These years mark a significant change for me. I've finally started reading my old diary entries, finding a sense of calm I never thought possible. The stories and dreams I'd written down held so much intensity that, for years, I couldn't bear to open those pages. But today, something is different. With discipline in writing, I'm revisiting the entries from 2013 to 2017.
The period from 2013 to 2017 holds important events in my life. During this time, I finished school, got into a university, lived and studied in the Netherlands for six months, started working after returning, and eventually completed my university degree. While it seemed from the outside that I was confidently moving towards my dreams, there was another process happening within me. At night, when the world was going to sleep, I was facing boundless darkness.
Now, as I read through those entries armed with newfound knowledge, I'm beginning to recognize various states associated with insomnia and the emotions that come with them. I'm gaining insight into my process—its beginnings, endings, and the cycles that form within it. While delving into the works of Stephen Porges and Deb Dana and exploring the Polyvagal theory about our nervous system's response to safety and connection, I'm starting to see the mechanisms of my insomnia more clearly.
Fear has been a constant companion since the early days of my insomnia. I remember writing, 'I'm scared. Fear seems to intensify when I exhale or when I breathe slowly. It's like a weight in my pelvic area. There's also tension in my head that's frightening to release.' Fear gradually wrapped its tendrils around my inner world, setting the stage for my struggles.
As the first signs of disrupted sleep emerged, a new fear took root – the fear of not being able to fall asleep at all. I worried about the toll sleep deprivation would take on my productivity at school, university, and work. Oddly enough, I'd notice that after sleepless nights, my mental agility didn't really change; it might even improve slightly. But my physical energy dwindled day by day.
Insomnia brought along a series of phenomena – lucid dreams, out of body experiences, layered dreams. They were fascinating yet unfamiliar, and they brought with them an unexplainable fear. With these experiences also came the fear of being misunderstood by others.
I was also afraid of the world in my dreams. In August 2017, I wrote, 'Last night, I relived a terrifying experience. I dreamt I was trying to sleep in my own bed, but there was a child who wouldn't let me. I'm afraid, so I must stay awake.' Sometimes, the fear from my dreams would spill over into my waking life: 'In my dream, I was scared. It felt like someone was following me outside, touching me in the darkness.'
I'd experience headaches and weakness after sleepless nights, my face would flush, and my eyes would sting. I'd wish to 'escape this mess, wash it all away,' but I couldn't. I feared presenting myself to the world as tired, powerless, and imperfect. I'd tell myself, 'I was exhausted at work, but I'd imagine everything was fine and just bear it.'
In those early years of battling insomnia, after nights of no sleep, I dreaded meeting people, especially making eye contact. I didn't want my suffering to be visible. I couldn't show it, and I wasn't ready to face it either. The mere thought of looking into someone else's eyes felt overwhelming. It's like I'd drown in my pain if I did. Unable to understand what caused my insomnia, I began avoiding interactions and started fearing any kind of social connection. My life became isolated, disconnected.
So, what do you do when you're trapped in a cycle of fear and isolation? You hide. Hiding becomes a way of life, a defense mechanism. It's the act of enclosing yourself, preserving yourself until you're ready to face the world again. I remember writing in January 2013, 'Most of the time, I avoid people at school so I don't have to meet them or say hello. I don't know why… maybe I just want to be alone? Or maybe loneliness has already taken me…'
Hiding wasn't just about avoiding others; it was also about retreating within myself. It wasn't a conscious choice; my body chose it for me. This retreat was physically demanding. My body would tense up, get cold, and become heavy. Even simple tasks required tremendous effort. I wrote in October 2017, 'I had frightening dreams, spent the morning in darkness, got up at five, everything hurts, my whole body aches.' Sometimes, this retreat manifested as feeling trapped within my own body. I remember writing that I entered a strange state one night in November of the same year: 'I'm lying in bed, in a different place, in a different body. I'm being pulled, carried, tossed, and I'm afraid to scream. I can do everything, except speak. Even the sound of machines echoes through me, but I know nothing's escaping. I can't see, I can't open my eyes, and I just want to break free. I want to escape, return, but I can't. I try to get out of bed, jump around, but it's no use.'
And then came the day when my menstrual cycle, a significant part of my life, vanished with my sleep. Hope, clarity, lightness—all disappeared as well. I left my job and the routines I'd known for over a decade. I couldn't plan. Goals, desires, dreams—all faded away. But one thing remained—my hidden self.
Then, a pause
In his article "Hiding," David Whyte writes: "We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure"; our thoughts, imaginings, and longings are exposed to the light too much, too early, and too often. Our best qualities are squeezed too soon into a world already awash with easily articulated ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others. What is real is almost always, to begin with, hidden and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence."
In this state of retreat, I promised myself that I'd give my hidden self the space and time it needed to become what it truly was. And when the time came, I'd bloom.
The Autonomic Nervous System, Safety, and Connection
At the beginning, I mentioned the works of Stephen Porges and Deb Dana, and the Polyvagal theory. Reading through my diaries, I noticed thoughts resonating not only with the retreat but also with certain aspects of this theory. If you're familiar with it, you probably sense where I'm heading.
The Polyvagal theory explains how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) influences our responses to different social and environmental cues. It proposes that the ANS developed in stages, resulting in defense mechanisms that dictate how we react to life's challenges. You can find more about it on the Polyvagal Institute's website.
According to this theory, when we're safe and not facing any threat, we're socially engaged, enjoying the company of others, working together, being present. When a threat arises, our body gears up, and we enter the fight or flight response. This happens unconsciously; we don't choose it—it happens to us. In this state, we're still aware of our surroundings, and we can consciously try to address the threat. If neither fighting nor fleeing resolves the problem, we enter the freeze response, also known as immobilization.
Studying the freeze response helps us understand why, in stressful situations, we might feel paralyzed. This response kicks in when neither fighting nor fleeing is an option. It's recognizable by feelings of depression and associated behaviors. Muscles and connective tissues lose tension, the body feels heavy, even simple tasks require great effort, heart rate and breathing slow down. We might even hold our breath. Blood pressure drops, blood flows from the periphery to the core, ensuring minimal organ function. Hands and feet get cold. Sometimes, pain moves from one area to another. Our face loses its expressiveness, and our voice becomes monotonous. Hope dwindles, and we might feel trapped within ourselves.
This immobilization state echoes what I experienced in the early days of insomnia. And drawing from David Whyte's insights, I realize that no single theory can fully explain my journey. But there are lessons to be learned. Firstly, the symptoms I experience are part of a natural process that safeguards my existence. Secondly, we transition between different states, but they're not permanent. They evolve based on our actions and the environments we choose. By listening to my body and recognizing these states, I can cultivate a sense of safety and social connection. This opens up the possibility of experiencing joy, lightness, and clarity once again. Hope is rekindled.
On the night before finalizing this article, I dreamt I was at the house. The day was hot, then suddenly icy water began to fall. I saw it through the window. Everything froze outside. I woke up.
Over the past few weeks, while writing this piece, I've often wondered how encountering these experiences again might affect me. As I approach the conclusion, I feel a sense of gratitude. I'm here, at home, writing, working, savoring life's moments, sleeping. The dream illustrated that freezing cold, terror, and fear are nearby, beyond the window. But today, I can see and witness their presence.
Ready to start your transformative journey of self-discovery and healing? Reach out to Ingrida Danyte at firstname.lastname@example.org, a dedicated Somatic Movement Therapist, and start embracing your path to healing today.