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Is insomnia fatal? Can a lack of sleep actually kill you?

Hey sleep enthusiast, have you ever found yourself wondering if insomnia can actually kill you? It can be a natural, morbid curiosity when you’re dealing with chronic insomnia - with frustration and exhaustion those late-night Google searches can take you to some dark places. The more we struggle to fall asleep, the more worrying about not sleeping can come and the cycle continues.


As a sleep coach who previously identified as a lifelong patchy sleeper, I have been there. After training in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBTI), holistic sleep coaching and more, it is my pleasure to share that despite how much insomnia can affect your energy and well-being, it won't actually kill you.


Chronic insomnia on it’s own won’t kill you - as proven by research

In a 2018 review of research on the topic of Insomnia and Mortality, researchers looked at 17 different studies, drawing on data involving almost 37 million people, over an average of 11.6 years to see if there was a connection between insomnia and mortality. The review found that there was no difference in the odds of mortality for those individuals with symptoms of insomnia when compared to those without symptoms. So insomnia is not fatal, hooray!


Whilst there are risks to be aware of when it comes to being being sleep deprived (for example greater risk of a car accident when driving, as well as impacts on the immune and cardiovascular system), the research meta-analysis shows insomnia on it's own is not a risk. You can see the full, sleep geek lowdown here if you would like to check it out.


I really hope that brings you some relief to read, sleep enthusiast? As an embodiment coach, I often invite clients to check in with how their body may be feeling when we discover a useful insight in coaching sessions. Inviting a big breath and seeing if there may be any softening or relaxation in the body, you might like to try that and see how it is for you right now.


Hope for insomniacs, based on science

Not only does the meta-analysis show that insomnia isn't fatal, but the researchers also recommend the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBTI) to bring some comfort to people struggling with insomnia. This is because CBTI offers a practical way to work through unhelpful thoughts to bring in some ease and acceptance, rather than adding extra cognitive tension from frustrating, desperate and sometimes scary thoughts that insomnia can bring.


A CBTI exercise you can try if you find yourself having racing thoughts at night

This exercise on rumination helps with getting curious about and challenging limiting beliefs - helpful if overthinking at night gets you wound up, or if you wake in the night agitated, unable to drift off again. If you’d like to try, be sure to leave the bedroom and find another quiet space for the exercise. You can return when you start to feel sleepy again. A pen and notebook will also be helpful to capture your thoughts.


Once you have found another space to be in, set a two-minute timer and give yourself full permission to indulge in your thoughts. Really let your mind go wild for that limited time. When the two minutes are up, consider these prompts for what you have just experienced:

  • Did you learn anything new about yourself or the situation?

  • Are you any closer to a solution?

  • Do you feel any better?

As you note your answers to these questions, try to write the first thing that comes to mind, staying open to the flow of reflections that may come through you. Once you have finished writing, see if you can spot any similar answers, themes or patterns emerging.


Next, take the opposing angle: what happens when you try to suppress rumination?​ How does that feel in your body? What sensations might you notice? Are there any emotions you can feel? Perhaps a combination of emotions, for example: you might feel some anger and also some shame about the anger (these emotions have been shown to be linked in clinical literature). Again, write down what you notice and then review your notes for any common threads.


Finally, can you bring the intention to use noticing the experience of rumination as a cue to do something else in your daily life? ​For example:


Daytime

If at work, is it possible to swap the task you are working on? Could you practice a mindfulness exercise or journal your thoughts?


Night-time

You can practice stimulus control by getting out of bed and your bedroom to do something else, for example, stretching or meditating, only to return when you feel tired.


​The summary of this exercise is RCA, which stands for rumination, cues and action. It is designed to bring new ways of breaking the common pattern of stuckness that over-thinking can bring (from Addis and Martell, 2004).


How might getting to the root of limiting beliefs look in practice?

This kind of work to bring the mind into a more relaxed state becomes easier and more insightful with regular practice. It might seem unfamiliar or challenging at first, so don’t beat yourself up if you notice resistance to the exercises. For a practical example and maybe some inspiration about how exploring limiting beliefs to overcome racing thoughts at night can look, you can read former client Deborah’s story here. If you’d like to find out more about how sleep coaching may be able to help with your specific sleep struggles, you can book a free discovery call.


Stay curious,

Maša.


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About the author

Maša Nobilo, Sleep Coach

From first-hand insomniac to certified Embodied Facilitator with training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, the Feldenkrais Method and Embodied Yoga Principles, Maša is well-equipped to support you on journey to restful sleep.
Learn more below.

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