It’s 2:30 in the morning and you’ve been tossing around in bed for who knows how long already. You try three different sleeping positions, punch the pillow, throw the sheets off and pull them back on again but it seems that nothing is going to let you get back to sleep.
It’s not the bed that’s keeping you awake. It’s the worry that won’t let your mind calm down enough to drift off.
Anxiety and stress are some of the most common causes of chronic insomnia. It becomes a vicious circle, though, because difficulty sleeping causes you to be fatigued during the day, which can make the anxiety and stress symptoms worse, which makes it even harder to sleep…
Of course, you can always take a pill. But that only masks the problem and leaves you feeling drugged.
Fortunately, there are some very easy, very effective and completely drug-free ways to deal with those worry-filled, sleepless nights.
Step 1: Get up
That’s right, stop trying to fight your way back to sleep and simply get up and out of bed. The longer you lie there, angry that you’re being deprived of sleep while simultaneously stressing about whatever woke you up in the first place, the worse it’s going to get.
Getting up isn’t giving in to the anxiety, it’s taking control of it. As soon as you decide to act, you’ve regained the power to control what’s going on.
While you might be tempted to stress that you need your sleep and you’ll be useless the next day without it, that line of thinking only revs your anxiety engine even higher. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, “Sleep is overrated – we’ll all be sleeping permanently soon enough!”
Step 2: Get your journal and a pen
Behavioral psychologists and neuro linguistic programming practitioners use a method called ‘Pattern Interrupt’ to break out of a particular thought, behavior or situation. The process interrupts the ‘thought rut’ you’re stuck in and lets you regain control of your mind.
So in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep, get up, find a comfy chair, turn on a soft lamp and sit down with your journal. It’s vital that your journal be one in which you write with a pen or pencil, not notes you type on your laptop or tablet. This is because the kinesthetic act of writing adds to the interruption of thought patterns that have been keeping you awake in two ways.
First, it diverts part of your thinking into the physical act of writing. When your neurons are directed at moving your arm, wrist and fingers to form letters on the page, they can’t be wrapped around what you did or failed to do in the past, ought to do in the future, or the responsibilities that you’re sure you can’t meet.
Second, the act of writing somehow lets the anxious thoughts flow out of your brain, down your arm, out through your fingers and onto the page. After you’ve spent five minutes writing, you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed you feel.
Step 3: Celebrate
Writing about the worries and stresses that are keeping you awake is only going to wind you up tighter. So stay away from those topics by interrupting the pattern even further. Instead, write about your successes.
Start by making a list of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Perhaps you caught a fly ball in little league. Or maybe you stood up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written. Review the various categories including sports, academics, your social life, skills you acquired and challenges you overcame. Did you ever win a ribbon in a sports event? Earn a merit badge in your Scout or Guide troop? Did you write a poem or a story? Jump off the high board at the local pool?
As you add each success to the list, close your eyes and remember how you felt at the time of that victory. Put yourself back into that feeling place for a few moments and let yourself glow with pride all over again. The challenges you overcame in those moments seemed daunting, even overwhelming in their time, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to succeed anyway.
Step 4: Act
The journal exercise alone is probably making you feel better already. If you pause for a moment and examine your feelings, you’ll likely discover that the stress and anxiety – whether about the situation or about the lack of sleep – have already been dialed way back. Take a moment to recognize that you’ve managed to interrupt the anxiety and control your mind instead of it controlling you. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
Now, however, it’s time to turn your mind back to whatever situation was keeping you awake. Only now you’re in charge and going to do something about it. Using your journal, ask and answer the following questions.
For example, if you’re worrying about finances you could, in the next 15 minutes as you sit in your comfy chair, begin to make yourself a strict budget for the next three months. If you’re worrying about a relationship you could write a letter to the person with whom you’re at odds. (But don't send it until after you've reviewed it in the light of day.) If you’re worried about a health issue you could write the outline of a diet and exercise program for yourself.
Regardless of the situation that has you worried, concerned or anxious, there is always something that you can do, even in the middle of the night, that will help alleviate your stress. And in taking that action, you will immediately feel better. Because you did something that broke your mind out of that endless cycle. Because you took control.
Step 5: Go back to bed
If you’ve taken the previous steps you will find that your mind is much more at ease, that your body is ready for sleep and that you’ll be able to close your eyes and drift off easily. When you lay your head back on the pillow, allow your thoughts to be on the successes you’ve achieved and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Revel in the pride of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re still the same person who has achieved so much already. Let your brain be filled with the positive, proactive steps you’ve already taken and will continue to take in the morning.
These thoughts won’t last long, though, because before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.