Sleep Disturbances: Overthinking At Night

After a long day, rushing to get your work done, put dinner on the table, and solve the crises everyone runs to you for, you finally get a moment of peace while laying down to sleep. Unfortunately, for many of us, this time can be full of distressing thoughts including memories of the past, fears for the future, and analysis of ourselves. Some even find themselves unable to fall asleep due to these ruminations, making their next day even more tiresome.

Why Do I Overthink at Night?

Our nighttime thoughts are often a reflection of our daily lives. To a degree, thinking at night is our mind’s attempt to reflect, adapt, and prepare for challenges to come. What this means is that if our days are full of stress then our minds will try to anticipate future stress and prepare us for that stress in our only moment of respite.

Some people find that giving themselves a time, during their waking hours, to feel their stresses and accept them, have less of a tendency to think of these thoughts later on. This can be a difficult task to do, but a number of clinicians at Suffolk Family Therapy can be there to help you get started. Learn about them here.

Overthinking Affecting Sleep

People who suffer from overwhelming life stress, anxiety, depression, and associated insomnia will often say that their unwanted thoughts make it harder for them to get to sleep each night. This insomnia can lead to decreased work or academic performance, depleted mood, low energy and fatigue, or many other functional impacts.

How to Focus on Trying to Sleep

As silly as it may seem: count sheep. More specifically, there is research that suggests repeating a word or phrase at specific rates (usually 3-4 repetitions a second) can impact our brain’s ability to think of other thoughts. This is called articulatory suppression. This phrase should be neutral so that it doesn’t trigger thoughts of other things to come to mind. Some people find syllables or articles (“the”, “an,” or “a”) as helpful choices.

Others find imagery to be exceptionally helpful in maintaining sleep and getting to sleep. Try this exercise: in your mind, craft a story around yourself doing something that you enjoy most. Do your best to picture the details: sights, sounds, smells, or tastes. By practicing this imagery, you are training your brain to use your imagination to distract yourself from your thoughts. If those intrusive thoughts come to mind, accept that they are there, and push them aside as you author your tale.

Remember, this is a learned skill. It may not come naturally and it may not work the first few tries.

Other things that you may be able to do to focus on your sleep include:

  1. Staying off of your electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  2. Not utilizing your sleep space for non-intimacy or non-sleep-related activities throughout the day.
  3. Eliminating caffeine or other stimulating substances.
  4. If you struggle to fall asleep within an hour and a half, get up and do something for 15 minutes. Then try again.
  5. Exercise in the day to drain excess energy.

What to do to Control Thoughts

Our brains are very much like a river: the water represents our thoughts and the land represents our mind. If we can place ourselves firmly in the river, and not get carried away with the current, then we can improve our wellbeing. For some, the current, or our intrusive overthinking, will carry us into anxiety, depression, and other negative mental places. So, we look to take some control back and stand up.

Some brief activities can help us to control our thoughts and thus improve our nighttime routines.

  1. Mindfulness meditation.
  2. Breathing exercises.
  3. Positive affirmations and rejection of self-judgements.
  4. Taking a meaningful break from daily stress.
  5. Identify what causes unwanted thoughts and our focus on them.
  6. Journal your thoughts and feelings.
  7. Talk with your therapist about Mindfulness and Acceptance based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Nicholas Costa, MSW Intern