Escaping Insomnia's Anxiety Trap

TLDR: Lateral Eye Movement can Halt Anxiety

Article Summary

This article is intended for individuals who have already explored and eliminated, with the help of a sleep specialist and typically through an overnight sleep study, potential physiological causes of sleep disturbance such as sleep apnea, UARS, nasal valve collapse, deviated septum, etc. In other words, this article is intended for the rest of us, who don't have physical/structural issues but have entrenched insomnia and for whom this condition is causing extreme anxiety, fear, stress, panic, etc., and who are seeking drug-free methods which may help.

When your circadian rhythm is disrupted by poor sleep hygiene, or by some stresseful event, this can cause sleep issues. If these sleep issues evolve into chronic insomnia then it's extremely common and understandable for a person to become, even unconsciously, anxious about their sleep. This anxiety, unfortunately, can cause more insomnia which results in more anxiety in a vicious cycle that can be very difficult to escape.

To heal, you must practice good sleep hygiene so that you're strengthening rather than sabotaging your circadian rhythm, and you must also halt the anxiety that has your brain trapped in a state of panic. This article describes good sleep hygiene practices as well as methods such as sunrise/sunset viewing that can be used to strengthen your circadian rhythm, and finally techniques that you can use such as back-and-forth lateral eye movement, while in bed, in order to halt the vicious cycle of anxiety.

The sunrise/sunset viewing and lateral eye movement techniques were inspired by podcasts from Dr. Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Links to these are provided below.

Good Sleep Hygiene Techniques

Do These

Avoid These

If you find that your mind is busy while you're in bed, then keep a notepad and pen within reach. When your mind is obsessing about something just reach over and grab the notepad and pen, in the dark, without turning on the light, and jot down a few words about whatever it is. Usually two or three words is enough, and it's easy to write them in the dark. This way you have enough information to remind yourself about this topic in the morning and this will enable your mind to relax because it now knows that you won't forget to deal with whatever it is.

An even better technique for dealing with a busy mind is to purposefully set aside a time during each and every single day, usually around 10 to 15 minutes, where you will think of, and more importantly write down, all of the things that are worrying and concerning you. Then go through that written list and identify all of those items for which you can do something and write down what you can do and schedule those actions. For those things over which you have no control you should internalize and accept that reality. This process is about training your mind so that it understand that you are always going to take care of worries during the daytime, and so it no longer needs to keep you up during the night obsessing about these things. A link which goes into more detail on this is provided below.

Sunrise/Sunset Viewing Technique to Strengthen your Circadian Rhythm

Paraphrasing Huberman: Sunrise and sunset viewing must be done outside. It should not be done through any windows or glass. However using regular prescription (not sunglasses) is just fine. The objective of sunrise viewing is to expose your eyes to ~100,000 lux of morning light. On a clear morning this typically means exposure to around ~10 minutes of light, and on an overcast morning ~30 minutes. This morning light exposure will trigger chemistry which will make it easire for you to fall asleep when the night time comes. Watching the sunset in the evening will also counteract some of the negative effects of artificial blue light exposure from your various devices. You do sunrise viewing by looking in the vicinity of the sunrise, but not in any way that would be uncomfortable to your eyes.

I've found sunrise viewing to be effective in the window of time from one hour before the sun is actually visible to one hour after the sun is visible. I often will position myself such that there is a tree trunk immediately between me and the sun itself so that I can easily look in the vicinity of the sun without actually exposing my eyes to direct sunlight. I've discovered that there's often a point in time at which, when I've taken in sufficient morning light, I'll feel a very distinct rush of alertness, energy and well-being, and in fact when this happens my visual focus will also sharpen noticeably. This surge of energy often lasts for several hours and it's kind of like a caffeine hit without any jitters or negative side-effects.

Lateral Eye Movement Technique to Halt the Anxiety

Paraphrasing Huberman: In the 1980s it was discovered by Dr. Francine Shapiro, a clinical psychologist at Stanford, that lateral eye movement helped to suppress anxiety and PTSD. Further research showed that it works by suppressing the activity of the amygdala and also that it triggers the calming parasympathetic nervous system.

The amygdala is the primitive part of your brain where fear/anxiety/fight-or-flight is processed, and so lateral eye movement is a brain hack that you can use to suppress the processing of anxiety about sleep, thereby halting the vicious cycle that perpetuates the insomnia. Huberman discusses using lateral eye movement to help with anxiety and PTSD in general, but doesn't yet to my knowledge connect the dots and mention this for use specifically for anxiety related to insomnia. It's very clear though that a large percentage of insomniacs are also extemely anxious about their sleep. Visiting any online insomnia forum makes this apparent.

I typically begin each night with a set of around 8 gentle lateral eye movements. I do this while I'm in bed with my eyes closed and without moving my head, looking gently toward my left earlobe, then back toward my right earlobe, and repeat. Then I'll just relax and let my mind wander randomly while also focusing loosely on the positive sensation of how wonderfully-comfortable and nice my bed feels. Replacing the negative with a positive is an essential element of this technique. More recently I've found that thinking of things I'm grateful for is a great way to replace the negative with a positive train of though. At various times during the night as I find myself to be awake I'll repeat additional sets of lateral eye movements. Some nights I'll do a dozen or more sets, but as time has gone on I've needed fewer and often only do one or two sets now (after around 8 months since starting this technique). I've also found that it can help me sometimes to simply linger gently at the left/right ends of the movements. I think there is some value in experimenting with variations of the eye movements. I never strain my eyes during these eye movements.

For some people, these eye movements cause dizziness, and for them I've been told that an equivalent technique is to cross your arms over your chest (giving yourself a hug) with each hand resting on the opposite shoulder and to gently alternate tapping your shoulders with your hands, while lying in bed. Similarly another alternative is to have your arms down at your sides with your left hand resting on your left thigh and your right hand resting on your right thigh and then alternating gentle pats with your hands.

These lateral eye movements were incorporated by Shapirio and others as part of a therapeutic technique for addressing PTSD and anxiety called EMDR. In EMDR, the source/trigger of the distress is brought to mind and then the lateral eye movement is used to tell the primive brain that things are safe and okay regarding that former trigger. For insomniacs, the bed itself, any bed, is essentially their torture chamber and trigger, so by doing these lateral eye movements while lying in bed you're sending your primitive brain the signal that the bed and sleep in general is a safe thing and that it can calm down.

Additional Techniques

Acceptance - Another technique that I've found to be helpful in halting the anxiety is, before getting into bed, to pause and consider how that night's sleep may be poor, or that I might not sleep at all, or that it might take hours to fall asleep, and to accept this as being okay before even getting into the bed. I've found that by accepting this in advance I basically prevent or reduce the opportunity for frustration to arise if the night turns out to be not-so-great. I've also found that this acceptance process needs to be genuine and sincere for best results. I really have to digest and genuinely accept that my sleep may be poor.

Binaural Beats - Another drug-free technique I've found to be helpful is, the first ~10 minutes lying in bed at the start of the night, to do a set of lateral eye movements while also listenting to very low frequency (3 hertz or lower works best for me) binaural beats using headphones or earbuds. These seem to help train the brain to more easily transition into sleep. Delta brain waves during deep sleep occur at or below 4 hertz and so it seems that such low-frequency audio encourages deep sleep states. After about ten minutes, or when I begin to feel my body and mind start to move towards sleep, I gently remove the earbuds and set them aside and do a few more lateraly eye movements then relax.

4-7-8 Breathing - This breathing technique can help to reduce anxiety. Being aware of your breathing, in general, is helpful because you may notice that you hold your breath or are frequently tense and so letting go of that tension and having a calm breathing pattern can make a huge difference. I sometimes do this right at the beginning of the night first thing after getting into bed. It starts by breathing out all the way through your mouth, then breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds, then holding your breath for 7 or 8 seconds, then exhaling for 8 seconds through your mouth while pursing your lips. You then repeat this cycle several more times, usually around 4 times.

Sound Machine - If you struggle with tinnitus and/or a busy mind, then an audio track or sound machine of various sounds like rain, the wind, waves, crickets, etc. can be helpful. My favorite is a sound machine that uses high-definition sounds that constantly evolve and never loop and I particulary like the crickets option of that machine, which I'll run on a lower volume throughout the night.

Author's Story

For several years I worked with over a dozen doctors including several sleep specialists to find a solution to my profound insomnia. I practiced perfect sleep hygiene and yet my sleep was still torturously-bad. During these years I logged hundreds of nights without any sleep at all, and when I did sleep I usually only got about two hours of sleep.

My doctors had me try all kinds of sleep drugs, herbs, supplements and protocols. Some of these worked, but the few that did only worked temporarily before backfiring, and never worked again.

Then one day I listened to a podcast on sleep by Dr. Andrew Huberman where among other things he described sunrise and sunset viewing as a way to improve sleep. I began doing this religiously and found that it increased my sleep, on those nights when I did sleep, from two to about three hours on average. This was a real win for me. However I was still having many nights where I didn't get any sleep at all, and I was still suffering.

Then I encountered another Huberman podcast where he described a simple technique - lateral eye movement - to help with anxiety and PTSD. That night at 2:30am as I lay in bed wide awake, as usual, I considered what Huberman had said, and it was clear to me that I had a lot of anxiety about sleep itself so I thought that it would do no harm for me to at least try out this lateral eye movement while in bed. So I did this with my eyes closed, and after doing 7-8 passes I paused for a while and just lay there. After a while when I realized that I was still awake I did another set and then just relaxed. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the morning after having slept fairly well and I felt rested.

Initially I doubted that these lateral eye movements were responsible for my improved sleep, however as they were harmless I decided to simply begin each night with a set of lateral eye movements and to do additional sets during the night when I found myself to be awake. Since then my sleep has improved tremendously. It's clear to me now that it was not a fluke.

I'm no longer suffering and non-functional due to extreme sleep deprivation. I've been able to recommence work and have a productive life again. I still have to be careful to have good sleep hygiene as my sleep is still somewhat fragile if I break those rules. It amazes me that after all of the drugs and therapies, and all of the expense and suffering, that the actual solution for me was completely drug-free and cost-free. I began sharing this technique with others and many of them have responded with similar results. I hope that this can help you too. If it does help you then please share it with others.

Consider that fear doesn't exist independent of us. We create it and hence we can control it. We can give this fear power over us, but we can also dismiss it for the illusion that it is.

Helpful Links

How Insomnia Often Begins

How Anxiety Perpetuates Insomnia

Fantastic and Practical Technique to Deal With a Busy Mind

Huberman on Lateral Eye Movement and EMDR

Huberman on Sleep and Sunrise/Sunset Viewing


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. The contents of this site should not be considered to be medical advice. Seek the counsel of a medical professional before you make any changes that may affect your health.

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