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4 Ways to Cope When Worry Disrupts Your Sleep

4. Radically give up control.

Key points

  • Having trouble falling asleep or waking up can establish itself into a pattern at lightning speed.
  • When a person doesn't feel safe, often their body won't let them sleep, since that would be dangerous from an evolutionary standpoint.
  • Reducing your expectations of yourself to 50-75% of your usual may help you cope when you're tired.
Jen Theodore/Unsplash
Source: Jen Theodore/Unsplash

I'm currently yawning my way through writing this post after five nights in a row of rumination disrupting my sleep. I've been getting to sleep fine, but have been waking up to pee, only to be unable to get back to sleep for hours. One night I woke up at 2 a.m. and didn't get back to sleep at all.

I sometimes like to write posts when I've personally been having the problem I'm writing about because these experiences always remind me of how, in practice, I use and adapt the techniques I learned in my training.

Here's what I've been finding helpful.

1. Acceptance

Stress sometimes overloads our nervous system. When this happens, it can lead to sleep disruption. Our sleep is very rhythmic. Therefore, a habit of trouble falling asleep or of waking up can establish itself into a pattern at lightning speed. Even a few nights of disrupted sleep can sometimes set you up in a pattern of waking at a particular time, which can be frustrating.

The types of stress that overload our nervous system often relate to our values. For example, if you value being cautious, then having made a mistake might be particularly disruptive. If you value being prepared, then a sense of something being outside your control might be particularly likely to overload your body's physical systems of stress management.

I find it helpful to see the link between my values and why an event is bothering me so much. This helps prevent thinking, "I should be able to cope better than this. I must be a weak/fragile person."

During my time lying awake at night, I've been mentally replaying interactions related to two categories of current stress in my life. It's helpful to understand why these are causing me so much turmoil, and that not every kind of stress has this impact.

2. Sleep-specific compassionate self-talk

Following on from the above point, you can use sleep-specific compassionate self-talk. For example, "I'm ruminating because my system thinks there is an emergency. It's trying to keep me safe by not letting me be in the relaxed and vulnerable state that sleep is." Or, "My body is designed to establish a sleep pattern. It's doing exactly that, even if the pattern it's currently in is inconvenient for me."

When we don't feel safe, our body won't let us sleep, since in an evolutionary sense that would be dangerous. My Psychology Today colleague, Dr. Seth Gillihan, talks about how we need mindful trust to allow ourselves to rest. Try incorporating mindful trust into your compassionate self-talk.

3. Behavioral activation during the day

Behavioral activation is a proven mood management strategy. It involves doing a combination of activities that give you pleasure and activities that provide a sense of accomplishment.

People often misunderstand behavioral activation. It is not just soldiering on and gritting your way through distress. When people perceive it this way, they're often making one of two errors.

  • They don't recognize that a little behavioral activation can go a long way.
  • They forget about the pleasure part.

To the first point, I spent about 10 minutes yesterday doing pregnancy-related exercise (labor prep) and that was enough to make me feel like I'd achieved something personally meaningful in the day, beyond work. And, over a week ago, I drove to a mountain 45 minutes away and did a short hike. The peace I got from that experience still feels like a place I can mentally return to, even though it was 10 days ago. You don't need to stuff your days full of activity for behavioral activation to work. Try reducing your expectations of yourself (say to 50% or 75% of your usual, depending on how little sleep you got.)

4. Giving up control

When your brain won't let you sleep, you can infer that your subconscious thinks you need to solve the problem you're having right now. For example, if you're ruminating over a weakness or imperfection, your brain thinks it needs to (and can!) resolve that, if only you endlessly think about it.

Realistically, the problems that cause sleep disruption often can't be resolved straight away. They're usually not entirely within our control and/or they'll be resolved through a process that takes time and we can only allow that to unfold.

What you can do in this scenario is radically give up control. You can tell your subconscious, "I can't resolve this right now." Alternatively, you can say to yourself, "I don't need to solve this right now. I'm safe enough that I don't need to solve my problem of being (insert your self-perceived flaw) right now."

If it appeals, you can even try injecting some irreverence into your self-talk. For example, you can say to yourself, "My brain thinks I can solve the problems of the world, overnight, right here in my PJs." Or, "My brain thinks I can overcome our shitty workaholic culture and systematic disadvantage, all by myself, lying here in bed before the sun is up." Irreverence won't appeal to everyone, or in every scenario, but it's a tool that some people love and you can include in your toolkit.

These strategies are a starting point for people who've had a few nights to a few weeks of disrupted sleep. If you need more than self-help, Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (also called CBT-i) has good research evidence behind it. If stress is currently disrupting your sleep, you may also like the post, "How to Protect Your Peace When Something Stressful Happens." Don't let stress rob you of the peace you deserve.

** Positive note: I published this a few days after I drafted it, by which time my sleep problem had resolved. If you've had past periods of sleep disruption, bring these to mind when you have your next one as a reminder that they don't last forever, and that predicting how long they will last is futile.

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