The Night Feeds Our Worries
Nighttime is our rest time, a wonderful place for relaxing and finally removing the pack of worries we’ve been carrying and filling up during the day. That’s what the theories say.
Now, a lot of times we can’t avoid thinking about everything that has happened during our day. Our to-do’s at work or the plans we have for tomorrow… It’s like a review of all the things we need to do.
You’ve probably heard a thousand tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, how to empty your mind of worries and learn new bedtime habits. When everything is going well, the night is one of the most pleasant, relaxed moments of the day. However, when life isn’t going so well, it can become a challenge.
The lights go out, everything is silent, and we’re left alone with our thoughts. It doesn’t seem like a bad plan, until our worries assail us. We are caught off guard and we can’t do anything to placate that inner voice reminding us of our problems. When you can’t silence that voice, you know you have a very long night ahead of you.
Silence comes with worries
Imagine the following scene: you’re watching TV but you’re tired and about to fall asleep. At the next commercial break you’ll take the opportunity to go to bed. You brush your teeth and go to lay down. Tomorrow will be a new day. But when you close your eyes, everything that’s bothering you comes out and keeps you awake.
This scene is very common. We have our mind occupied with an enjoyable movie or a book, but when we are alone with our conscience, everything that we’d buried during the day comes to the surface .
From time to time, the things keeping us from sleeping aren’t worries but rather ideas. When we’re in bed, we come up with all kinds of ideas. We start thinking about how to do a certain project, maybe even plot-lines for that novel we’d always wanted to write. Goodbye, sleep! We spend hours wandering through ideas that we’ll completely forget tomorrow.
Problems get magnified in bed
The biggest problem isn’t necessarily that worries assault us at night, but rather that they seem bigger then than they are. Worst of all, they seem to have no solution. We see them as very negative and don’t know how to deal with them. But then we get a few hours of sleep in and discover that our problems aren’t as big as they seemed. The tossing and turning and anxiety played a trick on us.
We can spend hours going over that unpleasant conversation we had with our co-worker. We analyze every silence, every word, the nuances and the tone of voice we used. We jump to conclusions left and right, sometimes unrealistic ones. Tomorrow everything will probably go back to normal, but we’ll do it all over again.
A problem that during the day we don’t consider important can seem enormous at night. Perhaps that feeling of helplessness and inability to fix it is linked to the “loneliness” that we have at night. We’re alone with our problems. Nobody can calm us down or help us, and that makes our worries increase.
Techniques for cognitive deactivation at bedtime
There are many techniques that aim to put an end to insomnia. Sleep health is one of the secrets, which is about arranging optimal environmental conditions (temperature, noise, light) and physiological conditions (being relaxed) via good habits. But when your thoughts are keeping you from sleeping at night, there are particular techniques that can help.
These are some of the cognitive behavioral techniques that aim at cognitive deactivation at bedtime:
- Paradoxical intention. This technique is to follow your thoughts, get out of bed and even put them down on paper. Basically, to address them before going back to bed.
- Observation of thoughts. Become actually aware of what you’re thinking about and let it go. You can use symbolic thinking: imagine that you’re putting the thought into a jar.
- Meditation. Try to let your mind go blank. You can use a mantra or some cognitive task that takes your attention but not emotions. For example, say the months of the year backwards.
- Directed imagination. Proposed by Harvey in 2001, this means using directed imagination towards a specific thought or image that is not exciting. Thus, you avoid activating thoughts. Imagine yourself in a beachy paradise, for example.
- Interrupting your time in bed. Get out of bed when it’s been over 20 minutes without falling asleep, and go watch some TV or read. This will interrupt your thought process.
It’s been shown that trying to control your thoughts by telling yourself to stop thinking about it actually makes you think about it more. But these techniques can be useful for emptying your mind, relaxing, and finally falling asleep.