Paradoxical intention is the practice of intentionally exercising a neurotic thought, like fear of not falling asleep, by specifically identifying and exhausting it. That sounds a little too scientific so allow me to boil it down. Paradoxical intention is reverse psychology. Dr. Frankl, an esteemed psychoanalyst, invented paradoxical (reverse) intention (psychology) back in the 1950’s for insomnia, anxiety, depression, even grieving over the loss of a loved one and sexual dysfunction.
How does paradoxical intention work? PI works by actually evoking, or calling up, the very symptoms you want to avoid, like, if you are an insomniac, not being able to fall asleep. What? That’s right, just jump into bed and tell yourself not to fall asleep. “Don’t fall asleep. No! Don’t fall asleep . . .”
And then fall asleep.
To be sure, paradoxical intention does not work for everyone. But when it does it is impressive. And, it is easier than you think. Even placebo-based studies have demonstrated significant treatment gains.
By the way, don’t confuse paradoxical intention with paradoxical sleep. Paradoxical sleep (also known as rhombencephalic sleep, desynchronized sleep and REM sleep) so named by the other esteemed French sleep scientist Michel Jouvet, is the phase of sleep in which the brain is highly active yet the muscles are paralyzed. Hence paradoxical sleep. Paradoxical intention to fall asleep is a technique, a process and paradoxical sleep is when you are already there.
One can’t talk about paradoxical sleep without talking about Dr. Frankl’s other sleep technique, Dereflection. In this technique, Frankl encourages his patient to take their mind off of their issue, and themselves, by considering a certain other goals as far from their issue as possible. Frankl called it positive redirection to another goal, with an emphasis on assets and abilities rather than the problems at hand. Allow me to boil that mouthful down too. Dereflection is basically an existential approach to help people get out of the compulsive ruts in their heads. When doing so they become a little less self-absorbed. It has a pretty good track record for people that perspire too much but studies show paradoxical intention to be a more impressive technique for sleep. Especially in patients that have failed to respond to desensitization and relaxation techniques. Many patients fell asleep faster and wake up less frequently with PI.
But paradoxical intention doesn’t always work for everyone and in some cases, it actually exacerbates the problem. In one 6 patient sleep study, two of the patients were so impaired by paradoxical intention treatment that it had to be discontinued. But, the other four patients reported falling asleep faster, had fewer awakenings, and experienced better rest and three months later they showed ongoing gains.
Here are a few PI thoughts and actions when lying in bed.
- Eyes open
- Resist falling asleep
- Don’t try
- Don’t care if you fall asleep
- Tell yourself to stay awake
- Turn the lights out
- Be comfortable
- Don’t pinch yourself to stay awake but allow your mind to drift away from falling asleep.
Try them. Paradoxical intention and sleep are not about understanding or defining your insomnia with a lot of scientific words, but actually, ironically, calling up the opposite real-life symptoms of sleep—to fall sleep. It may seem contrary to everything you know but this is why it is called paradoxical therapy, a way of self-distancing yourself from traditional expectations. At the end of the day—and it usually is the end of the day—what you are doing is harnessing your own adverse will with the indirect intention to allow your insomnia to disappear. I particularly like this catchphrase: “What you resist persists.” So, gently resist sleep, but then don’t.
By indirectly harnessing the power of your own will you can trigger an inverse reaction to your insomnia. In homeopathy this is called retracing, healing by calling up the original symptom so that the body can develop its own healing mechanisms to contest it. But that is another conversation. The fundamental concept of paradoxical intention is when your persistent resistance disappears.
You don’t need to take my word for it, there are ample studies dating back to the 1950s proving PI’s efficacy. Studies that involve placebos (fake sleep sugar pills) administered to control groups in which paradox intention patients reported significant reductions in the time that it took for them to fall asleep.
Now, decades of data and studies aside, if after one half an hour you are still awake go ahead and allow yourself a few capsules of Sooma to drop your body temperature and raise your melatonin and serotonin levels for a relaxing flow into paradoxical sleep.