I’m exhausted! It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Some nights are better than others, but there are nights when I literally get less than two hours of sleep.
During the day I keep myself very busy. I have a lot going on and I’m preoccupied from the moment I get up until I’m ready to go to bed. But like most people, I have a lot to worry about. As my husband and I get older, our lives have become more complicated, rather than less so, our responsibilities have become greater, and there are more people to worry about. I find that once I stop running and doing, my mind goes into overdrive. I can’t stop thinking about all the issues that I face and that we face as a family.
Though I don’t consider myself a worrier by nature, at night I worry about so many things. I’m upset about various things that are going on with the people I love. Often I’ll start obsessing over one particular problem and dissect it for hours. I’ll try to figure out how it went wrong, what I’ve tried to do to help, realize that there is little I can actually do to help, and then start worrying about what will be down the road and all the potential disasters that await us!
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’ll just get out of bed and start pacing around my house, with these same thoughts that just keep going round and round and round. Lacking a normal night’s sleep, and with the type of schedule that I keep during the day, I find myself exhausted so much of the time and I wonder how long I can keep this up.
I know a few of my friends have started taking sleeping pills. But I’ve never been one to pop pills. The whole idea is not something I’m comfortable with, and I don’t want to get started and possibly get addicted. Some friends tell me they drink a glass of wine before they go to sleep and that it relaxes them and allows them to fall asleep. I wish I enjoyed drinking or could even tolerate alcohol. But I get nauseated from just a sip, so that’s not a possibility for me. I really don’t know what to do.
Unfortunately, some of the things I worry about are bad things. But is there anyone who doesn’t have bad things going on in their lives? I doubt it, and I doubt that I’m the only one dealing with so much. But I know I’m not doing a good job dealing with this right now and I wonder whether you have some suggestions for me to help me with my nights.
When the thought of getting into bed at night becomes a nightmare in and of itself, and your brain begins to buzz and race with repeated thoughts, there are behaviors you can put into practice that should be able to help you with your insomnia. Awareness is always the beginning of change. You seem to be aware that you have a problem at night and that you need to do something in order to get a decent night’s sleep. Many experts will tell you that sleep is as important as exercise, eating right, and other necessary practices that keep us at our best level of health.
First I’ll talk about good sleep hygiene and then go into what you may be able to do in general to help you with your high levels of stress. Obviously, you’re spending too much time in the negative and are feeling overwhelmed. You manage to push these thoughts and fears down during the day with your hectic schedule, which is distracting and hopefully rewarding. But, clearly, your fears can only be pushed down for so long, and at night, when your world is quiet and there is nothing for you to distract yourself with, they push their way up to the surface and take over.
Begin with developing relaxing, pre-bedtime rituals that help you transition into a peaceful, calm state before even attempting to sleep. You should turn off all your electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime. They tend to overstimulate one’s brain, so you want to stay clear of them. Next, take a few minutes to think about what’s on your mind, and what you can do, if anything, to improve the situation. Jot down these thoughts so that you know you won’t neglect or forget about them; knowing that they’ve been recorded, so to speak, allows you to “let go” for the time being.
Some people find that reading, listening to soft music, drinking herbal tea, meditating, or taking a warm bath are nice rituals that help them transition from their hectic day to a place of calm and security. So try these various activities, or maybe you can come up with some of your own, and see whether they help to bring your highly emotional state down a few notches. Also, make sure you’ve prepared a list for the following day of what you need to accomplish. Knowing that you don’t have to remember every last thing going on because you’ve committed it to paper has a calming effect.
Now let’s talk about your overactive emotional state, in general, which takes over during the night. You’re already aware that something needs to change in the way you handle the various stresses in your life. As you recognize, no one’s life is stress-free. We all have challenges, and some of those challenges can be quite frightening and depressing. But allowing the worry to take over never helped anyone, so let’s look for other approaches.
Rather than thinking about what can go wrong, start thinking about what can go right. Life is full of surprises and we are often amazed to see that a situation that seemed hopeless managed to turn itself around. Reminding yourself of this brings you a step closer to tackling your fears and your sense of helplessness. So when you find yourself paralyzed from all your overthinking, consider how a situation might resolve itself in a good way.
Learn how to put things into perspective. It’s so easy and natural to make things bigger and more negative than they need to be. The next time you find yourself making a mountain out of a molehill, ask yourself how much it will matter in five years or perhaps even in one year. Looking at things in a broader perspective can facilitate in shutting down overthinking and the drama that goes along with it.
Stop looking for, hoping for, or expecting perfection. That does not exist. We must learn how to love ourselves, family members, friends, and situations—warts and all—because that’s just the way it is. We are all imperfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for and work toward progress, but perfection is a goal we’ll most likely never reach, an elusive goal that will constantly leave us feeling breathless and hopeless.
Try to get a better understanding of your fear and learn how to manage it. Generally, our fears keep us up at night and often paralyze us. But fear is just an emotion. It’s something our psyches manufacture, but in and of itself, fear has no real power over us if we don’t give it that power. Those feelings can simply go up in smoke if you decide to let that happen.
A paradoxical approach to your worrying would be to give yourself a set amount of time to worry about everything that is wrong with your life. Set a timer for 15 minutes and during that time write down everything that’s worrying you, stressing you, or giving you anxiety. Don’t hold back. When the timer goes off and you’ve laid it all out there, take the piece of paper and shred it, burn it, let it go!
Finally, spend a set amount of time each day thinking about the little and big things that you are grateful for. It’s hard for the brain to hold fear and gratitude together at the same time. And be aware of your conversations with others. Make sure they include comments about things that you feel grateful for. It’s OK to share your worries, particularly if you have someone who can listen empathetically and perhaps even come up with some possible solutions, but you must also allow them to be witness to the good things that are around you. You are so much more than your worries.
Again, we’re not looking for perfection. You will have better nights and worse nights. But the goal is to improve your overall sleeping patterns and bring you to a calmer, more accepting place in general. Life will happen and keep moving along, with or without your worries. But it certainly will be a lot more enjoyable without them.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.