1. Schedule a worry time
Are you so busy throughout your day that you have the chance to think about what is happening in your life only when you get into bed, a place that is quiet, dark and free of distractions?
When you are half asleep, you are not at your problem-solving best, and may be even more prone to imagining unlikely disasters and worrying about things over which you have little control. The solution? Problem-solve intentionally at a time when you are better able to generate good solutions. Give yourself a time to address worries earlier in the day so bedtime isn’t the only available time to think about the day’s events. Start by scheduling a time in the early evening when you can have 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. On a sheet of paper (or electronic document), draw a vertical line down the middle. At the top of the left column write “Worries or Concerns.” Label the right column “Next Steps” or “Solutions.”
Once you’ve recorded each worry, try to think of several possible solutions for each problem. Then, focus on the best “next” step you can take. Breaking a solution or a goal down into smaller steps increases the likelihood you will move toward it. You may find that accomplishing the first step inspires you to move to the next step, helping you meet your goal. If you have several unmet goals, you may be prone to feeling anxious, frustrated or even depressed. Try breaking them down and working on them in this way, and you may feel better.
You may choose to work on one worry per day, or use your worry time to generate a “to-do” list to solve mini-worries. Simply take time to work on whatever problems come up.
When a solution cannot be immediately pursued, thinking about solutions and making plans for different scenarios may help you feel less stuck. If the problem is out of your control, however, constructive solutions are not realistic. In this case, it helps to just write about the problem and accept that a solution is not within your control. Let’s say you are looking for a job. You have worked on your resume and done everything else you possibly can. At this point, things are out of your control and it is best to focus on taking care of yourself so that you maintain energy and optimism until one of your job prospects pays off. Sometimes reassuring yourself is the next best step to resolving a worry.
If the worries persist, do some free writing about them. When your worry time is up, fold the paper in half and put it away. Reassure yourself that you have done the best you can do for now. If the worry intrudes into your nighttime routine, remind yourself you have dealt with the problem and there is nothing that you can do about it now, when it is time to sleep.
2. Write about your concerns at bedtime
Some people find that, despite their earlier evening problem solving, they worry again at bedtime. Writing before you go to sleep may help you let these things go and fall asleep more readily. This strategy allows you to organize your thoughts about something that is on your mind, process it, and then let it go.
As before, set aside 20 to 30 minutes. Start by writing down thoughts, concerns, or simply things on your mind. Openly explore your deepest feelings about matters that bother you. Some people find it easier to write openly if they plan to shred their writing later. Do not censor yourself or tell yourself that your thoughts are too “silly”; whatever you write about is okay. Once you have completely explored the topic, put your paper away. Do this whenever you find yourself worried before or in bed.
3. Get out of bed
Perhaps bedtime represents your first opportunity to process the day’s events. Perhaps your bed has become a place where you struggle night after night and therefore you approach bed feeling anxious. In this state of mind, you are more likely to start thinking about things that worry you.
One of the most effective ways to break this habit is to go to another room once the worrying starts and until it subsides. When you first start to use this strategy you may spend a lot of time out of bed at night and sleep even less, but this will be short-term and a relatively small price to pay for solving the problem. The sleep deprivation that may result from getting out of bed will increase your sleep drive and if you do it consistently you will quickly start sleeping better. Your bed will be associated with sleep rather than worry, and you can expect improved sleep.
A rule of thumb is that if you worry for what feels like longer than 15 minutes (do not watch the clock) or if you are wide awake in bed, it is best to leave the room and not return until you are sleepy and not worrying.
4. Occupy your mind
Racing thoughts and a tense body make restful sleep difficult. Try this: When you reach the end of this paragraph, close your eyes and try not to think about a banana split. Do not imagine the cold ice cream. Do not imagine the scent of banana. Do not think of the chocolate syrup drizzle. Do not picture how the sweet juice bursts out of the maraschino cherry as you bite into it. Also do not think, I will not think of banana splits. After all, thinking of the absence of a banana split also constitutes thinking of banana splits.
You get the picture. The answer is to find alternatives to “stopping” unwanted thoughts from occurring.
Have you ever been told to count sheep to help you fall asleep? Try this experiment right now. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Imagine a field with a fence. What does your fence look like? What color is it? How high is it? Is it made of wood? Does it stretch the entire vista of your mind? Or is it only one or two sections of fence? Once you have a clear vision of what the fence looks like, imagine a sheep approaching it and jumping effortlessly and slowly over it. As the sheep’s front feet touch the grass on the other side, a second sheep jumps with exactly the same height and velocity. As the second sheep’s feet touch the ground on the other side, a third sheep begins the jump. Watch a fourth sheep jump. And a fifth. And a sixth. All of your sheep jump with the same form, speed, height and arc. And then a seventh sheep jumps. And an eighth. A ninth and a tenth. Then open your eyes and read on.
What did you notice? Some people find the monotony of this visual experiment relaxing and notice only the image of the sheep. Others are distracted by thoughts: “This would never work at night” or “This is boring.” Or perhaps you thought of other things.
What does the sheep exercise tell us? Engaging your mind by picturing something occupies space in your busy mind. However, it also tells us that if the picture is boring, you may become distracted by unrelated thoughts. There is a strategy here: Engage your mind in an image that will compete with other thoughts. Perhaps sheep jumping over a fence isn’t engaging enough to hold the attention of your overactive mind, particularly in a dark, quiet bedroom. What may work better?
Consider that many of the things people do to unwind involve following a storyline. People generally seek out stories—via radio, book or television—for diversion and entertainment. You may be surprised to learn there is a way you can enjoy stories in bed without using your eyes or ears.
Tonight when you get into bed, think about a story with compelling characters or a fascinating plot. It can be from a book, a movie, a television show, a play, or your imagination. Follow the plot from whatever point you like. You may like to imagine what happens after the end of a favorite movie or book. Or you may like to come up with an alternate ending. You may imagine a new story for a character you find compelling. Do avoid selecting a story that is likely to be so exciting that it would keep you awake. You want something that will hold your interest more than sheep, but not so much that you become wide awake. Focus on the details: What are people wearing? What are they saying? What does the room or setting look like? Occupy your mind and enjoy the story you create. If you find it difficult to think of a story, you may like to incorporate a hobby: Imagine you are decorating a home room by room on an unlimited budget or golfing a perfect game on a fantasy course. As long as it is not too exciting, it doesn’t matter what you visualize.
5. Challenge worries about sleep
You may have already realized that thinking about being sleepless makes you anxious, which makes sleep more elusive. One way to interrupt this cycle is to challenge the idea that being sleepless is a disaster. When you’re lying awake, do any of these thoughts occur?
• This is horrible!
• I can’t take it!
• I need to get to sleep now, or I’m going to have a horrible day.
But what is so inherently bad about being awake? Imagine two people, Anne and Janet, each with a different reaction to being awake at 2 a.m. Anne thinks: Oh my God—it’s 2 a.m. If I don’t fall asleep within the next 20 minutes, I am going to lose it. Janet thinks: Ugh, it’s 2 a.m.—I might as well go watch television rather than lie here awake. For whom are the next 20 minutes more likely to be pleasant—Anne or Janet? Who is under less pressure to sleep? Catastrophizing about sleeplessness makes you more upset in the moment and it keeps you awake longer.
One answer is to change what being awake at night means to you. Try this experiment the next time you are awake: Think back to a time when you were awake at the exact same moment you find yourself awake now, when it was actually pleasant. This may be a time when you were out with friends. It may be when your child was born. It may be when you were with someone you love. How would you finish the following sentence? “My best memory of a time when I was awake in the middle of the night is…” If you do not have such a memory, imagine one. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Allow the pleasant memory or image to unfold, watching it as if it were a movie projected on the insides of your eyelids. Take in all the scenery. Where were you? Were you with someone? When did this happen? What were you doing? Remember the feeling you had at the time. How do you feel now? Take a deep breath and scan your body. If you notice anxious thoughts about sleeplessness, let them be, and return to your pleasant memory.
Being awake in the middle of the night does not have to be unpleasant. A poor night’s sleep does not guarantee feeling horrible the next day. There are times you will have a good night’s sleep and feel groggy the next day, and times you will sleep horribly yet feel surprisingly well. Remind yourself that although being awake can feel unpleasant, you want to avoid adding to the unpleasantness by becoming anxious about it.
6. Don’t relive the worst part of your day
Worrying and rumination are often partners in crime in keeping you awake at night. Worrying tends to involve future events; for example, you may worry that you will get fired because of your sleep problems. Rumination tends to focus on past events; you may be thinking about something you said at work and wishing you had said something different. On the surface, figuring out what went wrong and why may seem helpful in preventing similar disasters in the future, but ultimately both worry and rumination lead to feeling worse, and can become difficult to control.
Remind yourself that this type of thinking is unhelpful. Draw your attention away from thoughts of the past by focusing on the here and now. Take a deliberate vacation from your rumination. How? First, focus your attention on your breathing—the sounds and feeling of air moving into your nose, warming your nasal passages and travelling down into your chest. Now focus on the sounds and feeling of air being moved upward and out of your body. If your attention wanders, do not judge yourself; that’s normal. Instead, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
To sum up:
• Set aside time to address unresolved concerns.
• If worries persist, generate thoughts and images to distract you that are engaging but not too alerting.
• Challenge the idea that being awake at night is a complete catastrophe.
• Counteract worry by focusing on the present moment.
Adapted From Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts and Get A Good Night’s Sleep (Reader’s Digest) 2013