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  • Dr. Lillian Nejad

Tackling Sleep-Blocking Thoughts



One of the main factors that influence sleep is what you are thinking about before sleep. Beyond general worries and significant events that may keep you awake, thoughts that keep you up at night can be grouped into two categories: thinking about your sleep problem and worries about what will happen if you can’t get to sleep.


Common sleep-blocking thoughts and tips on how to manage them


“I’m never going to be able to sleep!”

Not with that attitude. Pessimism is not going to help. In fact, the belief that you will be able to sleep, or sleep self-efficacy, is linked to lower severity of insomnia and better outcomes in treatment. Replace your thought with something more helpful or realistic like, “I have the information and tools I need to get to sleep," “I am doing what I can to get a better night’s sleep,” or "I may have trouble getting to sleep but I am likely to get fall asleep eventually."


“I am the worst sleeper!”

Labelling yourself as a "loser" in the sleep department is self-defeating; if you are finding replacing your thoughts with more realistic ones difficult, then you can use the mindfulness technique of just noticing when you are having the thought and then noticing that thought being replaced by another, without getting involved or attaching too much meaning to the thoughts themselves.


“I’ve been awake FOREVER!”

It probably feels like forever, but this is highly likely to be an exaggeration of the facts. Focus on making your environment as sleep-friendly as possible and remember that you can still benefit from resting calmly.


“I hate this!”

Fair enough. Not being able to sleep can be extremely frustrating. But working yourself up into an emotional state is counterproductive. Calm yourself down by doing breathing and relaxation exercises. Apps like Insight Timer, Calm, and Smiling Mind have relaxation exercises to help you sleep.


“I have to get to sleep (or else)!”

Putting yourself under pressure is the opposite of the mindset that prepares you for falling and staying asleep. Tell yourself that you can cope whether you get sleep or not. This is likely to take the pressure off, putting yourself in a better position to have a good night’s sleep.


I can’t function without sleep!”

Not only can your thoughts be unhelpful, but they are often inaccurate. Remember, your thoughts are not facts. You may not be at your best with little to no sleep, but if you had an objective look at your ability to cope in the past, you will most likely find that you have been able to function to an adequate degree in at least some areas in your life. If you can dispute this thought effectively, then you are likely to feel less anxious and stressed about the next day’s work/home/life demands. And if you’re less stressed, you might even be able to get some sleep!


In some cases, this thought may be accurate. If so, you won’t solve your problems by worrying about them at night. Prepare for this during the day by planning what you will do if you are not able function well enough to complete your usual responsibilities. Being prepared for this possibility will reduce your worries about it at night, and put you in a better position to fall asleep.


One last tip:

It’s clear that negative pre-sleep cognitions can have a negative impact on sleep; but what about positive thoughts? Turns out gratitude is related to positive sleeping patterns including decreased time to fall asleep, better sleep quality and duration, and less daytime dysfunction. Not only will a daily focus on gratitude improve your sleep, research shows that a grateful mindset can also increase happiness, life satisfaction and resilience, improve overall health, and reduce anxiety and depression.


So you can add start a gratitude journal to your pre-sleep routine. It is as simple as writing down three new things that you are grateful for every night. In the space of only a few weeks, you’ll find that your mind becomes more naturally attuned to the positive aspects of your life making you more resilient to sleep-blocking thoughts and also giving you the best chance to have a good night’s sleep.


Think well, sleep well.


This is an excerpt from LIFEBLOCKERS: The Sleep Edition--you can find more science-backed tips on how to overcome insomnia and get better sleep in this user-friendly guide. Available as an ebook, audiobook or paperback from all major online retailers.


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