourself for getting a good night’s sleep. And then in bed, you want to fall asleep quickly so that you’ll be better off the next day.

And baaam. You’re trapped in the deadly cycle of insomnia. Because now that you want to sleep bad enough, you can’t get it. Sleep is constantly on your mind and you can’t stop checking on your progress of falling asleep.

After a few minutes you realize that you’re still awake and now you’re afraid of another bad night of sleep. While the night before it was your neighbors that kept you awake, right now it’s only you and your omnipresent mind.

There you go: Another night of poor sleep. And that’s just the beginning of the deadly cycle of insomnia. It gets worse as you go to bed anxiously, already knowing that you won’t fall asleep, and that your mind won’t shut up…

So, your self-imposed pressure of getting a good night’s sleep gets bigger every day. And the bigger that pressure, the worse you’ll sleep (remember the people who tried to fall asleep in record time? That’s you now…).

Practical ways to quiet your mind and fall asleep

The reason why you can’t fall asleep is because of your mind that won’t stop checking on your progress of falling asleep. So in order to fall asleep you need to quiet your mind. You simply need to relax so your thoughts can drift off and you can finally fall asleep. Let’s look at 6 ways to relax and fall asleep faster at night.

#1: Breathing Techniques

This is the classical approach. The trick is to focus on your breath and relaxing your mind and body instead of trying to fall asleep. Just try to relax completely and forget about the fact that you want to fall asleep.

Now with deep belly breathing you breathe in deeply into your belly and breathe out fully. Breathe in and out through your nose, and keep your jaw relaxed. This will help you relax, your thoughts will drift off, and you’ll fall asleep easier.

Then there’s box breathing: Imagine a box and breathe alongside it. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, and hold for 5 seconds. And repeat. First, this is quite awkward because it’s unnatural to hold your breath, but it unconsciously gives you the feeling of control and helps you fall asleep.

There’s also a breathing technique called 4-7-8 by Dr. Weil. This technique works for many people. It’s similar to box breathing. Inhale to a mental count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale completely through your mouth on a count of eight. Then repeat three more times.

#2: Progressive muscle relaxation

The idea is to slowly tense and then relax each muscle group. Start with your toes. Tense for five seconds and then relax for thirty seconds. Then progressively work your way up to your neck and head. Breathe slowly during the exercise. During the relaxation phase I imagine that my body parts are made out of concrete so that they’re heavy and sink into the mattress.

#3: Think sun-shiney thoughts

Here’s an interesting study with insomniacs:

How long does it take to fall asleep for 3 different groups?

Group 3: No guidance at all. It took them more than 1 hour to fall asleep.

Group 2: Guidance: “Forget about your worries and concerns.” It took them 40 minutes to fall asleep.

Group 1: Guidance: “Imagine a pleasant and relaxing situation.” It took them 20 minutes to fall asleep.

Next time you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, create a pleasant and relaxing fantasy in your head, but avoid sexually arousing imagery as this will only make you wide awake (and horny).

#4: The magic yawn

This tip is taken from UK psychologist Richard Wiseman;

When you behave as if you are sleepy you become tired. To take advantage of this strange effect, let your eyes droop, your mouth hang open, and your arms and legs feel heavy. Sink into your bed as if you have had a long and tiring day in the office. Even fake a yawn or two. In short, fool your body into thinking that it is time for bed. Richard Wiseman, Night School (2014)

#5: The most paradoxical trick

Medical researcher Niall Broomfield did a study with two groups:

Group 1:Try to stay awake for as long as possible.”

Group 2: No instructions.

Group 1 felt less anxious at bedtime and reported falling asleep faster. In short, if you want to fall asleep, try to stay awake. However, you can only use your mind while lying in bed (no smartphone, TV, coffee, or exercise). Minds can be crazy…

#6: Simply know this

We are terrible at estimating how much sleep we get. Here’s David K. Randall again;

We can’t easily judge the time that we are asleep because that time feels like an absence. The times that we do remember are those that we wish we couldn’t: staring at the clock in the middle of the night, turning the pillow over desperately hoping that the other side is cooler, kicking the covers off or pulling them up close. Those experiences, even if they last only three minutes, often become exaggerated in our minds and overshadow the hours that we spent sleeping peacefully, simply because we remember them.Dreamland (2012)

I bet you can relate to that.

Further research shows that insomniacs tend to think that they’ve slept far less than they actually did. Simply knowing that you most certainly get more sleep than you think will help you relax and fall asleep faster.


We’ve looked at one plausible reason why you can’t fall asleep: The inner chatter won’t let you. That’s the ironic process of mental control: If you really want something your mind constantly traces its progress and gets caught up in the second-by-second self-control. And checking whether you’re already asleep won’t help you fall asleep.

That’s the paradox of insomnia: You want sleep so badly that you can’t get it.

This again explains the deadly cycle of insomnia. One poor night of sleep makes you feel bad the next day which in turn puts pressure on yourself for getting better sleep the next night.

Falling asleep will therefore get harder and sleep could become a massive problem as your anxiety and uncertainty concerning sleep will increase.

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