Leonardo da Vinci once said, “A well-spent day brings happy sleep.”
This is a pretty powerful quote, one that can help us in our benzo withdrawal. But I'll come back to that in a moment. Most of us going through Benzo withdrawal and recovery will battle sleep issues. For some, it will be just a handful of restless nights, but to others, it can become a real battle. One that can make our recovery journey all the more difficult. Fret not, as this will all resolve with time, and there are some things we can do right now to help us get things moving in the right direction again.
Sleep was never something that came easy for me. I grew up with a lot of violence in the home as a child, and my amygdala learned at an early age that bears come at night. I'd often wake up to people fighting. All of the anxiety and trauma of my childhood certainly did not help my sleep situation. I'd have great difficulty falling asleep and would wake up many times throughout the night, often from bad or stressful dreams.
This negatively impacted my schooling. It improved a bit up until I came off benzos, at which point things got much worse. During withdrawal, I'd go 2 days without sleep, and when I did sleep, it was horrible. Nightmares, stress dreams, and restlessness. I'd have such bad dreams that it was torturous. As bad as I wanted to sleep, with such sleep deprivation, I was frightened by the nightmares waiting for me. They usually centered on something chasing me, usually a bear.
No matter where I'd run, the bear would break down doors and always nipped on my back. Or I'd have nightmares of my family dying or a tornado destroying my home. Often, I'd wake up from a bad dream and somehow manage to go back to sleep, only to relive the same dream all over again! It felt like some mental torture.
I eventually was able to taper and push through it, luckily following my instinct to be healthy in my withdrawal. Little did I know or understand that the things I had been doing were actually helpful for my sleep. As sleep slowly returned, I focused more and more on my recovery. I made peace with it and kept moving forward. Sleep returned, but every blue moon, I'd have some actual bad bouts of insomnia. They could last a week or even a few months, then disappear. At one point, it got really bad about 3 years off benzos, because I was dealing with really wretched lower back pain. The pain wouldn't allow me to sleep, and the less I slept, the greater increase in pain. I was caught in a vicious cycle. Sleep and pain share a unique relationship.
I began chasing after my sleep and would stay up later, but when I finally fell asleep, I'd sleep later and later. This eventually destroyed my circadian them. I had no North Star for sleep. I'd fall asleep at 8am, then wake up at 2pm. Then I'd fall asleep at 2pm, and wake up at 8pm. Then I'd fall asleep at 8pm and wake up at 2 in the morning! My sleep eventually cycled a full 24-hour rotation until it came back around to its usual time, which was scary.
Eventually, I made peace with it and began working on my lower back pain, and things improved, and I began sleeping again.
I still had problems, though, but they were strange. I never slept great, but I did sleep unless I had something important coming up the next day. If I had a trip to take, a vacation booked, or a big test or event the next day, I could be pretty sure I wasn't going to sleep. And it was dreadful because it ruined so many vacations and experiences for me. I could never sleep at hotels or a friend's house.
I just came to accept this as normal.
A couple of years ago, I got COVID, and that's when sleep really took a turn for the worse. I developed long COVID symptoms and stopped sleeping for days at a time. This went on for several months. That's when I got desperate and really began searching for answers. One night, trying to fall asleep, doing every single sleep hygiene imaginable, I began having these serious jerks in my body and limbs. I'd be dosing off, and suddenly, my head would jolt, and adrenaline would rush through my body. My heart would pound and race, and I became restless. This happened over and over again, like some torture! I was finally able to sleep, but my body wouldn't allow it!
I called my doctor, and he said I should go to the ER, as my symptoms could be a sign of a serious neurological problem. This frightened me all the more, and I slept even less, now believing I might have ALS or MS, etc. The rumination got the best of me, and I began searching for answers on the web, which is almost never a good idea.
Eventually, I found a YouTube channel on sleep, and the man in the video was talking about sleep jerks, which are actually called hypnic jerks or myoclonus. He said they were harmless and to make peace with them, that they were actually a sign of my brain falling asleep too quickly. Here, I thought my brain was broken and could no longer sleep, when in fact, it was trying to slip into sleep too quickly, which caused a kind of disconnect and start response between my brain and my body.
I learned a lot about sleep through this YouTube channel, and a lightbulb went on in my mind. The advice I was receiving was very similar to the advice I'd give to people suffering from Benzo withdrawal. It suddenly all made sense.
Sleep, much like Benzo withdrawal and recovery, isn't in our hands. It isn't something we do or force. Indeed, my type-A personality had been working against me in dynamic ways. My personality approached sleep as if it were something I could and needed to do. Now, I know that's completely inaccurate. The very statement, "I'm going to sleep," is false, as we do not go anywhere. Sleep isn't something we do. It's something we allow.
I dropped all of my effort. All of my sleep hygiene, and I just started focusing on acceptance and non-resistance. I worked on breaking my emotionality from sleep, which was tough to do and took time. I had to learn to change my relationship with sleep. The myoclonic jerks that I had feared, I then learned to embrace because, after all, they were a sign that sleep was trying to reach me. My brain wasn't broken. It just had serious trust issues!
A huge part of why I was having all of those weird symptoms and not being able to sleep was because my limbic system had come to fear not sleeping. That fear created a hyperarousal (fight or flight) response, which pumped my body full of wakeful chemicals. I had been caught in a vicious cycle. A trap of sorts that was fueled by my inability to let go.
Two things are needed for sleep: let go of sleep effort and learn to embrace wakefulness.
Now, let's go back to Da Vinci. "A well-spent day brings happy sleep."
This makes a lot of sense, as he's telling us to embrace our wakefulness. While this may seem obvious, during insomnia, we rarely do this. We feel awful, and we are riddled with fear and deprivation. We usually sit on the couch or bed and try to survive our day. But if we can learn to continue to try and live and embrace our day, this sends a powerful message to the limbic system that there is, in fact, no bear and, therefore, no need to keep hitting us full of fight or flight chemicals.
There is no threat, no need to fight or flee.
I began spending time in my backyard, working in the garden, cleaning the property, painting, etc. I tried to do things in my day that seemed normal. I was faking it a bit, but it began to work. I stopped all sleep hygiene, as it translates into sleep resistance and sleep effort. I learned to embrace my wakefulness in the day and in the night. If I couldn't sleep, I'd stay up and watch shows I enjoyed, play a video game, or read a book I wanted to catch up with.
A very strange thing happened. The more I wanted to stay awake, the easier sleep came. The more I wanted to or tried to sleep, the less I slept. It was such an unusual experience, but I began to understand it.
As sleep slowly begins to improve, a host of weird symptoms can occur, as our amygdala has massive trust issues. It's not entirely sure the bear is really gone, and it's safe to allow us to sleep. Remember, the amygdala is like our little watchdog protector. So, as it began to allow me to sleep again, it would have a startling response. It was as if it were letting its guard down but then suddenly getting scared that it made us too vulnerable, so it would quickly put its guard back up.
This appears to us as myoclonic jerks, jolts, brain zaps, etc. And it's tough because then we become scared of those symptoms, and the fear spikes and sends a distress signal to the limbic system again. So, the limbic interprets this as a sign of the bear coming back. So it hits us full of wakeful chemicals again.
This is why insomnia is such a vicious cycle.
Understanding this process and what is happening can be a game changer. Because we realize that these crazy symptoms are a good thing, although very unpleasant, they are a sign of our amygdala learning to trust sleep again.
Our mission, therefore, is to welcome the symptoms for what they are: signs of healing. The symptoms will jump on us and create fear before we even have a chance to respond, but this is okay. Allow it, don't engage it. Look as these little jolts jerk and zap as our amygdala testing the water.
As if it were saying, "Okay. I think we are safe for now. The bear has gone away. Let's sleep.... wait a moment! Did I make a mistake? What if the bear isn't gone!"
That's the message. And it's our job to say to the amygdala, "It's okay. The bear is indeed gone. You can let your guard down again..."
And we say this by offering no resistance, by not engaging the fear or responding to it. We communicate safety back to our amygdala and give it time. Soon, the amygdala will regain trust in sleep, allowing us to rest.
While sleep is tough during Benzo withdrawal, we should ALL be working on this, as it is a skill set that takes time to develop. Don't disarm yourselves by believing you're different and you cannot help repair sleep during withdrawal. This isn't true. It's true that withdrawal creates an uphill battle, but it's not impossible, and we should be implementing this strategy not only with sleep but with our benzo recovery as well. We do all we can to be healthy and then learn to accept and allow everything else.