How do I stop worrying about sleep?

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Why is it that when I have a busy schedule ahead of me tomorrow that I end up having the worst nights sleep imaginable and yet when it doesn’t matter, I sleep like a baby?

Falling asleep when your worrying about falling asleep, can make it a whole lot harder to fall asleep. You see, the harder you try to sleep the more likely you are to  stimulate the mind and body through frustration and worry, and with sleep being a passive process you simply defeat the object.

A stressful event tomorrow is almost guaranteed to put the kiss of death on a good nights sleep. The secret is to spend the evening before, in exactly the way you would normally, no early night, no putting last minute touches to your presentation, no checking your journey or the itinerary ..this should all have been done at least a day or two ago, with clothes selected, ironed etc. If you experience anxiety the best thing you can do is forget tomorrow and have a normal evening, that means staying up until your normal bedtime, if necessary watch the late film, and if you normally enjoy a beer or a glass of wine do so. When I say “a beer” I do mean “a beer,” or “a glass of wine.” Believe it or not, alcohol actually provokes anxiety. While this is masked initially by its anaesthetic properties, (the chemical name for alcohol is ethyl alcohol and it is related to ether the anaesthetic agent) once this wears off, the body becomes twitchy and aroused, hence problem drinkers often feel irritable, tremulous and anxious and resort to the “hair of the dog.”

In the evening it is good to have a bath as part of your “wind down” procedure. This will also help regulate your body temperature. Avoid showers in the evening as they can stimulate the body. Incorporate a relaxation technique into your evening “wind-down,” the gradual letting go of the stimulation of the day, replacing the high arousal activities with more peaceful one’s. Learn how to do imagery. You can then take yourself to an imaginary place in your mind when you find yourself wrapped up in sleep preventing thoughts. All you have to do is to create a mental picture, perhaps of a holiday or somewhere nice you have been. It may be an imaginary scene, a beach or a meadow in the countryside. See with as much realism as possible, notice the colours, the sounds and the sensations, perhaps of the sand between your toes, the warm breeze or the smell of freshly mown grass. Imagine a calm, tranquil and relaxing scene…and enjoy.

Don’t let the stress of a busy day and demanding schedule get in the way of you and sleep. By all means work hard but stop working late, reduce your hours and reduce your stress. If you are thinking about work into the evening then you’re stressed, whether its eustress (good stress) or distress (bad stress) it’s got to go. Heaven forbid, before you know it you will be thinking about work in bed. For those with sleeping difficulties, work needs to be limited to the working day. That’s the rule, like it or lump it… and by the way, you might wish to find your self a good therapist who can teach you tips to better manage the stress of our busy and demanding lifestyles. A therapist who helps you with sleep could be viewed a “sleep coach”. Small changes in the various different areas of your life are likely to be all that is needed.

If you find yourself busy with children, work, cooking meals whatever, it may be that you don’t have time to think until you get to bed. Then invariably if you are anxious worry may surface, even worry about worrying. The early hours, perhaps when you wake up to go to the toilet can be fatal, worries and concerns can easily magnify and grow out of proportion. I believe it was Napoleon who said, “show me a brave general at three in the morning!” You may find that setting aside some “worry time” helps. Schedule a regular slot each day to review your day, preferably before 7pm. Reflect on events and “put the day to bed.” Consider what needs to be done tomorrow and attend to anything that needs your attention. Write your worries down and then put them away in a drawer and look at them tomorrow. Keep a pad and pen by your bed and write down any worries that won’t go away. Reflect on your worries your prescribed worry period.

Next, take in some exercise, again there is no excuse. Where I go to the local municipal gym it is like a social club. Early in the morning before the school run and daily commute to work, 20 minute working out with the pensioners is great. Some of them put me to shame in terms over overall fitness and the welcoming friendliness makes it a pleasure to attend, plus its nice being the youngest one there! Whether you walk, jog, swim, cycle it doesn’t matter. The important thing to do is to engage in some aerobic activity to burn off the adrenalin. I do it to put me in a good place to start the day, however, if you are looking at using exercise to help with sleep then do it late afternoon or early evening. Leave at least 2 hours before you go to bed or you may likely find your body is not ready to relax.

Try to discipline yourself to say off the computer after a certain time, emails, facebook and ebay can be very engaging. Going on the computer just before bed is definitely not a good idea, for anyone. The problem with computers unlike a good book, is that they are interactive and that is stimulating. While you may think this is not the case, your brain activity will be in a state of latent arousal. Two hours of computer tablet use at maximum brightness level has been found to suppress the normal night-time release of the hormone melatonin. It is this hormone that signals to the body that it is night and makes you sleepy. Postponing this important signal may delay the onset of sleep (Figueiro et al, 2012).

Avoid eating a large meal late in the evening, instead eat early and have a light snack mid evening, something like warm milk or horlicks (milk contains tryptophan which helps sleep) and have a banana or biscuit. Likewise, if you wake in the middle of the night and do not fall back to sleep within twenty minutes, instead of lying in bed worrying, get up and find a comfy place to have a read, with low lights and perhaps a  milky drink in a flask. Then go back to bed only when you are “sleepy tired.”  By this, I mean that your eyes want to close, your yawning and your head nods. Staying up serves to increase your “sleep drive.”

If you find yourself worrying there are several things you could try, the first is to use a relaxation technique such as tensing and relaxing every part of your body in turn, another technique is autogenic relaxation. For this you repeat “my left arm is heavy and warm” eight times, imagining the heaviness and the warmth (both are states of relaxation) and repeat this with each arm, both arms, each leg, both legs and so on through the body. Another technique is known as thought blocking, for this you repeat the word “the,” over and over again. “The” is actually is a meaningless word and therefore useful in this respect. A further technique that I am keen to promote is known as mindfulness and it teaches people to learn to detach from  stress, worry and rumination (see my November 2012 health blog).

Trying to stop anxious thoughts does not work. This is known as “thought suppression” and trying not to think about something actually increases the volume of thoughts. It is because by trying to force out thoughts means you are actually thinking about them  Imagine it is rather like trying to turn down a broken volume knob on a radio. The problem is, the more you turn it down, the louder it goes. Rather like the adverts in between songs on a commercial radio station just let them play and you will begin to not notice them. Try this. Close your eyes and visualise a big fat pink elephant. Now for the next three minutes don’t think about pink elephants…How was that? Did you find that the thought of pink elephants kept popping into your mind?

Worry about not coping during the day because of poor sleep is a very common theme for those with sleep problems. Professor Colin Espie of the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre, tells us that, “although insomnia can be distressing, and can be distressing, people often come to incorrect conclusions about their ability to sleep and the effects that sleeplessness will have.” He tells us that “most people do manage to cope during daytime even after a bad night’s sleep.” With regard to concentration, while ” insomnia can cause problems with concentration, and we can feel tired, edgy and irritable…we must remember to try to keep our thinking about sleep in proportion. After all, good sleepers get bad-tempered too. The less focus your concerns

Sometimes people worry about noises in the night. It may be creaks and banging noises caused by pipes, woodwork expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. Equally it may be noises outside, people in the street, traffic, etc. The problem is that once you focus on these noises, they will seem to magnify and it can be very hard to distract ourselves. Another problem might be your partner snoring or even the sound of their breathing. One simple solution can be the use of earplugs (see ZenPlugs UK).

How do we differentiate between our thoughts and emotions? This is quite difficult because thoughts and emotions often go hand in hand. The way we feel will affect the content of our thoughts, just as our thoughts shape our emotional responses. If you find yourself worrying about work, family, money it can be very hard not to have  waves of powerful emotional reactions at times. You might be thinking about work the next day, rehearsing something in your mind or planning something ahead. Equally you may worry about not performing or making mistakes. All of these can evoke powerful emotions, frustration, anger, guilt, sadness and worry. The problem is, that strong emotions, provoke strong reactions often stimulating and arousing the body. Try keeping a pad and pen by the bed to jot down you brainwave of an idea (preferably with low lights on only). Instead of visualising yourself making mistakes, “flip” your thoughts and visualise yourself calmly doing things well, see yourself smiling, relaxed and positive. This kind of positive visualisation is exactly what athletes and actors do before a performance.

If you are worried that your worry about sleep may be the result of a clinical condition such as depression or generalised anxiety disorder, consult your general practitioner or other health professional. If you would like more information on  sleep clinics look on-line for a  centre near you. If you would like information on “sleep hygiene” with advice on lifestyle, preparation for bed and other changes to improve your sleep pattern, please visit – insomnia-treatment

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.


Espie, C. A. (2010) Overcoming insomnia and sleep problems; A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. Robinson: London.

Figueiro, M., Wood, B., et al. (2012) Light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression, Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA.

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