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Sleep

Battling bothersome beliefs that affect sleep

Escaping the cycle of sleepless nights may require a shift in your thinking and harnessing your beliefs to help facilitate a good night’s rest. 
September 22, 2022

From pills to cognitive and behavioural approaches for sleep: battling bothersome beliefs that affect sleep

Being unable to fall asleep is frustrating, and can often lead to thoughts that can further cause issues with sleep. Escaping this cycle may require a shift in your thinking and harnessing your beliefs to help facilitate a good night’s rest.

How your thoughts affect your sleep

Many of the interventions used to address sleep issues often focus on the role of unhelpful beliefs which have been shown to play a part in maintaining difficulties with sleep¹. It has been documented that people with insomnia lie in bed worrying about a range of topics, including not being able to fall asleep². This process is suggested to activate our sympathetic nervous system (our brain’s threat centre) which can trigger physiological arousal and distress³—a state that’s definitely not conducive to falling asleep and staying asleep. Further, this can trigger unhelpful behavioural and perceptual mechanisms including increased attention towards potential threats³. In the case of insomnia, the focus can be on sleep related threats that can be internal (body sensations) or external (environmental factors).


Tackle unhelpful thinking

It’s time to take control of your thoughts! Try these techniques from Dr Guy Meadows, founder of the Sleep School and author of The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night⁴.


Modify your thoughts

Reframe your thoughts from ‘I will be awake all night’ and instead think  ‘I am having the thought that...’ or ‘my mind is telling me that I’ll be awake all night’. This changes your perspective on the unhelpful thought, and instead it is being looked at from afar rather than pulling you into the thought which can cause more of an impact.


Label and describe

Try labelling and describing thoughts and emotions. Verbal descriptions move us from a threat response driven by the amygdala (a brain region central to the fear response)⁵ to the prefrontal cortex, which creates distance from emotions and signals to the brain we’re okay.

Visualise

Utilise visualisation techniques when experiencing negative thoughts. For example, imagine getting a hot air balloon (or helicopter) view on thoughts, seeing them from afar to gain perspective. Some find it helpful to view thoughts as passing clouds, or even imagine thoughts as items floating down the river (standing on the river bank watching them pass by). The aim here is to create distance from the thought which can reduce the emotional charge a particular thought carries.


What’s next?

Sleep issues can be influenced by negative thoughts surrounding sleep, but by harnessing those thoughts and reframing them, you’re able to give yourself a better chance of getting a good night’s rest. Make a conscious effort to pay attention to your thoughts and catch yourself when you do start spiralling into unhelpful beliefs. It may take time, but the effort is worth the reward.


Smart Change

For a few nights this week, utilise one of the techniques we’ve discussed above to tackle unhelpful thought processes that might be creating stress around sleep.

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