If your body is tired but your mind keeps you awake, these two mental mistakes may be to blame. Here’s how to stop sabotaging your sleep.
If you’re here reading this, it’s likely that you’re a poor sleeper.
If you didn’t self-identify with this description, you’d have woken feeling refreshed this morning. You’d have fallen asleep with little fanfare and stayed asleep most of the night. If you woke—say to use the toilet—you’d have come back to bed and drifted off again quickly.
But instead, here you are, perhaps searching Google for a solution until you stumbled upon this blog with a title that looked promising.
As a Sleep & Well-Being Coach, I work with people who have trouble with sleep. Actually, that’s kind of an understatement.
I mostly work with people who’ve struggled to get restful sleep for years . . . sometimes many years. They’ve “tried everything” (frustrating). They “don’t sleep at all” (super frustrating). They’ve been turned away by doctors who’ve thrown every medication at them and then say they’re a “lost cause” (seriously!?) They feel miserable because this thing called sleep—which is supposed to be such a natural, human function, eludes them night after night.
If that’s you, you’re in the right place. You have a problem. I believe you. You certainly do!
When Stars Align, The Mind-Body Sleeps
First, both the body and the mind must be aligned for sleep to occur.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume it’s likely that you’ve had an experience where you’ve tired out your body. You’re physically exhausted. Maybe that’s from running a marathon. Maybe it’s from your busy day-to-day life.
But yet when you lay down, you don’t sleep.
WHY??????? You might wonder. I feel SO tired.
Well, it’s certain your body might be tired, exhausted even. But your mind may still be pretty active. And if these two parts, the mind and body, are not in sync, it will be very difficult for you to fall and stay asleep.
Most of the work I do with 1-1 clients is with their mind.
But My Mind is a Ping-pong Ball
Do you hear song lyrics repeating in your head when you’re trying to fall asleep? When you wake up, do you see the clock and start calculating the time you have left or how many hours you’d have gotten if you’d just fall back to sleep NOW? Do you have little debates in your head about whether you should or shouldn’t do something? Are you rehearsing?
Hell, I wrote the outline of this blog while lying in bed just last night!
If you can relate, your mind is probably not like an average ping-pong ball. (Because that, my friends, would mean it bounces back and forth between ONLY two things.) It’s likely more like a ping-pong ball that’s broken free of the paddles and the table!
Your mind gets pulled to anything and everything else besides sleep.
You have a mind that is unfocused. One that is not directed. A mind that’s scattered this way and that.
So grab a piece of paper and pen, and ask yourself these questions:
- When you multitask today (or yesterday)? Some quick examples: ate while watching TV or reading, checked email while on a Zoom meeting, listened to music while walking, scrolled through Twitter while cooking dinner, etc.
- How else was your mind like a rogue ping-pong ball during your day? Go ahead and count the ways. I’ll wait. Here’s an example if you’re stuck: I thought about how to respond to my husband while he told me why he disagreed with my method of loading the dishwasher.
- What effects do you think this has on your ability to sleep at night? Specifically, on your mind?
But No, I AM Focused, & Trying So Hard!
Maybe what I just said isn’t true at all. Maybe you’re an expert single-tasker, and you’re putting a lot of time, energy, and focus into trying to fall and stay asleep because you know how important it is.
I spoke to a woman the other day who was listening to recordings that were supposed to hypnotize her into falling asleep. But she heard all the words, all the way to the end where the voice assumed, she’d have already fallen asleep by that point.
She told me, “I try to listen carefully and do what he says.”
She’s focuses on the voice, trying to be good about her sleep.
I’m doing the work, I’m baby-stepping, I’m not a slacker! Just look, I’m in really bad shape!”
(Please don’t hate me for the “What About Bob?” reference.)
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Trying Too Hard Creates Stress
It can even create anxiety.
- “I avoid going to bed because I’m anxious about not sleeping.”
- “All day long, I think about my sleep. How can I fix it? How can I feel better?”
- “I’m going to die if I don’t sleep already.”
Um….well THAT’s a horrific thought that would certainly keep me awake!
Some of the people I’ve talked to have read all the articles about the devastating health effects of poor sleep. They’ve read the sleep books (except mine!) too, and they’re so, so worried about when and how they’ll finally solve their sleep problem.
While not sleeping well does have a number of negative effects on one’s health, sleep isn’t something we can force or control with our minds.
In fact, worrying, stressing, and allowing a sleep issue to consume your daily life is pretty much guaranteed to perpetuate your problem. Such intense focus will keep your mind alert and awake.
Since you probably filled that blank page, flip it over, and ask yourself these questions:
- What typically happens when you have a thought while lying in bed? Do you go down a rabbit hole, repeating the thought, drilling it deeper? Or does the thought springboard into multiple thoughts and if so, where and how does it end?
- What do you say to yourself when you climb into your bed? When you wake up at 4 a.m.?
- What do you believe might happen if you don’t fall asleep or fall back to sleep?
It’s a Goldilocks Kind of Thing
Did you catch the earlier mention about how I wrote the outline of this blog while lying in bed, just before I fell asleep?
How long do you think it took me to fall asleep given this thought?
I’d say around 15 minutes.
Why did I stop at the outline and not write the whole thing? Why did my mind not run off to other topics, like where I’d publish it, or when, or whether I’d write it tomorrow, and what else I had to do tomorrow, and and and . . . ?
Here’s the secret:
I had these thoughts AND still fell asleep in a reasonable amount of time because I gave the thought just the right amount of focus.
I thought, “I could write this down now.” (Realized my notebook was not at my bedside table.)
Then I thought, “OK, the 3 bullet points are . . . 1, 2, and 3.”
And finally, “If it’s important enough to share, I’ll remember this when I wake up.”
Zzzzzzzz . . . .
I did not push the thought away or try to stop it. “Here you are, thought. I acknowledge you.”
And I did not allow the thought to be a springboard for other thoughts. “What do I really need to remember? OK, got it, thanks. Bye!”
I won’t lie. This is both a daily & a nightly training.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: like a muscle, you have to TRAIN your mind to give just enough focus to your sleep and to the thoughts that come up at night.
Over time, such training enables your mind to come back into alignment with your body.
This is not a quick fix. Like any training program, it requires some commitment, some time, and some effort. It can be easier with some support, so if you need help, reach out.