One of the most common complaints people have when they can’t sleep is they feel they can’t switch off their minds. The more time we spend in bed thinking/ruminating the more we connect our beds to these feelings rather than feeling sleepy and relaxed and the worse our insomnia becomes.
Categorising Your Thoughts
While a small amount of late night contemplation can be useful, when we are tired our emotions can get the better of us and can affect our thoughts and behaviours. This can lead to us following a train of thought through to an often-disastrous conclusion. Before you know it, you are lying in bed at night, wide awake worrying about something that almost certainly isn’t likely to happen, so it’s important that we address unhelpful thoughts, before they become catastrophic.
You will find it useful to start writing out your thoughts. This provides clarity and has the affect of rationalising your thoughts, giving them greater clarity. Start by allocating a short period of time each day to write down what you are worried about. Spend no longer than 20 minutes writing down everything that comes to mind. These can then be separated out into categories of ‘real problems’ and ‘hypothetical problems’.
For example, a real problem would be ‘I have lost my job and need to find a new one’, whereas a hypothetical worry is ‘what if I lose my job and have to find a new one?’. In terms of sleep, a real problem would be: ‘Right now, in this moment, I cannot get to sleep and I feel anxious’ whereas the hypothetical equivalent would be: ‘what if I can’t sleep tonight?’
Once you have completed this exercise you can start to see how many of your worries have actually happened and how many you are just predicting may happen. For the real problems, make plans and try to fix them; for the hypothetical, just learn to acknowledge them, write them down and let them go. Worrying about what might happen is like paying the same debt twice, if it happens you will deal with it then.
Identifying Unhelpful Thoughts
A little bit of anxiety is perfectly normal. It is a natural response to a threat and a reflex that has kept the human species going for a long time. The issue comes when anxiety arises over trivial or unlikely events. For instance, if you smell burning, it is natural (and helpful) that your body and mind will alert you to the danger and prepare itself to take action. If, however, you can’t drop off to sleep one night, your body doesn’t need to respond with the same fight or flight instinct.
Luckily, there are physical symptoms surrounding anxiety that help us to identify when we’re having an unhelpful thought. The simplest way to identify an unhelpful thought is to ask yourself how you are feeling right now. Are you experiencing any of the physical symptoms, such as muscle tension or a churning stomach? If so, your current train of thought is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Overcoming Unhelpful Thoughts
Once you’ve identified that your current thoughts are unhelpful, the challenge is to switch them off, which is easier said than done. They key is to rationalise our thoughts as much as possible. Try to identify the source for your concern. For instance:
- If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, I won’t enjoy the weekend
- I’ll be snappy and irritable with the family
- I will get depressed and anxious like I have been in the past and life will be really hard
Now look at the situation honestly and realistically and ask yourself:
What is the evidence for my prediction? When you sleep badly are you always tired and irritable? What really makes you unhappy, the tiredness or the feelings about being tired? It is our feelings about being tired which make us stressed, unhappy and irritable more so than the actual tiredness.
What is the evidence against my prediction? Have you slept badly before and still managed to enjoy yourself? Have you ever slept well and still felt rubbish? Don’t put too much emphasis on sleep being the cure to all your problems.
What is the most likely thing that will happen? Do you usually get some sleep and manage to cope the next day.
If the worst happened, would I still be able to cope? It wouldn’t be an enjoyable weekend but it takes more than just poor sleep to create depression and anxiety. Last time you were depressed what other things were going on as well as the poor sleep?
How else could I view the situation? We’ve looked at the extreme, but what else could happen? Do you sometimes sleep ok? By reading this information you are taking positive steps to improve your sleep so maybe you will sleep well?
Once you’ve rationalised your thoughts in this way, you’ll soon realise how extreme your thoughts have been. If you are struggling to do this mentally, you may also find it useful to write these thoughts down and bring further clarity to your thinking.
Learn to be mindful. This means learning to disengage with your thoughts and treat them as visitors in your mind rather than being who you are. Sounds weird, but it works. As your thoughts around sleep arrive in your head, notice them, acknowledge them, even write them down if you need to but then let them drift away and re-focus your attention on either your breathing or your surroundings, for example, smells or sounds. You are not ignoring your worries but we have established that worrying is only making things worse so instead see them as separate to yourself and make the decision not to engage with them.
The Insomnia Clinic’s Sleep Well, Live Better online course is now available. Designed by Kathryn Pinkham (Founder of The Insomnia Clinic and NHS Insomnia Consultant) and her team of CBT therapists, the course will help to guide you through tried and tested steps to improve your sleep. It also contains a bonus section around worry and sleep with a video to show you the techniques used in sessions.