Having trouble falling asleep? Your thoughts may be getting in the way. Anxiety is often characterised by excessive worry and is one of the main culprits interfering with our sleep. When worry leads to problems sleeping, you feel fatigued during the day, which makes you feel less capable of dealing with life’s demands resulting in even higher levels of anxiety and stress. Learn to break the stress–sleep cycle by using the following strategies.
Accept that you are awake
You can expect to get less sleep under certain circumstances, like when you have a big exam, presentation or interview the next day; when you are planning your wedding; when you have a newborn and when you are dealing with difficult times in your life due to illness or loss. During these times, the best thing to do is accept that you will probably lose sleep.
Accepting the reality of your situation takes the pressure off trying to get to sleep and may make you feel more relaxed. And it’s worth noting, if you are able to lie in bed in a relaxed state, it can be almost as restorative as sleeping.
Contain your negative thoughts
Worrying is a common occurrence, and part of our normal daily (and often nightly) thought processes. Bedtime is the most inconvenient time to worry for you, but not for your brain. There are no distractions, you are not multi-tasking, so suddenly our brain says, “Hmmm, it’s nice and quiet, seems like a good time to worry!” To keep your brain in check, satisfy its need to worry during the day—when and where it suits you most.
Use the following three strategies together to contain your brain:
- Worry place— Decide where is the best place for you to worry. It should be somewhere you have access to every day, most likely a room in your house, but not your bedroom. Once you decide where your worry place is, this is the only place you allow yourself to spend significant time to process your worries.
- Worry time— Set aside a particular time of day to worry. Be specific e.g. 10-11am. Discipline yourself to worry only during your worry time in your worry place.
- Worry container— Use this strategy to help you contain your worries to your time and place. Clearly, you are going to have stressful thoughts pop in your head at all times of the day and night, so here is what you do. Carry notecards or post-its and a pen with you and whenever you have a worry, write it down and put it in a container (if you’re out, this may be your wallet or handbag and if you’re at home, you may have a specific worry box or jar that you can put your notecards into). Make sure to keep some notecards and a pen near your bed, for worries that take place before sleep.
By writing down your worry and putting it in a box (or jar or bag), you are literally containing it until your designated worry time. This means your brain can rest assured (pun intended) that you will attend to this worry when it is appropriate. During your worry time, in your worry place, you can read your worries from your container. You may find that by the time you read them, they are no longer worth worrying about! But if they are, use your worry time effectively by focusing on solutions.
Relaxation exercises for sleep
If you feel stressed during the day, this can impact your sleep at night. A state of relaxation is incompatible with tension and there are a variety of ways to achieve a calm mindset before bed like gentle stretching, mindfulness and meditative practices, soothing music and relaxation exercises. Relaxation exercises, in particular, have been shown to be an effective sleeping aid, but don’t just stop there. Regular practice (at any time during the day) can reduce your overall levels of stress and eventually help you achieve a relaxed state more quickly and easily.
Gratitude and sleep
It’s clear that negative pre-sleep cognitions can have a negative impact on sleep; but what about positive thoughts? Turns out gratitude is related to positive sleeping patterns including decreased time to fall asleep, better sleep quality and duration, and less daytime dysfunction. Not only will a daily focus on gratitude improve your sleep, research shows that a grateful mindset can also increase happiness, life satisfaction and resilience, improve overall health, and reduce anxiety and depression.
So add a gratitude journal to your pre-sleep routine. It is as simple as writing down three new things that you are grateful for every night. In the space of only a few weeks, you’ll find that your mind becomes more naturally attuned to the positive aspects of your life making you more resilient to sleep-blocking thoughts and also giving you the best chance to have a good night’s sleep.
Think well, sleep well.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are considering a sleep treatment please consult your doctor or medical professional. This post may contain affiliate links.
Dr Lillian Nejad
Lillian is a clinical psychologist at Omnipsych and author of LIFEBLOCKERS: The Sleep Edition (2018) providing the latest research-backed strategies to overcome insomnia. She has also produced the relaxation CD, “Relaxation: Techniques to Reduce Anxiety & Stress and Enhance Well-being” and co-authored the book, Treating Stress & Anxiety: A Practitioner’s Guide to Evidence-Based Approaches.