Anxiety Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Sleep

Can’t sleep? Thinking differently could help.

When you get enough sleep, you are your best self. When you don’t… well, you may see it impact your life after a while. Your school or work performance may suffer due to drowsiness or difficulty concentrating. You may find yourself getting snippy more often with family and friends. You might feel more stressed out. Any of this sounding familiar?

I could write about sleep hygiene, but my guess is that you’ve already heard the tips before… Go to sleep at the same time every night, no technology 30 minutes before bed, a cup of caffeine-free tea, a boring book… Many of these strategies are effective, but if they don’t work for you, what then?

Sometimes when you go days, weeks, months without a good night’s sleep, it starts to affect your thoughts. You could start having thoughts like…

If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, I’m going to bomb my presentation tomorrow.

What if I can’t fall asleep until 3 am? 4 am? The whole night? What if I never fall asleep again?

There’s obviously something wrong with me. Maybe I’m going crazy.  

These thoughts aren’t helpful, but don’t try to stop or control them, just notice them. Believe it or not, trying to stop thinking about something can actually make you think about it more. If I tell you not to think about apples, what do you picture? Apples, right?

Once you notice your sleep-related thoughts, you can start to challenge them. It may go a little something like this:

If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, I’m going to bomb my presentation tomorrow. Well, for one thing, I may still get enough sleep tonight. I don’t know what’s going to happen because I can’t predict the future. For another thing, I’m really well-prepared for my presentation, and being tired won’t make or break that. At worst, I’ll yawn a few too many times.

What if I never fall asleep again? Whoa! I might be making a mountain out of a molehill here. The chances that I’ll never fall asleep again are pretty unlikely. And anyway, I don’t have control over next week, next month, or the rest of my life. I only have control over what I do right now.

Maybe I’m going crazy. Maybe, but probably not. I might just be feeling crazy because I feel powerless over this sleep problem. Lots of people have trouble sleeping. And hey, even if I’m crazy, so what? The most creative, interesting people in the world are ‘crazy.’ 

You can challenge your thoughts in your head or, if it helps, you can write down the thoughts and responses. Now you try:

I’ll never be able to sleep like a normal person. I’ll be stuck in this cycle for the rest of my life. 

Challenging response: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Guess what? You just did a cognitive behavioral therapy technique! Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective for a lot of issues, including insomnia.

If you challenge your initial thought but you still don’t totally believe your response, keep thinking, keep writing. Keep going until you can see flaws in the thought. If you’re stuck, you may want to refer to this list of common cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is an incorrect thought that can make you feel worse. We all have them, by the way… therapists included! It’s just part of being human.

Changing the way you think about sleep can help you feel better about your situation and yourself. For more assistance and guidance, consider seeing an individual therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. And for questions, comments, and suggestions on this post, please visit the contact page. Goodnight and sweet dreams!

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