If, like me, you have an overthinking brain and a tendency to feel anxious or get stuck on worrying, you might find yourself struggling with getting a peaceful night sleep at times.
Perhaps you go to bed and lie awake for a long while before eventually drifting off to sleep.
Or maybe you fall asleep quite easily but wake up at two or three in the morning struggling to get back to sleep.
Within minutes you start feeling anxiety rising in you. Thoughts start entering your mind, and competing for attention. Before you know it, your mind is spiralling out of control into ‘worry thoughts’.
If I let my mind cave in to the worrying spiral, I know that I’m likely to be lying awake for at least an hour before falling back to sleep. Most of the time, when I wake up in the morning, these thoughts don’t seem half as catastrophic as they did the night before.
In the clarity of daylight, I realise that I was either ruminating about the past or imagining terrible future scenarios which probably will never materialise.
If that’s you too, here are a few tips which you might find useful in dealing with these sleepless nights.
Firstly, create an atmosphere and mindset that are conducive to sleep.
Try doing some gentle restorative yoga before you hop into bed.
You can even do it sitting on your bed before getting tucked in. A few simple stretches to settle your mind and your body, and let go of your day.
Start meditating in the evening.
It doesn’t have to be long, ten minutes would be a good start. Choose an anchor, be it your breath, a mantra or the sounds around you. If your mind wanders, simply notice it and bring it back to your anchor. Notice the feelings and thoughts arising. Simply acknowledge them without engaging with them. If you enjoy guided meditations, you might want to try this short ‘Follow your breath’ meditation, which I recorded for you. There are also a number of meditation Apps you can use. My personal favourite is Insight Timer.
Have a bedtime ritual to signal to your mind and body that it is time to wind down.
Playing gently music, lighting a candle, writing in your journal, reading a chapter of your book sitting cosily in bed, or any other calming and relaxing activity that works for you.
As you lie in bed, before going to sleep, bring to your mind a few grateful thoughts from your day.
Bring to your mind little nuggets of joy that you experienced during your day. Fill your mind with positive memories and thoughts to fall asleep to.
When you are lying awake in bed, mindfulness can help you feel calmer and more grounded.
Sometimes, we wake up and sense our mind going into worry overdrive.
As if that wasn’t enough, we we often also start feeling impatient, frustrated, or worried about being exhausted in the morning. Ironically, this will only add to the worry chain reaction already unravelling in our mind and body.
The more we resist what is (the absence of sleep in this case), the more likely we are to suffer. Initially, we were simply not sleeping. Now we are not sleeping AND we are also getting agitated, angry, and wound up about it. As you can imagine, it is unlikely to help.
We can’t force our body to go to sleep, but we can choose how we react to our circumstance of being awake. This is where mindfulness can help.
I used to go through a whole array of emotions when I woke up in the middle of the night. It would usually start with a tinge of worry, then move to impatience, and frustration. I would hear my husband breathe heavily next to me, which would take my frustration up a notch. Then I would move on to fear telling myself all kinds of stories. About feeling tired in the morning, not being able to go back to sleep at all, going through the day in a fog and not performing at work.
And on it went. The more agitated I got, the less sleepy I felt.
If that sounds familiar, here are a few tips which you might find helpful:
Let go of expectations
The expectation that you should fall back to sleep within a set number of minutes, or that you shouldn’t be awake in the first place. Accept that you are awake at this present moment, and that desperately forcing yourself back to sleep or looking at the clock every few minutes is unlikely to help.
Try developing an awareness of what is happening
As you lie in bed, uncover the emotions that you are experiencing. Acknowledge them without drama.
Then turn your awareness to your breath, and take several deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly (perhaps counting to six as you inhale, pausing for two, exhaling for six and pausing for two at the bottom of your exhale). Keep your attention on your breath, noticing thoughts as they arise but not engaging with them. Imagine that they are passing clouds and let them drift away.
When you start falling down the rabbit hole of your thoughts (don’t worry, we all do), just go back to your breath.
Bring your awareness to your senses
Feeling the soft touch of the sheets on your body, the gentle support of the mattress underneath you, the warmth of your bed, the comfort of your pillow, the noises you can hear. It’s amazing what we can hear when we pay attention: rain tapping on the window, sirens in the distance, dogs barking, birds chirping, your companion breathing.
Scan your body from the tip of your toes to the crown of your head
Bring your full awareness to each part of your body, one at a time, exploring how it feels and the sensations you are experiencing (tingling, lightness, heaviness, comfort, discomfort, no sensation at all). Soften each part of your body as you go along. Allowing it to sink deeply into the mattress.
Listen to white noises
This one works really well for me. A little while ago, I downloaded an app called White Noise which has a range of sounds including the gentle sounds of an amazon jungle, a fire crackling away, a cat purring (quite impressively – it’s worth downloading the app just for that!), thunderstorms, rain falling against a window pane, a water sprinkler, crickets chirping, wind chimes, and more. To avoid waking my husband up, I usually put one earphone in and rest my head on the other ear. It works a treat.
So next time you struggle to sleep, try going with the flow, accepting that you are awake in that moment. Rather than battling in your mind with the fact that you are not sleeping, remind yourself that the best thing you can do is to choose how you react to being awake. By focusing on your breath, noises, sensations in your body, you have more chances of feeling grounded and more peaceful, and of drifting off to sleep.