Can staying awake be the solution to insomnia? Experts share how to stop the vicious cycle of insomnia by using the paradoxical intention technique.

  • Paradoxical intent is a method that forces people to confront their fears.
  • This is a way to encourage someone to be awake in the event of sleeplessness.
  • The reasoning is that this reduces anxiety about the behavior, which aids in sleep   
  • Experts share a guideline for home practice of paradoxical intent. 

Everyone who suffers from insomnia understands the severe effects that it can have upon daily living. 

There are many causes, including long-term pain and lifestyle changes such as shift patterns. Mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, can also be involved. 

A study in the UK found that 36% of adults have trouble sleeping at night. This is a significant increase from the previous week. Half of British adults experience difficulty falling asleep at night, with nearly half reporting difficulties sleeping even one time per month. 

Some experts champion a psychotherapeutic technique called 'paradoxical intention', which encourages an individual to engage in his or her most feared behavior. In the case of insomniac, this behaviour is staying awake. Stock image

Psychotherapeutic techniques such as “paradoxical intent” are being promoted by some experts. This encourages individuals to take on their worst fears. This behaviour, in the case of insomniacs, is keeping awake. Stock photo 

The problem can seem overwhelming. 

Psychotherapeutic techniques such as “paradoxical intent” are being promoted by some experts. This encourages individuals to take on their worst fears. This is the behaviour of a insomniac: staying awake. 

One argument says that if you face your fear straight-on it’s possible to lessen the anxiety. A person who is less anxious about sleeping will be more likely to get asleep. 

Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, explained: ‘Paradoxical intention is a therapeutic procedure that encourages patients to stop obsessing over trying to fall asleep and instead staying awake for as long as possible.

You can combat insomnia at home. How to practice paradoxical intention 

Phil suggests that paradoxical intention be practiced in many different ways. This is one simple way to think about it:

  • Get into a comfortable sleeping position.
  • Try to see everything around you
  • Be alert, but not too awake.
  • You can’t fall asleep if you don’t try.
  • Do not be afraid to wake up.
  • You can set a time limit for how long you are able to stay awake. It might be five minutes and then ten minutes.
  • Do not use your smartphone or engage in any stimuli
  • You can continue lying in your bed, and you should repeat these steps.
  • If your eyes feel tired, you can try to remain awake for a while longer.
  • You can say to yourself, “I’ll fall asleep whenever it feels right for my time.”
  • You will feel more calm after a while
  • You will notice a shift in your outlook on sleeping and you’ll find it easier to fall asleep.

“Trying to keep awake may make it easier for sleep to occur. To reduce anxiety or pressure about falling asleep, this is a way to question your mentality. 

“When we are anxious about something, we often overthink it. This can make the situation worse and lead to even more anxiety.

“Performance anxiety is reduced when a person does not try to fall asleep but instead stays awake as much as possible. They will no longer feel anxious and will have a lot less to worry about. 

This makes it easy for them to go to sleep and has a positive effect on their quality of rest. 

“The idea is that although they need to be awake at night, their sleep will replenish their energy and provide greater benefits than any short or broken sleep. 

It is an alternative treatment for getting out of bed when it isn’t possible to sleep. This involves breaking the negative association between your bed and that habit.   

Although doctors recommend that you seek help from your GP if you have a problem with sleeping, it’s possible to practice ‘paradoxical intent’ at home. 

Speaking to Glamour, Dr Katharina Lederle, sleep scientist at sleep therapy programme Somnia, explained: ‘It means that you challenge your ‘go to sleep’ thoughts, instead telling yourself to stay awake.

While lying down, you might be comfortable enough to close your eyes, or even tell yourself, “Just hold your eyes open for a second.” You’re essentially changing the goal to stay awake instead of falling asleep. 

You can stop trying to fall asleep by giving up the goal. That means you no longer have to put in “effort” to do so. It is possible to fall asleep without any effort. This means that the brain and body can relax and calm down.

Hussain stated that insomnia is often more easily treated by behavioural intervention like paradoxical intent than pharmacological treatments.

Phil Lawlor of Dormeo UK is a specialist in sleep and noted that paradoxical intentions are most effective when they’re accompanied by a trained therapist, who may be able advise on the best combination of treatments. 

“Paradoxical intent is effective over the long-term,” he said. It may reduce anxiety at bedtime, and improve the quality of sleep for most people.