It’s midnight, and you have to wake up at 5 a.m. for an early meeting. Even though you’ve had a long day, you still can’t seem to fall asleep. You watch the alarm clock, cringing at every minute that passes and dreading how you’ll feel the next day.
Sleep is crucial to our survival and well-being. So why is it so elusive at times when our body needs it most? There’s some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that we are, subconsciously, doing this to ourselves. The good news is that we can develop mastery over our sleeping habits, just like any other self-regulatory process, such as eating, as long as we have access to knowledge about that process and proper techniques that grant ourselves control.
According to psychological research, insomnia is a common problem when we’re under a high cognitive load, such as daytime stress. Researchers claim that two processes interfere with our ability to fall asleep. The first is pre-sleep worry. Because our lives are often so busy, we leave all of our anxiety to the end of the day, when we feel that we’ll be more able to direct our attention solely to our thoughts. Little do we realize how damaging this can be to our sleep regulation. Worrying about our current situation, the past, or the future can lead to cognitive and bodily arousal, telling your body it’s not time to sleep yet. Thus, night worries can easily keep you up all night. Another process that interrupts our sleeping patterns is our cognitive distortions, or dysfunctional beliefs about sleep. These include thoughts such as, “If I can’t fall asleep, I should stay in bed and try harder” or “If I don’t fall asleep now, my entire week will be affected.” These types of thoughts are dysfunctional because not only are they untrue, but they also produce worry and anxiety about sleep itself, leaving you restless.
If you’re curious, the best thing to do if you cannot sleep after 20 minutes is to get out of bed and do something else before trying again (for example, reading a book). This helps you to avoid those anxious thoughts and expectations. Also, one bad night’s sleep will not carry over through the entire week. Your body is wired to make up for loss of sleep the next night by falling into deeper (and better quality) sleep faster.
What can we do to have more control over our sleep? The answer is simple: do nothing! The premise of mindfulness tells us to be aware of and accept internal and external experiences as they occur to and within us. This is exactly what helps sleep come on faster. If we’re able to stop holding on to our thoughts and feelings and let them float on as we observe instead, our arousal level will diminish, telling our bodies that it is time to rest. So don’t worry about a racing mind at bedtime. Embrace it, and ride the wave!