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What is paradoxical intention, and can it help you fall asleep?

If you’ve ever had trouble with insomnia before, you’ll know how horrible it can be. Today we’re going to explore how paradoxical intention therapy works and which efforts you might have to put into it for it to relieve you of your sleepless nights. 

The side effects of sleep deprivation are worrying, but the act of sitting awake, staring at your clock, and wishing for sleep to come can be really stressful in itself. 

Many of us spend too much time on restless nights. We keep counting exactly how many minutes of sleep we might get, if we could just fall asleep straight away. 

The unfortunate truth is that sleep isn’t something you can dictate. No amount of effort will force you to sleep if your body just isn’t ready to do so. 

It’s the act of constantly panicking about being unable to go to sleep and stay there that causes disorders like sleep anxiety. In that case, you begin to worry about going to bed. You assume you’re going to experience the same stress and frustration you’ve had other nights, when you were unable to sleep. 

These beliefs often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. The more you worry about your sleep, the harder it is to relax for a good night’s slumber. Eventually making insomnia a perpetual problem. Paradoxical intention therapy can relieve this as well.

So, what if, instead of trying to force sleep to happen with effort and panic, you took the opposite route and tried staying awake instead. Could you trick your brain into a better sleeping rhythm? 

Enter paradoxical intention therapy.

What is paradoxical intention? Sleep therapy basics

Paradoxical intention therapy is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy. It involves adjusting both your thought processes and behaviours to improve the way that you feel. 

Although research into this sleep therapy is still ongoing, studies seem to indicate that it can be effective. For people who struggle with things like sleep anxiety, performance worries, and stress around bedtime, it’s particularly good. 

The idea is that you confront your fear, in this case staying awake, to overcome it. You’re worried that you’re going to be awake all night, and that’s what’s causing you to feel overwhelmed. 

Actually trying to stay up will tell your brain one of two things. 

Either you’ll learn that even when you’re struggling with insomnia, you will eventually fall asleep. 

On the other hand, if you do stay awake all night, you’ll learn that you can survive and recover from that experience. 

The technique comes from logotherapy, created by Victor Frankl. Victor believed that using contrary experiences was the best way to educate the brain and overcome fears and anxieties. 

After all, most of us are stressed and anxious about things that “might happen”. A person with a fear of spiders might worry that if they hold a spider, they’ll get bitten. 

However, with paradoxical intention, you would confront that fear and actually hold the spider. This would educate your brain about what your fears amount to. 

Remove anxiety with paradoxical intention

It helps to put things in perspective, and ultimately squash your anxieties for good. Paradoxical intention therapy is an attempt to break a self-sustaining vicious circle involving anticipating anxiety.

When you learn exactly what you can expect from a worst-case outcome, there’s less to be frightened of. 

Importantly, paradoxical intention therapy as a form of alternative sleep treatment isn’t about chugging energy drinks to force your body to stay awake. Instead, it’s about changing your thought process and reactions to certain beliefs. 

For instance, if you’re lying in bed thinking “I’m never going to get to sleep,” paradoxical intention encourages you to explore that belief. 

Try and see what happens if you say “fine, if I don’t fall asleep, then I don’t.” 

Eventually, you forget how hard it can be to drift off, and you discover that no matter how awake you might be, you will go to sleep at some point.  Sleep anxiety gone.

How paradoxical intention works

As mentioned above, paradoxical intention is built around the concept of paradoxes. It’s about facing your fears and addressing the things that you’re afraid of. 

Human minds are strange. Sometimes, when you try to do something your mind will get stubborn and do the opposite. 

For instance, you might really want to focus for a test, but for some reason, you can’t stop procrastinating. 

On the other hand, someone might tell you to do something, like cut your hair, and your mind tells you to grow it out instead, as an act of defiance. 

The same principle applies to paradoxical intention therapy. The idea is very similar to reverse psychology, but there’s no deception involved. 

One Scottish study discovered that in the clinical use of paradoxical intention, people experienced reduced sleep effort. They also had lower feelings of anxiety when considering sleep. 

Additionally, another study found that a high level of intention to try and fall asleep actually led to worse sleep quality for the participants

Telling yourself you have to go to sleep and get a certain number of hours of rest each day is a bit like telling your brain to operate on demand. Using paradoxical intention can turn things on its head. 

While you won’t actively try to stay awake with paradoxical intention, you can use this sleep therapy to tell yourself that you’re going to passively stay awake. 

If you want to read, you can. You can listen to music, try some progressive muscle relaxation, or just do a bit of meditation. 

Some people using paradoxical intention as an insomnia treatment stay awake out of their bedroom. They benefit from just being in other rooms, until they feel sleepy. 

If you only go to bed when you feel sleepy — rather than when your clock tells you to, then you’ll be less likely to associate your bedroom with a feeling of anxiety and frustration. This links back to things like behavioural conditioning. 

What to expect from paradoxical intention therapy

Expect to face and conquer your sleep fears! 

Different specialists are likely to provide variations on the paradoxical intention treatment for insomnia. Because of this, you might find the therapy you get is a little different to the process we mention here. 

However, the overall aim of this sleep alternative therapy is to eliminate the anxiety and fear of being unable to sleep. 

Paradoxical intention is particularly useful for patients that have insomnia characterized by an inability to fall asleep at the beginning of the night

Your therapist will ask you to think about your behaviours. Such as what you usually do when you feel as though you can’t sleep at night. 

You may even be asked to keep a sleep journal that outlines your thought processes. 

Once you have that journal, you can work with the specialist to contradict your thoughts and actions in a positive way. 

For example, it’s a sleepless night, you look at the clock and start counting how many hours you have left to sleep. In this situation your therapist will tell you to do something else instead. 

You could get up and make yourself a cup of (non-caffeinated tea) or try some meditation in a dark room, for instance. 

Usually, you’ll still need to keep your environment sleep-ready. You don’t want to be using screens with blue lights. Neither will going for vigorous exercise help you in the middle of the night. 

However, you will allow yourself to stay awake if you need to — that’s at the core of paradoxical intention therapy. 

Both you and your therapist will work together to find a strategy that works for you. This could become a normal part of your routine when you feel as though you can’t sleep during the evening. 

Eventually, your journal will show that your thought processes and behaviours associated with sleep are changing. 

Your therapist can then work with you to implement a plan that will prevent relapses in the future — like strategies for challenging your thought processes. 

Pursue paradoxical intention therapy the right way

Paradoxical intention therapy is just one form of cognitive behavioural treatment for people who have sleep disorders like insomnia. 

Depending on your sleep issues, you may find that this treatment is an excellent way to change your relationship with sleep, or that it doesn’t work at all. 

The great thing about paradoxical intention as a sleep therapy is that it takes a lot of the performance pressure off your shoulders. You don’t keep trying to force yourself to fall asleep and keep yourself awake in the process. 

Crucially, you also shouldn’t be taking steps that will cause you to stay awake despite your best efforts, like drinking caffeine. Instead, you accept your situation, whatever it might be, and allow your anxiety levels to diminish. 

While you can try the basics of paradoxical intention therapy on your own with the help of an app or article online, it’s best to get advice from a professional first. 

Like all forms of sleep disorder treatment, paradoxical intention therapy is intended for a specific kind of problem and involves a lot of effort from the insomniac. 

Talking to your doctor will help you to determine what kind of treatment you need. 

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

Now read these:

Is CBT effective for insomnia?

Does sleep restriction work?

The Dymaxion sleep cycle

General advice disclaimer
This article contains general tips and advice. However, no diet or exercise program should be started without consulting your physician or other industry professional first. For more information read our full disclaimer here.

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