Stress and very busy minds are two of the top causes for keeping people awake at night. Many of my patients worry about work, money, family, health, relationships, what they have said earlier in the day and what people might think of them. A couple of big worries are “I’m not sleeping!” and “how will I function tomorrow if I don’t sleep tonight?”. Interestingly, the more one obsesses about sleep, the less sleep one gets.
When one goes to bed stressed, the mind remains awake and vigilant as it tries to problem solve the worries. Unfortunately, solutions are commonly not often found in the middle of the night, and the mind just keeps on churning endlessly, moving from one topic to another, keeping the person awake. The mind can be very skilled in ruminating ceaselessly when lying in bed.
However, there are ways to help combat stress and enhance a better night’s sleep.
Getting out of bed and making a list of what worries you and coming up with possible solutions the following morning can help.
Instead of writing a list of worries, some prefer to write in a gratitude journal as it can neutralise the worrying and instead shift the focus on the good in one’s life.
For others, listening to soft music or slightly inaudible talk back can distract them from their worries.
Mindfulness techniques are very helpful with worrying. First, it is important to acknowledge the worrying process as normal, saying to oneself “It’s normal to worry”, instead of focusing on the details of the worry. Then, shifting the attention to the sensation of the breath, noticing the breath coming in and coming out, just letting one’s breathing do its job and not interfering with it. When the worrying comes back, and it most probably will, just acknowledge calmly and say, “it’s normal to worry”, smile and go back to the breath. Doing this exercise allows the person to get out of the “worry factory” and instead pay attention to something calming and soothing like the breath. If this is too much to remember, just download some helpful mindfulness APPs like Headspace or Smiling Mind.
Sometimes, the worrying circuit kicks in because the person goes to bed earlier than what their body naturally wants. Many insomnia sufferers are fixated in getting the “magic number” of 8 hours of sleep without realising that they might need less than that. Even though the average sleep requirement of adults is around 8 hours, many sleep well and function wonderfully with 6 or 7 hours of sleep, as long as it is deep and mostly uninterrupted. Going to bed ONLY when one is sleepy, that is, nodding off or unable to keep one’s eyes open can be helpful. When one goes to bed really sleepy, the brain does not have the energy to worry. Sometimes, going to bed later, say an hour or so, whilst keeping the morning out of bed time the same, can help many poor sleepers.