The Worrier's Guide to Getting Better SleepNone By Jared Minkel, Ph.D.
One of the most common difficulties with getting to sleep is that people just can’t turn their minds off. You might be tired and sluggish all day, but you lay down in bed, and all of a sudden your mind just starts racing and won’t stop. If your mind gets stuck on something bad that might happen in the future, you can get into a negative thought cycle that gets your body revved up, too.
Fortunately, experts in this area have identified some skills that can help. If you find yourself worrying at night when you would rather be sleeping, consider using one of the following strategies.
Distract Yourself with Interesting Imagery
It might be a beautiful field dotted with flowers and butterflies, gnomes marching around a snowy Scandinavian mountainscape, or a flock of colorful parrots soaring over your favorite beach. The more creative and unusual the imagery, the better. The key is to involve as many of your physical senses as possible (sight, smell, sound, etc.). These kinds of images can then transfer into dream content, so keep it pleasant and positive.
Let Worrisome Thoughts and Images Come and Go
Don’t try to push nagging fears or scenarios out of your head. The truth is, trying not to think about something never works for long. Not only will you still think about these things, but now your arousal will be higher, too. Instead, let the negative thoughts play all the way out. For example, if you think about doing a terrible job at a presentation, think about what you’ll be doing an hour after it’s over. Keep going beyond the stressful part until you’re back to your normal life. Don’t just replay the worst parts over and over again.
Pick Something to Focus On in the Present
You can also use mindfulness techniques to focus your attention on something in the present. Worry is about the future, so instead, gently direct your attention to something pleasant in the room. You can always focus on your breathing, but it may also be helpful to focus on a physical sensation, like how warm and soft your blanket feels, or the sound of the crickets outside your window, or a nice smell if you have candles or flowers in your room. Anything that helps you focus your attention on something that’s happening right now—rather than something that might happen in the future—can be helpful.
Focus on Pleasant Emotions
Finally, there are a number of techniques you can use that might help you feel a pleasant emotion with low arousal. For example, rather than thinking about what might go wrong, try to refocus your attention on something you are looking forward to with joy and optimism. You could also think of something that happened during the last day or two that you are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be a big thing—if you’ve ever been through a time when money was tight and you didn’t have something you have now, you can be grateful for that. Maybe you had a car with broken air conditioning or windshield wipers that didn’t work, and now you have a better model.
Or, you could think of someone in your life who's had a positive impact on you, like a teacher, coach, friend or mentor. Think about what that person meant to you and how they have changed your life. Feeling fortunate or grateful for that person can reduce worry and help you sleep.
You can even think about nice things you have done or could do for people close to you. Try to remember how they responded and how you felt when you were kind to them. You might even try completing a Serenity Scene on Happify, which can interfere with your worried thoughts and help you feel calm and peaceful.
What to Do When the Worries Take Over
It can be particularly annoying when you can’t sleep because you’re worried about not sleeping. It’s an almost universal human experience to get stressed out about how late it is and how much you need to sleep. At some point we all think:
“What if I NEVER fall asleep?” or
“Not again!” or
“I’ll never be able to function at work tomorrow.”
When you find yourself in this situation, try one of the following techniques. Just remember, most of these help if you use them over and over, not necessarily the very first time you try it.
1. Be Rational About Your Worried Thoughts
The first technique is to notice your worried thoughts. Try to catch exactly what is going through your mind. Take some pressure off by being very reasonable and rational. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could realistically happen? Could I live through it? How likely is it, really?” It’s also helpful to remember your own strengths and resources. Ask yourself, "How have I managed in the past? What skills or strengths helped me get through it?” A sleepless night can be a very lonely time, so it’s sometimes helpful to remember people who can help you or who have had similar experiences.
2. Ask "How" Questions Instead of "Why" Questions
A good question might be, “How can I make sure I do the things I care about tomorrow?” A more problematic question might be, “Why can’t I sleep when everyone else can?!” These kinds of “why” questions often don’t have a simple answer and will simply make you feel more angry or irritated—which doesn’t help you sleep!
3. Stop Over-Monitoring Everything
Reduce how much you monitor your body and your environment. Once we get worried, we tend to look out for danger. With insomnia, this makes things worse. People often pay a lot of attention to how their body feels, how alert they are, how much time they slept, how many times they woke up, and other things like that. Unfortunately, this kind of monitoring just makes you worry more and makes it even harder to sleep.
4. Turn the Clock Around
You don’t need to know exactly what time it is, and watching the clock often makes people very anxious. If you wake up a lot in the middle of the night, make sure you can’t see your clock. Set an alarm and if it goes off, get up. If it hasn’t gone off yet, it’s still time to rest.
5. Remind Yourself of Helpful Facts About Sleep
Remember that your body won’t let you go without sleep forever. Nobody dies of insomnia! Your brain can get some of the rest it needs even if you don’t completely fall asleep. Even people with very severe insomnia seem to get more sleep than they realize, probably because they don’t fully lose consciousness. Insomnia is not the same as sleep deprivation. Most people with insomnia can drive a car just fine and they don’t show classic signs of sleep deprivation. Mood and memory may not be as good as you would like, but you can get by.
6. Conduct Experiments on Yourself
If you think you can’t function without sleep, test out that idea. Write down the most specific prediction you can and then test it out. For example, if you think you’ll fall asleep in every meeting at work the next day, keep a log of how many times you fall asleep in each meeting. Write down exactly what happens and look at your data when you are done. Notice any signs that you can function better than you thought on poor sleep. The next night you have the thought, “I can’t function without sleep,” remind yourself of what you learned and correct that thought. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, “I’m a bit slowed down after a poor night’s sleep, but I get by okay.” The more accurate thought will cause you less distress and help you sleep better.
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