Easing Bedtime Worries
By Joan Bender, MA, LMHC, HC, BCST
When was the last time you had a good night's sleep? Do you have a hard time shutting your mind down? Do worries get stuck in your head or do you experience anxiety about having another nightmare? If so, it will be difficult to sleep well, because when we have worries or anxiety, our fight, flight or freeze stress response gets triggered. This is the body's safety mechanism. It keeps us safe in the face of danger. The problem is that it can be triggered by our thoughts. In caveman times, danger was a predator coming after us. In modern times, danger might be worries about our health. Once this response is triggered a series of biological reactions occur in the body to keep us awake, alert and active, hence interfering with our sleep. The good news is that there are many things we can do to counteract this, so that we can drift off into a peaceful slumber.
Bedtime is a prime time for worry thoughts to pop into our heads. We're no longer distracted by the many things on our to-do list, and our busy lives. Things are quiet, and we can "hear ourselves think." Unfortunately, thinking about our worries gets in the way of sleep. There are several things we can do shift this pattern. First, schedule time during the day for quiet reflection, even if it is only for five or ten minutes. During this time, write down your worries in a journal to get them out of your head. You can do this again at bedtime, if needed. Keep a journal next to your bed, and if worries come to you, jot them down, and put them away for the night. If you don't want to disrupt falling asleep to write things down, you can simply thank the thoughts for visiting, and ask them to come back tomorrow. I know this sounds strange, but it really works. Another strategy is to listen to a guided imagery or some relaxing music while falling asleep. This will offer a distraction and crowd out worries with something peaceful and soothing. There are great meditation and guided imagery CDs or Apps, and some Apps are free.
We can also shift out of the stress response by influencing our breathing. When have too much stress or experience anxiety, our breathing becomes shallow. Shallow breathing keeps us awake and alert. To shift your breathing, place your hands on your belly and take a few deep breaths. Try to make each breath a little deeper than the one before it, and focus on the sensation of your belly expanding when you inhale, and moving inward when you exhale. Notice how this movement feels similar to the ocean waves. You can even imagine being at the beach watching the waves roll out to the horizon, and back in to the shore. A similar strategy is to give your worry mind a "hug." Place one hand at the back of your head and one on your forehead, as you take deep breaths. Notice how soothing and comforting this feels, and your mind will begin to quiet.
If nightmares are getting in the way of your sleep, you can take control of them. Many people avoid their nightmares. Scary dreams can be so upsetting that we just want them to go away, so we try to push them out of our minds. When we do that, we are actually making things worse. Nightmares are our unconscious trying to get our attention to a problem, fear or inner conflict. There is famous quote by the Psychologist, Carl Jung, "What we resist, persists." Nightmares can be like children. When we ignore them, they just keep calling out louder and louder until we acknowledge them. So, what do we do with them? One strategy is to face our nightmares head on. When you wake up from one, think about how you would want the nightmare to end, so that you come out of it safe and feeling empowered. Some people then like to reimagine the dream, incorporating their new ending. If this feels too scary, or you have difficulty reimagining, you can write the dream in a journal or draw a picture, as it took place, as well as, the new ending. When you do this, you acknowledge the inner conflict or fear, so that it can be resolved. Through this process, the emotional charge and fear factor dissipate.
One last strategy to consider is setting an intention for the type of sleep and dream you'd like to have before going to bed. You can say something like this, "Tonight, I'd like to have peaceful, restorative sleep" or "Tonight, I'd like to have a nurturing, healing dream." This strategy might seem overly simplistic, but it can have a powerful effect. The more we bring relaxing rituals into our bedtime routine, the more we train our body and mind to relax. By incorporating strategies like these into our lives, we make our bedroom a safe sanctuary for sleep and dreaming.
Wishing you peaceful nights and sweet dreams!