Mca blog

Does Worrying About Not Sleeping Keep You Awake?

I had one of those nights last night. You know – one where you wake at 3am and think, is this it? Will I sleep anymore tonight?

I’m sure many of you can relate to that.

So what do you do? Do you fuss and worry about it? Do you toss and turn? Perhaps you get up and make yourself a hot drink, or watch some TV, then try again. Maybe you call it a night and start working.

Which do you think is harder on you – not sleeping enough, or worrying about not sleeping enough?

We’re told in the media that we need to get 8 hours sleep every night and if we’re chronically sleep deprived it can lead to all sorts of health problems, both physical and mental. But, does worrying about not sleeping enough set you up for a chronic problem from what may have started as just a couple of bad nights? In other words, if you have one or two bad nights, do you worry to the point of disturbing your sleep on a chronic basis?

I know why I slept badly last night and the past 3 nights. I’m getting over the flu and my cough medicine wears off around 3am. So I wake up coughing and have difficulty re-settling. But I know this is temporary. I know that when my health improves, so will my sleep. So I put up with some bad nights with the mantra “this too will pass”.

If you have the occasional bad night’s sleep it’s not too difficult to do that, especially if you know what’s causing it. But if your sleep problems occur on most nights, it’s not so simple. It’s natural to try to find reasons for the broken sleep: I’m stressed at work, having relationship problems, eating or drinking too much, have an uncomfortable mattress/pillow, too hot/too cold, too much noise, too much light, kids wake me, dog wakes me, possums on the roof wake me! Obviously if you can identify the reason you can also address it.

But what if you can’t? What if every night feels like a battle and every morning a disappointment? If this is how it is for you, then the worst thing you can possibly do is worry about it or worry about what effect this may be having on your health. Because worrying just entrenches you deeper into the no-sleep zone.

The mindset for breaking out of the habit of wakefulness when there’s no underlying cause is to just accept that if sleep comes, great; and if it doesn’t then that’s OK too. You’ll never be able to force yourself to sleep, you can only let go of the battle and relax into it.

I’d like to offer some tips both for preparation for bed and what to do once you’re there. Some of these tips you may have heard before, but it might not be just one tip that will work for you. You may need a multi-modal approach, trying many things together.

Before bed:

  • Give yourself some time to unwind with a relaxed walk, a book or some easy conversation before you even think about going to bed
  • Stay away from, or at least reduce your alcohol consumption before bed. A warm drink is more likely to settle you before bed than alcohol will
  • Leave some time after a big meal before going to bed, so you don’t feel too full
  • Invest in dimmers, soft lighting or candles in the rooms you use before bed, so that the cells at the back of your eyes don’t send a message to your brain that it’s daytime
  • If you like baths, take one immediately before bed. The hot water will draw out both the physical and mental fatigue, setting you up for deeper sleep
  • Use essential oils like lavender, chamomile, ylang ylang or bergamot in your bath or sprinkled on your pillow
  • Know your body: do you sleep better if you’re warm or cool? I know I sleep better if I stay cool with a window open and minimum covers, but many people prefer to be warm and cosy
  • Prepare your bedroom as best you can with whatever you need: blocking out light, reducing noises as much as possible, maybe having an extra cover nearby in case you get cold in the early morning.

Once you’re in bed:

  • Know what’s the most comfortable position for you. I know I sleep more deeply when lying on my side
  • Send your mind into your body rather than letting it seek out thoughts in your brain. To do this, you need to bring awareness to whatever you feel as you lie in your comfortable position, eg the pillow under your head, the mattress supporting your body, the sheets under you, the covers over you, etc. Focus on these sensations to the exclusion of the thoughts that may appear in your mind
  • You may find it relaxing to place a hand on your abdomen and feel the rising and falling with each breath you take, allowing the rhythm of your breath soothe you to sleep
  • Each time your brain starts generating thoughts, which it will, don’t struggle. Gently return your attention to your body or your breathing.
  • If sleep doesn’t come as quickly as you would like, tell yourself that you will lie there relaxing your body and your mind as you focus on your breathing, rather than worrying or becoming frustrated
  • If you find yourself getting frustrated, remind yourself that habits can be hard to break. Notice the sensation of frustration in your body – where it resides, what it feels like – thereby diverting your attention away from your thoughts and back into your sensations
  • In the morning, you don’t need to count how many hours you slept, as this will only make you overthink the process. If you slept all night great. If you didn’t, well that night is over. You can choose to enjoy the day ahead anyway.

The meditators amongst you will recognise this process as the one you do in order to focus your attention during meditation practice. This is the same process you can use to relax into sleep. Note, I didn’t say fall asleep.

Moving into sleep doesn’t need to be accidental, like a fall. It can be a deliberate process, one you choose to embrace. As such you need to recognise the steps your body and brain need before they can go there. In short, stop fighting with yourself, worrying or berating yourself about not sleeping enough, and you’ll be much more likely to relax through the night, no matter how many hours you sleep.

Back to Blog menu