What is ‘acceptance’ in the context of insomnia?

Acceptance is not resignation. It’s not ‘putting up with’, either.

Acceptance (as viewed through both mindfulness approaches and ACT) has two aims:

Acceptance of things that are out of our control – things we like and don’t like – such as thoughts/feelings/sleep
Taking action in life that is in line with the kind of life we want to live

Struggle is created from trying to change things we can’t change – like our thoughts and feelings. It creates a situation, ironically, where the more we try to change the ‘thing’, the more it is a problem for us.

Imagine a relationship that’s not going well. Most people have been through a phase in life where they wanted things to be different with the person – and they acted in such a way to prompt different behaviours and actions that would ‘ease’ their need for whatever that behaviour or action was. (ie…not answering a message, in order to get that person to message them again, which feels nice…..or at the other extreme….trying to get someone to stop drinking…).

In those kinds of scenarios, taking those actions may temporarily feel successful….but even if they were temporarily successful we’ve actually created a deep emotional investment in a situation we can’t control in the long run (other people…or thoughts….or feelings). It creates that endless see-saw and rollercoaster of good/bad/good/bad up and down suffering.

Acceptance creates a space where we can shift by letting go of the struggle. The thoughts and feelings might be uncomfortable but not dangerous and can be worked through with cognitive strategies and approaches. In this situation, when someone lets go of trying to change the feelings, thoughts, other person…things can shift.

Emotions shift and change all the time, if we pay attention to that shifting by looking at them from the outside. They remain fixed if we grab them by the neck and try to strangle them! We literally….have our hands cuffed to the issue.

Values based living

So what does living life in line with our values mean?

It means, in the presence of acceptance, that we identify what means the most to us in life, and take action to bring those things into our life despite the presence (or lack of) the thing we previously ‘struggled’ with. The things and people we love, doing things we enjoy – all the things you want to remember about your life.

Acceptance often shifts those things we used to struggle against so they don’t have the same sting, and often helps it go – but sometimes the situation doesn’t go.

Take the example of someone with terminal cancer. Some people decide to fight a fight with slim chance of success. Some decide to fight and live their dreams alongside. Who enjoys their life more fully and richly, to the best of their ability?

So when it comes to insomnia, when I talk about acceptance, I’m not talking about ‘resigning to insomnia for the rest of your life’.

I’m talking about letting go of the struggle to change something we can’t control.

Ironically it really is so helpful in getting rid of the thing we want to get rid of. It’s clinically helpful with insomnia, anxiety, chronic pain, and more.

BUT – even if it doesn’t (or takes some time to) shift the ‘thing’ – without the acceptance our lives get consumed by ‘changing the thing’. And there’s no space for those meaningful and valued things anymore.

Some people say ‘but I can’t enjoy anything if I haven’t slept’.

Sometimes that might be true, but there are times when that is less true. I suggest to not make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by making it so permanent sounding and avoiding engaging in things they might enjoy (making it a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Nature abhors a vacuum they say. Using the metaphor of a picture frame…if we don’t accept insomnia and stop the fight against it, if we continue to bend life around it by cancelling things and avoiding people, then insomnia and the struggle will take up a larger and larger part of the frame.  We push the other things we love out to make more space for insomnia, and it breeds a larger and more troublesome problem…until it fills the frame.

It becomes the reference of life – rather than the reference of life being the things most meaningful to us.

That’s why acceptance and taking action interact with one another. Taking values-based action is critical. You might not feel 100% compared to how you felt yesterday or last week or where you want to be in the future – but you can’t control that so the comparison is pointless. 

But you are 100% of where you are right this moment. 

You are doing the best you can with what you have at the moment. Accepting that is key. Taking action, by, say, not cancelling something important to you, brings something joyful into the frame for all 100% of whatever those moments are in that moment. Rinse and repeat. Create a new self-fulfilling prophecy!

These joyful actions lower arousal, which also help with insomnia. They give you something to fill the frame of your life with.

Don’t fill the frame of your life with the struggle against insomnia and give up on everything else just because you are attached to an image of what things should be like or were in the past. It’s a trap that keeps you stuck.

Set aside those kinds of thoughts, and bring some things back into your frame, and see where the steps take you.