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When a worry stops you sleeping

I did a Live Online Q&A recently with Uppingham School students and realised at the end that I’d missed a question. It’s an important one so I thought I’d answer it here.

“If I struggle to get to sleep as a result of a worry, is it more helpful if I solve the problem first or just go to sleep first and find a way to tackle the problem later?”

If you could solve the problem first, that would be the right thing to do. But how likely is that? The problems that keep us awake at night are usually the ones we can’t solve now. They are worries about things that have happened or things that are going to happen or things that might or might not happen. But they tend not to be solvable in the middle of the night.

One of the other students tried to answer the question in the chat box by saying “Just go to sleep”. This was not wrong but completely misses the point of the question, which is that the person can’t go to sleep because of the worry. You might as well say “Just stop worrying”. Well, quite, but if only life were so easy! To answer the question usefully you need a bit of knowledge and a bit of empathy. Luckily, I have both. Which is why my advice is worth listening to and why I spend time giving it.

I also have a lot of personal experience of having difficulty sleeping because of worry!

I will start my answer by saying that when we have a big worry it can be very, very difficult indeed to sleep. Sometimes, if that worry is big enough, even doing everything right is not going to be enough. Sometimes, you will still struggle to sleep and that feels horrible. This is an uncomfortable  truth but needs to be said. That’s part of empathy: validating the distress before seeking to address it.

Now to what I have learnt, both through my own experience and through reading more research than most people and studying the subject in more detail than most people. (And I don’t need to put links to the research in this case – there’s tons of it and you’d never get to the end of the answer. I don’t agree with constant links in articles. They are distracting and usually counter-productive. I’ve done the reading and if you think what I say doesn’t make sense, don’t read it. And yes, I’m feeling nippy and irritable. It’s all those worries and lack of sleep. But my advice is still good.)

Let’s categorise these worries that might be keeping you awake. The worry might be:

  1. Something that you could solve right now
  2. Something that you can’t do anything about at all
  3. Something that you can do something about tomorrow or later

What to do once you’ve worked out which category it’s in?

1. Something that you could solve right now

As I said, this is unlikely. But if it’s something you genuinely could deal with now, without causing any problems, bearing in mind that it’s the middle of the night and you don’t want to wake other people up, then do it. But think ahead to possible consequences that could keep you awake for longer.

For example, does it involve opening your phone? Bad idea, as you might see a notification or news item that could keep you awake. Does it involve upsetting or annoying someone else? If so, I’d recommend you don’t. It probably won’t help you sleep.

But, if you can deal with the problem, do, and when it’s done, get back into bed and switch your mind onto something totally different. Worry over.

2. Something that you can’t do anything about at all

This could be because it’s something that’s already happened or something that might or will happen. Since you can’t do anything about it, thinking about it is a nuisance and brings you no benefit. Say firmly to yourself, “No, go away. You’re not wanted here ” and then divert your mind onto something else. This is where you need to practise thought diversion.

My suggestions for thought diversion:

  • Imagine being in a place you love, doing your favourite thing – maybe you’re lying on a sandy beach or riding a horse or listening to music while lying in your garden. Build all the details into your imagining and stay there with the sounds (or silence) and the feelings of happiness and relaxation.
  • Imagine being the hero of a story – you rescue someone from danger; you win an incredible prize; you’re a top athlete or concert musician or actor; you bravely struggle through a blizzard to get help for an injured person; you spot a crime happening and you do something heroic to prevent or solve it.
  • Decide how you would spend a million pounds.
  • Mentally do something fairly dull but difficult – count backwards slowly from 500; count imaginary sheep jumping a gate; plan a menu for a birthday meal; make a list in your head; go through the alphabet thinking of countries/celebrities/foods/authors/people from history/words in a foreign language.
  • Make a mental list of everything and everyone that irritates you. I find this rather therapeutic.

You might have other ideas. It’s your mind – you choose!

3. Something that you can do something about tomorrow or later

This is the most common but actually has a surprisingly easy solution. Write the problem down, including perhaps some things you will do to approach solving the problem. Then put the piece of paper, folded up, by your door, right away from your bed. Then get back into bed and choose one of the thought diversion ideas above. 

And if the worry tries to come back, say, “No, go away. I’m dealing with you tomorrow. Don’t bother me now.”

The main message

You CAN control your thoughts. It’s not always easy – sometimes not easy at all – but you can do it. And on those nights when a worry is keeping you awake, what’s happening is that the worry has tried to take control. But you are in charge of your mind and you can teach that worry to know its place. Its place is not to keep you awake. Its place is to leave you alone and let you sleep.

A special piece of knowledge

Our minds are never empty. You can’t stop thinking. But you can start thinking. When you’re thinking about the wrong things, you can only stop thinking about them if you deliberately start thinking about something else. So you can’t simply say “Don’t think about this” but you can simply say, “Now do think about this.”

Tip and task:

It’s best to have a menu of things you like to think about in advance, because it is sometimes hard to think of one when you’re full of a worry. So your task is to look at that list of thought diversion ideas and choose some that would work for you. Write it down, with specific ideas, and put it under your pillow or by your bed.

Sleep well!


For ALL the best tips and knowledge about sleep (with links to the research starting points) see:

 

 

 

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