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A Worry Practice for Better Sleep

It may sound counterintuitive, but a worry practice can help manage anxiety.

Key points

  • A worry practice accepts that life comes with some anxiety, acknowledges this reality, and makes a plan.
  • The purpose is not to marginalize anxieties but to give them respectful attention each day.
  • Our nervous system can come to anticipate a designated regular time and place to experience worries.
Pexels / Pixabay
Source: Pexels / Pixabay

I work with clients who have insomnia. Designing a worry practice1 is one key way to manage worry and other difficult emotions. We create a specific worry space and time to regularly practice worrying. It is not a worry chair because it does not need to be a chair (it might also be a couch, beanbag, or spot on the floor or leaning against your favorite tree). It is also not a worry corner, since it does not need to be a corner, and, more importantly, we are not relegating our worry to the proverbial corner.

The purpose is not to marginalize anxieties but to give them respectful attention each day. It is putting neuroscience into practice to set up our physiology in a way it knows what to expect. Your nervous system can learn to anticipate this regular time and place to experience fears, worries, anxieties, and any other emotions—in an integrated way. I will explain why this works in a moment, but first, I will address worry you may have about creating a worry practice.

Many people think that a worry practice will make anxiety worse and “allow worry to take root” or think they are training themselves to worry. What it actually does is support what is already happening without trying to push it down. Trying to be rid of worry and anxiety is much like trying to hold a gigantic beach ball underwater. Even when you are successful, it can just fly up higher the second you let go, or it wiggles away and pops up when you least prefer it.

One of these least-preferred times worry pops up is when it is dark and quiet and the preferred behavior is sleep, not worry. Which is exactly why a daily scheduled time and place to worry—that is not your bed or near bedtime—works. A worry practice accepts that life comes with some anxiety, acknowledges this reality, and makes a plan accordingly. It provides a time and place of your choosing for fears to be heard—either by writing them down or giving them an actual voice out loud. It can also help to move into a physical position that allows you to do your best worrying and experience an integrated “felt sense” of what you are holding.

The science at play includes classical conditioning—much like potty training or Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they heard a bell ring even before the food arrived. In other words, a place and time of day, an intention and type of thought, and noticing the accompanying physical sensations, all set the stage for your body to know what to expect—to anticipate what is expected of it. Step 1 is warming up to this idea. Let worry be whatever it is and allow it to move freely within you. Be with the worry. (If you could think it away, you would have already).

Step 2 is to unpair worry and your bed. Classical conditioning is at play here too, supporting sleep and bed, not worry and bed. Similar to going to the bathroom, your body learns to do a particular physiological task, in the correct place, at the right time. (If you tend to multitask while using the bathroom with either work or entertainment, consider un-pairing these and maintain going to the bathroom a mindful practice as well.)

Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay

Step 3 is to carefully choose a time and place for your worry practice. Choose a place that respects and honors your concerns, and get a notebook that is dignified enough to hold your worst fears, small anxieties, practical responsibilities, and everything in between. Create a comfortable place for yourself. Find your favorite pen and leave it near the space of your worry practice.

Pick a time of day not too close to bedtime and also avoid first thing in the morning. (The morning is better for a centering or grounding practice—but that is a topic for another post.) I prefer late afternoon or early evening—a downloading of sorts, of the day's angst. Bring worry to its new space and let it take center stage. Allow the profound peace that rests beneath worry to surface at other times of day and night. Return to your worry practice as you need to. And even if it does not seem like the day was too stressful, give fear, worry, and any other emotion a chance to be heard.

Then, find something else to do.


1. Del Pozo, J. (2023). Sleep Anxiety, Insomnia, and Rhythm Disruptions: A Complete Behavioral Treatment Plan for Improving Sleep and Co-Morbid Conditions, 2-day course with PESI.

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