As humans we often have a lot of stuff going on in our lives. Sometimes we deal with that stuff immediately, and process it as we encounter it. At other times, our worries and concerns are processed later, throughout the course of the day. Occasionally however, we may not be able to process our worries and concerns right away. It may be that we are purposely avoiding thinking about those things, perhaps we have a lot of other stuff to focus on or distract us, or maybe our worries and concerns are too big or too complex to resolve simply by thinking about them ‘in one go’.
Unfortunately, when we have issues that are affecting our lives, whether big or small, they can come up and ‘demand attention’ when we are trying to get to sleep. This is unpleasantly ironic, especially in really negative situations, as sleep can feel like a wonderful escape from what is going on in our waking world. Yet, the very thing that we are trying to avoid thinking about can sometimes prevent us from getting that sleep.
Why negative thinking happens at bedtime
This ‘negative rumination’ at bedtime is a natural response, and it is your brain trying to help you find a solution to your problems. However, as the person who is having the problem, it can be very difficult to see things from an objective perspective. As you may already know, looking at problems objectively is often the best way to begin to move beyond them. However, most of the time, when we are laying in bed, trying to think about a situation objectively, we quickly get caught up in our own subjective experience, which includes our feelings and thoughts about the situation.
As our feelings about a negative situation or event will usually be unpleasant or unhelpful, this can lead our imaginations down the path of negative thinking, where we play out different potential scenarios or responses. Whether these are things that you may plan to do, fantasise about doing, or ways in which you wish you had responded in a past situation, this negative rumination is a fast track to insomnia, or at least a difficulty getting to sleep when you want to.
How to stop unwanted thoughts
If you find yourself in a situation where your thoughts are stopping you from getting to sleep, here are four things that you can do that will help you out.
1. Expunge your thoughts about the problem
A great starting point to clear your mind before you go to sleep is to deal with the thoughts that are likely to come up. It is important that you do this before you go to bed, proactively. Whether talking to someone about your problems, or writing the problems down to deal with later, directly acknowledging these unhelpful situations or thoughts is a sure-fire way to reduce intrusive thoughts on that topic when you do finally go and relax in bed.
This process can also be used alongside step 2…
2. Take action
Firstly, figure out what aspects of your problem you can actually deal with. Often, we worry about things that are beyond our control, or events that have already taken place. If this is the case, unfortunately there is not a lot you can do to take direct action to resolve the situation or event. It then comes down to dealing with your thoughts. More on that in a bit.
For those things that you do have control over, consider what solutions you might put in place in order to resolve, or begin to resolve that situation. Now, obviously there may not be a quick and easy solution, depending on what your problem is. But being proactive, even in small amounts, is a great way to begin to relax the hold that this negative situation has on your thoughts at bedtime.
As mentioned before, an objective perspective can often help here. If you are unable to think objectively about the situation and potential solutions, then perhaps talk to someone that you trust about your situation, or even seek out a third party to help you, such as a hypnotherapist or other talking therapist.
A skill that you need to learn, if you do not use it already, is mindfulness, or meditation, or in its most simple form; how to stop engaging with thoughts. This is the primary focus of mindfulness and meditation; being in control of your thoughts, and the ability to disconnect from unwanted thoughts at will.
As with many skills, there are courses on mindfulness and meditation. However, the majority of people probably don’t need to take a course. All you really need is practice. So, the next time that you are laying in bed, make a conscious decision to begin controlling your thoughts. Start by clearing your mind, and disengaging from any thoughts that come up. Notice that you are having the thought, and then disconnect from it. Do this whether they are positive or negative thoughts, as it all makes for good practice.
Some people find that it helps to have a point of focus, a symbol, or a mantra to focus on whilst clearing thoughts. Other people prefer to just aim for an absence of thought. How you do this is entirely up to you. Keep in mind, that if this is a new skill, you may not be perfect at it right away. Sometimes our thoughts can run away with us. If you notice this has happened, bring your attention back, and disconnect from the thought. The more you repeat this process, the easier it becomes.
To become proficient at this thought-control process, I recommend setting yourself a time limit as you practice. The first time you do this, set a timer on your phone or clock for 5 minutes. Initially, just 5 minutes of thought control is your aim. Then, each day add a minute onto your timer, until you get up to around 15 minutes a day. This amount of time is often more than enough to develop the habit of being able to control your thoughts at will. Just by practicing this skill for 15 minutes a day, you will get over 91 hours of practice a year. So, after a short while doing this, you will naturally be more in control, and able to focus on whatever it is that you like, especially as you go to sleep. The key here, as mentioned, is repetition and practice. It takes a bit of effort, but think about it; surely it is better to spend 15 minutes each evening practicing this helpful process, than spending countless hours worrying and ruminating on things as you’re trying to get to sleep!
Finally, self-hypnosis can be a fantastic solution to help you not only control your thoughts, but actively deal with your problem situation. I am not going to go into full detail about how self-hypnosis works in this blog, as if you have never done it before, it takes a little bit of explaining. However, if it is something that you’d like to learn, check out my book, The Beginner’s Guide to Hypnotherapy, where I break down the self-hypnosis process in full, and you will get a working understanding that you can put into place right away:
Free insomnia hypnosis session
In the meantime, if you’d like help getting to sleep with hypnosis, and you don’t have time to learn self-hypnosis yet, then check out my free ‘hypnosis for insomnia’ session on YouTube.