In my work as a sleep coach, and from chatting with folks who are curious about it, I notice a few commonalities. One that stands out is the way that people who struggle with sleep talk about themselves. As well as having ‘always been a bad sleeper’ for most of their lives, the next most frequent phrase I hear is ‘I’m a worrier’. With many people sharing how they suspect worrying to be the main reason for not sleeping well.
Worrying is a common experience that most of us come up against at some point. Like imagining the worst-case scenario for things that may happen, over-analysing everything or second-guessing yourself.
You are more likely to experience worrying if you struggle with sleep. That’s because if you weren’t already a ‘worrier’, those tough, sleep-deprived days that come with a rough sleep patch are a prime time for stirring anxious thoughts. Like starting your morning with a sense of dread for getting through what’s ahead with low energy. Or the classic insomnia scenario of laying down to try and sleep, but racing thoughts take over for the night.
So how can you break the worrying about sleep/ insomnia loop? Well, like any habit, it can be challenging to change, but it is absolutely possible! So let’s look at what goes on with worrying and what you can do to weaken those worried thoughts.
Why do we worry?
Worry is a natural reaction in the brain that’s designed to alert and protect against situations that may be a threat. The function brings temporary panic to help us manage stress and uncertainty, it’s actually a wonderful way that our brains look after us!
However, whilst the state is designed to be temporary, it can become overactive. Typically by inflating potential risks and underestimating our ability to handle them. We can find ourselves frequently triggered by things that aren’t an immediate risk to our safety. Like when you wake up in the middle of the night in a panic about whether you sent that work email or not.
How common is worrying?
With 301 million people reportedly living with an anxiety condition in 2019 according to the World Health Organisation, worrying is a familiar struggle for many. Research has shown that anxiety can be passed down through genetics in families, with a heritability rate of 30%.
Anxious ways of being can also be passed on through families or other significant relationships through the limiting beliefs that others may hold about the world. So if you grow up in a family where anxious reactions may be exaggerated (for example in reacting to watching the news or grades slipping at school), then you may also take on a similar perspective that the world is a fearful place.
None of which is conducive to the relaxed and peaceful state needed to be able to drift off to sleep consistently!
How to stop worrying about worrying
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) is an approach used in Restful Sleep coaching that involves looking at thoughts about thoughts. So with worrying, we are adding extra stress around situations (many of which never actually happen).
First, we fact-check any worries that may come up regularly, for example ‘Insomnia might kill me, or ‘I simply won’t be able to perform at work today’. I am happy to report that no matter how little shut-eye you managed the night before, insomnia won’t actually kill you. So if you notice the internal chatter increasing when you’re low on energy, remember that you’re likely to get through a day when you are sleep-deprived just fine.
When it comes to looking after yourself during the days of a rough sleep period, it can help to work out where it may be possible to take more short breaks and find where there may be some flexibility in your day. This can bring you more in touch with making choices that support your energy levels.
The best ways to help with worrying are tailored to the individual and their preferences, but to get started with exploring alternatives to worrying, you can try these tips:
Notice when you are worrying
Can you bring in some neutrality to how you react to worrying? So rather than worrying being something you may fear, or become tense about, can you see it as something inevitable and expected even? As part of the human experience that comes up, can you try out the intention of just noticing it happening without attaching any further thoughts?
You can also try wearing a rubber band around your wrist and snap it whenever you notice a worrying thought. This simple technique helps with increasing awareness of when worrying is happening and redirecting your energy to what you would prefer to focus on.
Reframing being a worrier by being a warrior
Building on the practice of noticing when worrying thoughts creep in, the next phase is to see if you can bring in a new perception of yourself. Instead of seeing yourself as a worrier, can you see yourself as a warrior - somebody who is courageous enough to try out a new way of being?!
You could start this with affirmations when you wake up in the morning to set your intentions for the day. It might feel unfamiliar at first, but saying out loud (or even better in the mirror) ‘I am a warrior’ helps to reinforce a new identity away from being a worrier.
You can also explore this through exercise or sports activities that you enjoy - taking the physical opportunity to see what it feels like to embody being a warrior. You could try it in your day-to-day life as well, like walking to the supermarket as a warrior. Ask yourself ‘How does it feel to get my groceries as a warrior?’.
Let your worries run wild (for a set amount of time)
On the other end of the spectrum, did you know that it can be helpful to let your worry run totally free and go as extreme as you like?! The only limit is that you do this for a set period of time.
That’s how stimulus control works in CBTI. By having a set time every day to indulge in the thing you’re trying to reduce, you can save worries throughout the day and journal about your experience to see what you may uncover. You can find out more with this stimulus control exercise.
Be more Pedro
Or more Peter, Petra or Pierre - whoever may bring you inspiration in their way of being. The next time there’s a stressful situation at work, or in your family or any other group setting, can you make a point to look around and notice who seems to be able to stay relatively calm under pressure?
You may instinctively notice or be drawn to the people who seem to be more stressed, that’s because this kind of reaction is likely to be familiar. Instead, can you spot who is still able to communicate clearly and stay open to find ways to deal with the situation?
By making an effort to notice how other people act when there’s a challenging situation, you are building reference points for what’s possible for yourself. Working up to an intention like ‘How can I approach my challenges by being 10% more like this person?’.
A client recently took inspiration from Pedro Pascal because he was somebody she saw as light and humorous. Being able to envision Pedro and how he might respond, helped her to embody more of the qualities she saw in him. Full fake it ‘til you make it power!
As she didn’t know Pedro personally, these qualities were entirely based on her perception and projections of him. Which are enough to make this technique effective. As it happens, Pedro himself has spoken about his own experiences of anxiety when asked about his ‘red carpet pose’ of choice. He holds his hand to his stomach because ‘that’s where [his] anxiety lives’.
How sleep coaching can help with worrying
The example from Pedro above is a reminder of how anxiety is a human experience and something that we all need to find our own ways to manage. Techniques that work for one person won’t necessarily be as effective (or fun!) for another. That’s why with sleep coaching, I help people to get into the details of their lifestyles and assess what may be supporting their well-being and sleep, and what may be counter-productive.
Although worrying is a common trait of people who struggle with sleep, the ways out of this habit can look different for everyone. So we spend time getting clear on what can make things better for each person’s specific circumstances. We also look at all aspects of well-being in their lifestyle: from nutrition, movement, social connections and deeply held beliefs.
If you’re curious about how some of your worries could impact your sleep, you can book a free discovery call. This is your chance to ask any questions you may have and find out more about how sleep coaching could help bring you more peace, ease and Restful Sleep.