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Self-Compassion: How I Freed Myself From Chronic Insomnia and the Anxiety That Caused It

Self-Compassion: How I Freed Myself From Chronic Insomnia and the Anxiety That Caused It

Most of us have been sleep deprived at one point or another; perhaps due to a new baby, a stressful job, or a big test. Usually, this period passes. The infant finally sleeps through the night, the job stress normalizes, and the test is taken. My sleep deprivation was different. I struggled with chronic insomnia. At its worst, I was able to sleep only an hour or two a night — and this situation was going on while I was in graduate school.

Sleep deprivation causes irritability, affects judgment, and erodes memory and focus, so you can imagine how poorly I was functioning. Despite all the research I did, the therapists I talked to, and the medications I was prescribed, I was getting nowhere and truly didn’t believe I could carry on. The way out turned out to be simple — but certainly not easy. In short, I had to learn to practice self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the ability to show yourself the same grace and tenderness that you would show someone else who is hurting.

My road to self-compassion was a long one. It’s important to understand that self-compassion is not some fluffy buzzword. It’s life-changing stuff. Unlike self-esteem — which can shatter like glass when you’re feeling unworthy — self-compassion is an unconditional, strong, regenerative force. When you break up with your partner, get a bad grade, or lose a job, your self-esteem can take a major hit. But those are the very moments when self-compassion can step in and initiate healing.

Recently, I said to my husband, “Wow. I used to really hate myself.” And he said, “You were one of the biggest self-loathers I’ve ever met!” I laughed when he said that because things are so different now that I practice self-compassion.

Here’s how I got from self-loathing to self-compassion.

For me, self-loathing was tied to anxiety, which I struggled mightily with in high school. I tried to squash my anxious thoughts, or at least contain them. But (as you may have discovered yourself) what you resist, persists. Anxiety morphed into OCD, which is amped-up anxiety, a continuous loop of intrusive thoughts. The more I tried to make them stop, the louder they got in my head. Eventually, a doctor prescribed Benzos to settle my nervous system.

Anxiety bizarrely kept me feeling safe by playing tricks on me; it masqueraded as problem-solving. If I was worrying, I felt like I was doing something. Obsessing and ruminating also cleverly kept me at a distance from unprocessed pain and trauma.

Self-protectors — like anxiety, denial, shame, and anger — serve to keep us safe. But in reality, they just create a lot of walls around us.

No doubt in part to understand myself better, I decided that I wanted to be a therapist. As an undergraduate in Psychology, I had a handle on my mental health. Eventually, I felt ready — and healthy enough — to pursue a Master's program in Social Work. I felt like I was on top of the world when I was officially accepted.

But like I said: what you resist, persists. Even though I was delighted to be in grad school, I felt increasingly unsettled. Something was just under the surface, but I couldn't pinpoint what it was. At times it felt like an inner voice was yelling at me, but I could never hear it clearly.

Something was trying to get my attention, and I didn't know what it was, and I couldn't get to it. In time, I heard it loud and clear.

Perpetual insecurity, sadness, and shame haunted me in grad school. The program was challenging, not just intellectually, but emotionally — and even spiritually. I was confronting a lot of darkness, in the curriculum, in my internship, and in my own mind.

And then it happened. As I was rolling into my last semester of the MSW program, I had a panic attack, unlike any other panic attack I’d ever experienced. I went to the emergency room, convinced I was dying. It was awful. They gave me yet another Benzo solution for my off-the-charts anxiety.

After that panic attack, I had terrible insomnia that lasted for a year and a half. I thought, “I've got to get this figured out. ASAP. This is ruining my life. My son is watching.” And once again, I tried to squash the anxiety; I tried to make it go away. I came at it with all my determination. I made myself meditate for an hour every day. Well, you know what happened when I tried to meditate my anxiety away? It got so much worse.

I was in a very dark spot. I was hopeless and suicidal. I didn't want to live anymore.

At my lowest point, something amazing happened. I learned what I needed was self-compassion.

A friend I trusted said, “You just don't love yourself.” She was right – just as my husband said years earlier. Could it be that “simple”?

Even though I’d been going to therapy for over 10 years, I never seemed to make real progress. I had been engaged in what is called “top-down” approaches, like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT targets conscious, cognitive processes such as beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts that influence behavior and emotions. The goal of CBT is to change the way you think about your experiences to ultimately change your behaviors and emotions.

Finally, I discovered Internal Family Systems (IFS). It’s a “bottom-up” approach that addresses the physiological and emotional aspects of your experiences. IFS sees the mind as a system of different parts. I needed to develop a compassionate relationship with each part of myself — and treat each part with empathy and understanding, rather than judgment or criticism.

So over the course of a year, I got to know the parts of myself that I didn't like and befriended them. I treated them with the compassion I’d extend to someone I love. It was a long, arduous year, but I can honestly say, I learned to love myself. All my parts. And I broke my way out of chronic insomnia.

It's unlearning. It's cutting ties. It's realizing what doesn't serve me anymore.

Anxiety protected me from a lot of pain that I didn't want to feel. And it did a really good job of that because it kept me really busy worrying about everything! It was a big distraction and served a purpose for a long time. Sure, I still get anxious, but I respond to it differently.

And now I see anxiety as a portal. It's my pathway to where the healing takes place. It has to hurt to get my attention. And once I actually just listen, anxiety goes away. And that doesn't mean it doesn't come back! I still get anxious thoughts all the time. I just recognize them as a part of me — and not all of me.

If anxiety has a hold on you, I urge you to ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Are there parts of you that you can’t love or accept?
  2. Are you willing to recognize that those parts need recognition and compassion?

If you can answer yes, you’re ready to begin healing. And healing never stops.


 Article authored by

Pamela Hayes


Pamela Hayes

Mental Health Coordinator

Pamela is a resident of Birmingham, AL, where she lives with her husband, son, and two dogs. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which she earned in 2010. In April 2022, she completed her master's degree in Social Work. Her goal is to receive training in Internal Family Systems and become a clinician who specializes in helping clients overcome trauma.


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