When your thoughts interfere with your sleep: strategies to help
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep is a common complaint. I particularly hear it a lot from mothers who are juggling a lot of demands. Sleep is one of the most essential pillars of wellbeing, and quality sleep is imperative to meet those daily demands. I share some strategies here to help in hopes of helping people develop better rest for better days!
Write it down
The simple habit of writing down things that consume your nighttime thoughts is profound in it's benefits. When you are trying to remember something important, you're using your working memory, which requires a lot of attention, alertness and energy - clearly making you feel wide awake when you need restful sleep. If something significant is waking you up, it's important enough to get the time and attention it deserves, but not in competition with your sleep. Which brings up the next strategy:
Schedule time for your worries
For a busy individual with a very full life, your day likely does not provide consistent down time where your quiet concerns and priorities are able to develop. If your day is spent dealing with is what in front of you and demanding your attention, other things that are important to you but not actively getting your time may start to become sources of guilt or worry you're neglecting them. And so these types of priorities end up keeping you from falling asleep or waking you up during the night because it's the first time your brain has had the opportunity to focus on them. If bedtime and sleep are your first moments of the day where something isn't demanding your attention, it's also likely going to be the time where your worries show up. If they are important enough to keep you awake, they are important enough to get put on your calendar just like any other priority. So assign a day and a time where you can focus on these types of things. Then, if it does pop up in the night, you can also remind yourself that you have a dedicated time planned to be productive with these concerns. Which brings up the next technique:
Differentiate productive versus unproductive worry
Thoughts can often swirl around in loops and other than negative emotions, not generate anything. Your thoughts might be keeping you stuck. And most people tend to think in habitual ways, seeing something the same way and not creating solutions or change. This is where day time allocated for worries tends to be more useful because you can take action on your worries, whereas in bed you're not likely to be productive. Try asking yourself, "am I able to do anything to resolve or improve this now?" When the answer is "no" it means you need to schedule time when you can be productive. And then stop thinking about it. Easier said than done? That's why you need to...
Tell your thoughts where to go
Your brain is a little bit like a curious toddler. It will get itself into trouble if it's not giving boundaries and something that is safe to play with. You also need a similar set of "safe" bedtime thoughts. In this regard, thoughts that are calming and soothing and allow certain brain regions to shut down. A gratitude exercise, prayers, visualization, lucid dreaming, and mindfulness are examples of some purposeful strategies that can be used to encourage calm and sleep.
See your health care professional
Let your primary care physician know about your difficulties in case there is reason to check blood work or other testing to make sure there isn't a physiological contribution to your sleep difficulties.
Counseling can help you practice these techniques and offer you additional strategies specific to your needs and strengths. It also directly achieves the "schedule time for your worries" and invites you to create change even in how you think about current worries. A different perspective allows you to begin to see old things in new ways.