Lying awake in the small hours, with anxious thoughts seemingly your only company, is no fun. Here’s how to put them 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 (aside from the odd snore), it’s dark and your mind has leapt into action with thoughts and worries spinning around at high speed. You don’t want to be awake, you don’t want to have these thoughts, you feel alone and your own mind is driving you crazy. You just want your brain to stop, you’re tired, anxious and you want to be asleep.
Sound familiar? It’s not fun. 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.
1) 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 up and down the land there are other people lying awake at the exact same time you are, also wishing their brains would shush, that the thought ticker tape would stop and willing themselves to sleep.
2) Give yourself compassion When you’re exhausted and have a busy day ahead you can feel cross and frustrated that your brain isn’t letting you sleep – that it’s insisting on thinking loudly when you need to rest. So you get annoyed with yourself, you tell your brain to relax, you push away the unwanted thoughts, willing yourself to stop being so difficult and to just turn over and sleep. That doesn’t work so well, though, does it? Forcing your mind to go blank, squeezing your eyes shut and burrowing under the duvet is unlikely to do the trick, however much you want it to. So stop trying.
Recognise this is difficult. Tell yourself that tossing and turning with a runaway train of thoughts when you want to be asleep is hard and it’s understandable you’re stressed. Imagine it’s a good friend lying awake, feeling this way and think 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.
3) Focus on a mantra
Here’s a mantra you can repeat to yourself to soothe a stressed mind and nerves (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. It can be used in any challenging situation so it’s a good one to have stored up, ready to repeat when needed.
It isn’t a magic bullet, 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. If willing yourself to sleep isn’t working, give self-compassion a go instead.
4) Acknowledge what you’re thinking Worrying or frightening 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 the fear and the worry: ‘I know I’m worried about x.’ Give yourself compassion: ‘It’s really hard for me to have this going round 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. Letting it go can sound easier said than done, but let’s see where to direct your attention instead…
5) Focus on what is real and true in this moment Having acknowledged your thoughts and recognised that now is not the time to tackle them, the next step is to move your attention to something else. You’re not pretending the thoughts aren’t there, or making your mind go blank, you’re choosing to focus your energy elsewhere instead.
The one thing you know is real at this moment is your body, because you can feel it. So you’re going to 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.
Maybe start with your feet. Are some, all, or none of your toes touching the mattress? Is the side of one of your feet lying on the sheet but the heel isn’t? Which part of your other foot is on the mattress? It takes effort to pinpoint each piece of your body and how it feels in relation to the mattress, 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 bored or 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, milky drink. Some more active methods can wake you up even further, making it harder to fall sleep when you get back into bed. What’s important is that you try different ideas to see what works for you.