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What to Do When You Can’t Fall Asleep

How to overcome worry and anxiety in the middle of the night

Woman with insomnia lying in bed with open eyes
Woman with insomnia lying in bed with open eyes

It’s 3:00 AM. You’ve been tossing for who knows how long. You try different sleeping positions, punch the pillow, throw the sheets off and pull them back on again. Nothing is letting you get back to sleep.

It’s not the bed that’s keeping you awake. It’s the worry that won’t let your mind calm down enough to drift off.

Anxiety and stress are among the most common causes of insomnia. It becomes a vicious circle, though, because difficulty sleeping causes you to be fatigued during the day, which can make the anxiety and stress symptoms worse, which makes it harder to sleep…

You can take a pill. But that only masks the problem and leaves you feeling drugged.

Fortunately, there are easy, effective and drug-free ways to deal with those worry-filled nights.

Step 1:             Get up

That’s right, stop trying to fight your way back to sleep and simply get up. The longer you lie there, angry that you’re being deprived of sleep while simultaneously stressing about whatever woke you up in the first place, the worse it gets.

Getting up isn’t giving in to the anxiety, it’s taking control of it. As soon as you decide to act, you’ve regained the power to control what’s going on.

Step 2:            Get your journal

Behavioral psychologists use a method called ‘Pattern Interrupt’ to break out of a particular thought, behavior or situation. The process interrupts the ‘thought rut’ you’re in and lets you regain control of your mind.

In the middle of the night, find a comfy chair and sit down with your journal. It’s vital that you write with pen or pencil because the kinesthetic act of writing helps interrupt your thought patterns in two ways.

First, it diverts part of your thinking into the physical act of writing. When your neurons are directed at moving your fingers to form letters on the page they can’t participate in your current worry fest.

Second, the act of writing somehow lets the anxious thoughts flow out of your brain, down your arm, out through your fingers and onto the page. After you’ve spent five minutes writing, you’ll be amazed at how much more relaxed you feel.

Step 3:            Celebrate

Writing about your worries and stresses is only going to wind you up tighter. So stay away from those topics by interrupting the pattern even further. Instead, write about your successes.

Start by making a list of five things you did before you were 18 that you were really proud of. Doesn’t matter how big or small they seem now, they were big to you at the time. Did you catch a fly ball in little league? Stand up in front of your sixth-grade class and read a poem you’d written? Did you win a ribbon in a sports event? Earn a merit badge in your Scout or Guide troop? Jump off the high board at the local pool?

As you add each success, “re-feel” how you felt at the time. Let yourself glow with pride all over again. The challenges you overcame seemed daunting, even overwhelming at the time, but somehow you found the courage, the resources, the determination to succeed anyway.

You’re still the same you.

Step 4:            Act

The writing alone is probably dialing the anxiety back already. Take a moment to celebrate that you’ve managed to interrupt the worry and control your mind instead of it controlling you.

Now turn your mind back to whatever situation was keeping you awake. Only now you’re in charge and going to do something about it. Use your journal to answer these questions:

  1. What’s really bothering me?
  2. What am I scaring myself by imagining?
  3. What can I do in the next 15 minutes to help resolve this situation?
  4. What can I do in the next 24 hours to help resolve this situation?

If you’re worrying about finances you could, in the next 15 minutes, begin to make yourself a strict budget for the next three months. If you’re worrying about a relationship you could write a letter to the person. (Don’t send it until after you’ve reviewed it in the light of day.) If you’re worried about a health issue you could write the outline of a diet and exercise program.

Regardless of the situation there is something that you can do, even in the middle of the night, to help alleviate your stress. In taking that action you’ll immediately feel better. Because you took control and did something that broke your mind out of that endless cycle.

Step 5:            Go back to bed

Now you’ll find that your mind is much more at ease, that your body is ready for sleep and that you’ll be able to drift off easily. When you lay back on the pillow, let your thoughts be on successes you’ve achieved and obstacles you’ve overcome. Revel in the pride of accomplishment and knowledge that you’re still the same person who’s achieved so much already. Fill your brain with the positive, proactive steps you’ve already taken and will continue to take in the morning.

These thoughts won’t last long, though, because before you know it you’ll be sleeping like a baby.

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