If worry is robbing you of precious sleep, you’re not alone. Researchers have found that nearly 25 percent of adults say their worries keep them tossing and turning at night. In fact, a study published online (Dec. 29, 2015) in Behavior Therapy suggests that there is a direct link between fretting during the daytime and greater risk for sleep disturbance at night.
“It’s normal to experience anxiety from time to time,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, executive vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Division of Clinical Research at the MGH Research Institute. “But when worrying becomes repetitive and leads us no closer to solutions to our problems, it can become a source of physical and emotional stress that can lead to sleep disruption. Fortunately, there are a number of useful self-help techniques that have been shown to help with bedtime worries.”
Six sleep secrets
Tackling the tendency to worry at bedtime with the following six strategies may help you ease your anxieties and get some restful sleep:
1) Keep a pad and pencil near the bed to jot down reminders.
If worrying you’ll forget to do something the next day keeps you awake, jot down a note about what you need to remember and then let the thought go.
2) Keep a diary in which you describe your preoccupations and tensions.
Watch for signs that you are making your worries worse by such habits as emphasizing the worst aspects of situations, assuming that bad outcomes will always happen, or setting yourself up for disappointment because of unrealistic expectations. Work to change these thought habits, especially when worries keep you awake.
3) Set aside a worry time.
Each day, set aside a time to think about what’s worrying you. Spend 10 to 20 minutes mulling over these problems and thinking of solutions, and then put them aside. At night, when a worry surfaces, tell yourself you have done your worrying for the day, and postpone fretting until next day’s worry time.
4) Make a list of your worries.
Write down each problem or fear, along with a description of what you plan to do to resolve it. When you find yourself worrying at bedtime, remind yourself that you have already made plans to address your problems, and turn your thoughts to something else.
5) List the worries you can do nothing about.
Writing down fears about problems you cannot control may help you realize that fretting about concerns like global warming at 2 a.m. accomplishes nothing. Remind yourself you have no control over the problem, and can think about it again after a good night’s sleep.
6) Use relaxation techniques.
Concentrate on your breathing. Or focus on progressively tensing and relaxing your muscles from head to toe to relax your body before sleep. Visualization – picturing yourself in a peaceful place where worries are far away and gently forcing your mind to return to the image each time worries intrude – can also help you doze off. Mindfulness meditation, a strategy taught at Mass General’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, is an especially good technique for inducing deep relaxation.
“If you experience anxiety that lasts for more than an hour a day for an extended period of time, or if you suffer from sleeplessness and concentration problems related to your anxiety, you may have an anxiety disorder,” Dr. Fava says. “That’s when you should consider seeking professional help. There is a good chance that counseling and/or medications can help you put your worries behind you so you can enjoy a better night’s sleep.”
What you can do
The following mindful meditation technique taught at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) helps focus the mind inward, and has a calming effect:
Create a daily window of time for meditation and find a quiet place where you can meditate without being disturbed.
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes, and slow your breathing.
Focus on your breathing or on a simple word or syllable uttered as you exhale.
Be aware of sensory perceptions, but remain detached.
When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breathing or focus word. After 20 minutes or so, open your eyes and sit quietly for a moment, letting yourself gradually return to your normal state.
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