How to put anxious thoughts in their place and get some precious sleep.
Picture the scene. You’ve woken up in the middle of the night or early morning. The rest of the house is quiet, it’s dark and your mind has leapt into action with thoughts and worries spinning around at high speed. Sound familiar?
Having strategies to call upon when you wake up worrying in the small hours means that not only can you help yourself but it also gives you the confidence that you can deal with your whirring brain – and that makes a big difference. So, let’s see what can be done about it.
Know that you’re not alone
When you’re lying there, in the quiet dark with thoughts reverberating loudly in your mind, it’s easy to feel isolated. Even with a house full of people it can still feel like you’re the only person in the world awake with a head full of worry. But know this: you’re not alone. There’s a good chance that in homes nationwide there are other people lying awake at the exact same time you are, also wishing their brains would shush and willing themselves to sleep.
Give yourself compassion
When you’re exhausted and have a busy day ahead you can feel frustrated that your brain isn’t letting you sleep – that it’s insisting on thinking loudly when you need to rest. You get annoyed with yourself, tell your brain to relax, and push away the unwanted thoughts. Forcing your mind to go blank, squeezing your eyes shut and burrowing under the blankets is unlikely to do the trick, however much you want it to.
Recognise this is difficult. Imagine it’s a good friend lying awake, feeling this way and think of how you would talk to her. Acknowledging how you’re feeling and practising self-compassion has been shown to be a more effective calming technique than mentally beating yourself up.
Focus on a mantra
Here’s a mantra you can repeat to yourself to soothe a stressed mind – it’s adapted from a suggestion by the leading authority in self-compassion, Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion:
‘This feels really difficult right now. Everyone feels like this sometimes. I will give myself the kindness I need.’
Try repeating this mantra to yourself, or adapt it so it feels right for you, and see how it makes you feel.
You won’t say these words and immediately fall asleep. But by giving yourself compassion, you’re making it easier to calm down so you can get to a point where you drop off again.
Acknowledge what you’re thinking
Worrying thoughts are not something to which you want to give attention. But if you try hard not to think of a giraffe in leg warmers all you can think about is a giraffe in leg warmers. So, it might feel uncomfortable but acknowledge what you’re thinking about. There’s no need to look at whether your thoughts are right or wrong. And it doesn’t matter what you’re anxious about because you’re not addressing the worries. Getting involved in your thoughts in the middle of the night isn’t going to resolve them.
Instead, simply acknowledge that: ‘I know I’m worried about x.’ Give yourself compassion: ‘It’s really hard for me to have this going around in my head right now.’ And recognise that at this exact moment there is no action you can take so let it go: ‘Right now it’s the middle of the night, I’m in bed, there’s nothing I can do to address these worries, so I will no longer give them my attention.’
You can even give yourself a specific time when you will face the worries, such as later that morning at 11am.
Focus on what is real and true in this moment
The one thing you know is real at this moment is your body, because you can feel it. Do a scan of your body and where it comes into contact with the mattress. Focus your attention on each body part, starting with your toes and travelling slowly all the way up to the top of your head, noticing what’s touching the mattress and what isn’t. You’re not trying to change or judge anything, you’re just taking time to give all your concentration to each bit of your body.
It takes effort to pinpoint each piece of your body and how it feels in relation to its surroundings, and your mind may drift back to your thoughts. When you notice this happening, return to the last body part you remember and continue with the scan.
This isn’t something to rush. The desired outcome isn’t that you get to the top of your head but that you become so tired of this exercise that you fall asleep. If you feel uncomfortable and want to shift position, do so. You can restart the body scan exercise as many times as you need to. If you reach the top of your head you can move position and start again, perhaps scanning in the opposite direction from your head to your feet. Every time your mind wanders off to worrying, go through the same process: acknowledge your thoughts, give yourself compassion for how difficult this feels, and bring your focus back to where your body is in contact with the mattress.
There are other ideas for dealing with being awake in the night, such as getting up to read or to make a warm drink. Some more active methods can wake you up even further, making it harder to fall asleep when you get back into bed. What’s important is that you try different ideas to see what works for you, and hopefully you’ll be back to serene slumber soon.
Words: Gabrielle Treanor
This article was originally published under the title ‘Wide awake – and worried’ in Issue 11 – The art of learning