Podcast episode 17 How to get back to sleep when you wake up worrying
Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.
I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m a writer and teacher specialising in overthinking and overworrying. Here I share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.
Hello and welcome to episode 17. In the last episode I shared some ideas for calming your overthinking mind so you give yourself the best chance of falling asleep when you get into bed. In this episode we’re sticking with the sleep theme, and we’re going to look at what you can 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 talk about here has been tried and tested by me. That doesn’t mean they’ll work perfectly for everyone but they’re worth a go.
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, it may still be 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. It’s no fun, is it? So, let’s see what we can do about it.
First of all, know that you’re not alone in this. When we’re lying there, in the quiet and dark with our thoughts yelling at us, we feel alone. We can feel like we’re 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.
So be kind to yourself. 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. 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. But that doesn’t work so well. 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 practising self-compassion has been shown to be a much more effective calming technique than mentally beating yourself up.
Kristin Neff is the leading authority on self-compassion and this is a mantra I’ve adapted from her book, Self Compassion, which 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 you need it. 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.
Something else you can do is 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 dolphin playing the banjo all you can think about is a dolphin playing the banjo. So, it might feel uncomfortable but acknowledge your thoughts. 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 for example.
I know letting it go sounds easier said than done so instead you’re going to direct your attention somewhere else. You’re going to 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.
So, 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 foot 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 (that’s kind of the point) 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 that’s fine. 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.
These are just a few ideas for what to do when you wake worrying in the night and want to get back to sleep. They’re what I’ve researched and tried myself and find most effective. They’re not about addressing the cause of why you’ve woken up or what your worries are, they’re just about how to get back to sleep when you’ve woken in the night with thoughts racing around your head. What’s most important is that you try different ideas to see what works for you.
As always I’d love to know what you take away from the episode, what you try and how it works for you so do get send me an email or message me on Instagram to let me know.
A sleep meditation is included in my beginners’ guide to meditation for overthinkers. If you’d like to find out how giving yourself just three minutes a day can soothe your whirring, overthinking mind, take a look at Exhale. The course starts whenever you join, I give you step-by-step guidance and it includes interviews with women who share how they benefit from fitting meditation around their busy work and family lives. Go to gabrielletreanor.com/podcast for a link in the show notes or find Exhale in the courses section of my website. You’ll also find all the other podcast episodes and show notes on my site too.
Thanks for joining me for Pressing Pause, until next time, lovely people.