What to do when you lie awake worrying
In this post we looked at what you can do to calm your mind so you give yourself the best chance of falling asleep when you get into bed. Now we’re going to focus on what to do when you wake in the middle of the night with your mind racing and you can’t get back to sleep. I have spent far too much time in the early hours lying in the dark with worries flying around my head, and I know exactly how frustrating, scary and lonely it feels. So, what I’m going to share with you here has been tried and tested by me. Having strategies to call upon in the small hours means that not only can I help myself but it also gives me the confidence that I can deal with my whirring brain and that makes a big difference.
So, let’s picture the scene. You’ve woken up at some point in the night or early morning, earlier than you want to be awake. The rest of the house is quiet (there may be some audible snoring), it’s dark and your mind has leaped into action with thoughts and worries spinning around at high speed. You don’t want to be awake, you don’t want to have these thoughts, you feel alone and your own mind is driving you crazy. You just want your brain to stop, and you want to be asleep. Sound familiar? It’s not fun. So, let’s see what we can do about it.
1 First of all, you’re not alone in this. When we’re lying there, in the quiet dark with our thoughts yelling at us, we feel isolated. Even with a house full of people we can still feel like the only person in the world awake with a head full of worry. But know this: you’re not alone. Everyone has woken up in the night and struggled to get back to sleep. No-one sleeps solidly every night for their entire life. There’s a good chance that in homes up and down the land there are other people lying awake at the exact same time you are, also wishing their brains would shush, that the thought ticker tape would stop and willing themselves to sleep.
2 Give yourself compassion. When you’re exhausted and you have a busy day ahead you can feel really cross and frustrated that your brain isn’t letting you sleep. That it’s insisting on thinking loudly when you really need to get some rest. So you get annoyed with yourself, you tell your brain to stop it, you push away the unwanted thoughts, willing yourself to stop being so difficult and to just shut up and sleep. That doesn’t work so well, though, does it? Trying to make your mind go blank, squeezing your eyes tightly shut and burrowing under the duvet may not do the trick, however hard we try. So let’s stop trying.
Give yourself some compassion by recognising this is difficult. Tell yourself that lying awake with a runaway train of thoughts when you want to be asleep is really hard to deal with and that it’s understandable you’re feeling stressed. Imagine it’s a good friend lying awake, feeling this way and think how you would talk to her. Acknowledging how you’re feeling and practicing self-compassion has been shown to be a much more effective calming technique than mentally beating yourself up.
Here’s a mantra (adapted from a suggestion by the leading authority in self-compassion, Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion) you can repeat to yourself to soothe your stressed mind and nerves: “This feels really difficult right now. Everyone feels like this sometimes. I will give myself the kindness I need.” Try repeating these phrases to yourself, or adapt them so they feel right for you, and see how you feel. This mantra can be used in any challenging situation so it’s a good one to have stored up, ready to repeat when needed. It isn’t a magic bullet, you won’t say these words and then poof, you’re fast asleep. But by giving yourself compassion you’re making it easier for you to calm down so you can get to a point where you drop off again.
3 Acknowledge what you’re thinking. Thoughts that worry or frighten us are not something that we want to give our attention to. However, if you try really hard not to think of a hedgehog on roller-skates all you can think about is a hedgehog on roller-skates. So, it might feel uncomfortable but acknowledge what you’re thinking about. We’re not going to look at how wrong or right your thoughts are. It doesn’t actually matter what you’re worried about because we’re not addressing the worries. Getting involved in your thoughts in the middle of the night isn’t going to resolve them.
So, instead, we acknowledge the fear and the worry: “I know I’m worried about x”. We give ourselves compassion: “It’s really hard for me to have this going round in my head right now”. And we recognise that at this exact moment there is no action we can take so we’re letting it go: “Right now it’s the middle of the night, I’m in bed, there’s nothing I can do to address these worries so I will no longer give them my attention”. You can even give yourself a specific time when you will face the worries, such as later that morning at 11am. I know letting it go sounds easier said than done so bear with me. In the next point we’ll see where to direct your attention instead…
4 Focus on what is real and true in this moment. Having acknowledged the thoughts running around your brain and recognised that lying in bed in the middle of the night is not the time to tackle them, it’s time to move your attention to something else. You’re not pretending the thoughts aren’t there, or making your mind go blank, you’re choosing to focus elsewhere instead. The one thing that you know is real at this moment, even without being able to see it in the dark, is your body because you can feel it.
You’re going to do a scan of your body and where it comes into contact with the mattress. You focus your attention on each part of your body, starting with your toes and travelling slowly all the way up to the top of your head, noticing what’s touching the mattress and what isn’t. You’re not trying to change anything, you’re just taking your time and giving all your concentration to each little bit of your body. So, first of all you focus on your feet. Are some, all, or none of your toes touching the mattress? Is the side of one of your feet lying on the sheet but the heel isn’t? Which part of your other foot is on the mattress? It may sound odd, and a little tedious but it’s absolutely worth a go. It takes quite a lot of effort to pinpoint each piece of your body and how it feels in relation to the mattress and your mind will drift off to your thoughts. When you’ve noticed your mind has wandered bring it back to the last body part you remember and continue with the scan. This isn’t something to rush, the desired outcome isn’t that you get to the top of your head but that you get so bored or tired of this exercise that you fall asleep before you finish.
If you get uncomfortable and want to shift position, do so. You can restart the body scan exercise as many times as you need to. If you reach the top of your head you can move position and start again, perhaps working down from your head to your feet. Every time your mind wanders off to worrying go through the same process: acknowledge your thoughts, give yourself compassion for how difficult this feels, and bring your focus back to where your body is in contact with the mattress. Don’t get cross with yourself for still being awake or for having the thoughts or for your mind wandering – none of that will help. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to each little section of your body.
There are other ideas for dealing with being awake in the middle of the night, such as getting up to read or make a warm, milky drink. The drawback of more active methods is that they could wake you up even further which makes it hard to fall sleep when you do get back into bed. What’s important is that you try different ideas to see what works for you. The suggestions above are what I’ve researched and tried myself and find most effective.
There are a couple of valuable points that I’d like you to take away from this, even if you don’t want to try the body scan exercise:
- You’re not the only one who lies awake at night thinking a million catastrophic thoughts so please don’t feel you’re alone in this
- Being self-compassionate will soothe your mind and get you closer to sleep than getting cross with yourself
- In the middle of the night it’s unlikely that you can take practical action to address your worries so acknowledge them and then direct your attention onto what you do know to be real and true in that moment
As you can see this post is purely about how to get back to sleep when you’ve woken in the night with thoughts racing around your head. It’s not about addressing the cause of why you’ve woken up or what your worries are, that’s another matter specific to you. The suggestions above are valid and, I believe, effective for helping you to fall back to sleep, whatever woke you in the first place. Try them out and let me know how you get on.