Have you ever tried to remember something that’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t grasp it? That’s how insomnia feels.

What defines insomnia?

• Trouble falling asleep 

• Waking up with anxiety in the middle of the night 

• Having difficulty going back to sleep 

When these manifestations of insomnia go on for even a few nights or become chronic, they can lead to very significant health consequences.

Sleep problems sometimes create a terrible paradox when the body and mind are exhausted while at the same time struggle to get to sleep. 

As a psychologist, hypnotist, and sleep expert, I’ve thought a lot about people’s different descriptions of their insomnia and about natural methods to prevent it. It often helps to look for ways to rest instead of focusing too much energy on sleep or insomnia symptoms. In other words, choosing to concentrate less on symptoms and more on the subtleties of how insomnia feels brings the opportunity for deeper understanding.

Applying analogies and metaphors to challenging situations can sometimes yield powerful and creative answers. As an example, the experience of falling asleep has a lot in common with recalling memories.  

Insomnia Feels Like Trying to Remember Something Important

Insomnia feels like searching for a lost memory. Conversely, deep and easy sleep trigger a profound sense of relief similar to recalling something important that you couldn’t find or remember. Both achievements bring rest in body, mind and spirit.

Diving further into the relationship between sleep and memory can deepen our understanding of the experience of what it’s like to struggle with falling asleep. Additionally, remembering pleasant, sensory things that have happened may bring about feelings of calm and rest in the body and mind. This can ultimately facilitate better sleep.

Here are some things that the feeling of insomnia and searching for a memory have in common:

• A quality of reaching for something that you can’t quite grasp but you know is there.

Fatigue and exhaustion make it hard to concentrate. Our bodies have feedback systems that sometimes come in the form of symptoms. Since the body doesn’t have words, it needs to find ways to get our attention. It may be difficult though, to decode what those symptoms mean.

When tired, the body wants to sleep. We might, however, have other, different responsibilities or desires, like going to work, socializing, or taking care of something else important. The body and brain crucially need sleep. Problems and symptoms arise when we override that biological requirement and don’t, or can’t, get to bed right away or can’t get enough sleep.

Those conflicting wants or needs may lead to a sense of things being out of reach. For some people, this dynamic increases anxiety levels and trouble falling asleep. Vicious cycles of insomnia and stress can bring about sleep deprivation which in turn lead to memory loss. This aspect of how insomnia feels can be compared to that of trying to remember something.

• Tossing and turning in body or mind.

Lying in bed, trying to sleep creates a certain kind of restlessness. The mind seems to veer off in different directions, often with a series of worries, ruminations about the past or things to do in the future.

Similarly, struggling to recover a forgotten memory can be distracting. There may also be a sense of restlessness. Both searching for sleep and searching for memories can be exhausting.

• A similar feeling of anxiety and fatigue.

Preparing for bed and focusing about how insomnia will feel if it happens again can trigger anticipatory anxiety. When that insomnia does kick in, the mind uses that lying awake time to think of all of the possible “what-if’s” and worries. Likewise, trying to remember that forgotten thing can be distracting and anxiety provoking. 

Both the experiences of insomnia and of grasping at a distant memory drain energy and feel tiring. Finally finding sleep, like recovering that lost reminiscence, brings about a sense of relief.

Rather Than Focusing on How Insomnia Feels, Flip the Script 

Because of the relationship between sleep and memory – and insomnia and forgetting – choosing to put our attention on things that make us feel calm and confident can help us unwind more easily.

Studies have shown that relaxation improves memory recall. Additionally, targeted techniques such as hypnosis, that combine restfulness and pleasant imagery and memories improve insomnia and other types of sleeping disorders.

Taking all of this into account, focusing on nice memories in the hours before bed may help our bodies and minds relax and feel safe. This allows for a smoother transition into sleep with better quality sleep. Likewise, remembering enjoyable things can help with learning and recall. 

Article previously appeared on drdyan.com on February 25, 2021

Featured image by fizkes for Adobe


  • Dyan Haspel-Johnson, Ph.D., S.E.P.®

    Psychologist & Hypnosis Expert

    Thrive Global

    Dr. Dyan Haspel-Johnson runs a private psychological and hypnotherapy practice with a specialty in hypnosis for sleep and other mind-body-spirit modalities. After receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Dr. Dyan earned her Ph.D. in psychology while working in a physician's holistic medical practice. Her creative and science based backgrounds inspire Dr. Dyan's unique way of thinking about healing. Her approach led her to become the Vice President of Continuing Education Programs for the Southern California Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and then to become President of that organization while also teaching at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and lecturing at many other institutions. Dr. Dyan's expertise with sleep, and the demand in her practice to help people to sleep better motivated Dr. Dyan to make the complimentary, downloadable eBook and video, "The 3 Biggest Things That Cause Sleep Problems & The ONE Thing You Can Do by 3pm Today to Sleep Better." She has also created the Deep & Easy Sleep Self-Hypnosis Package, available through her website.