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 bett