How to Change Your Mindset About Sleep

If your dream life is generally not great and you’re afraid to go to bed, it’s time to change the script. Your thoughts about sleep can affect what happens when you close your eyes. Will it be the restful night you need or are you tossing and turning for hours?

Sleep can be disturbed for many reasons. While changing your sleep habits may not counteract bad sleep habits or health issues that keep you awake, your expectations do matter.

Yale expert in behavioral sleep medicine Susan Rubman, Ph.D., puts it this way: “How we approach to sleep is critical.” And that’s something you can change – starting tonight.

Your relationship with sleep

Lee Ann Torres, 43, never had any sleep problems until Christmas Eve 2019. That night she didn’t sleep until morning. Austin, Texas, a mother of three, chalked it up to pre-holiday anxiety.

But it happened again the next night—and every night for several weeks. At best, she fell asleep by 2 o’clock in the morning. She was usually awake until 3 or 4 am.

“I was a wreck,” she says.

Although her husband and colleagues understood, “it definitely affected my ability to function,” she recalls. “It affected my attitude towards children and everyone.” At worst, it even provoked panic attacks in the middle of the night.

Thinking Matters

After the first two sleepless nights in a row, as soon as the sun went down, Torres’ sleep anxiety flared up. Psychologist Meredith Rumble, Ph.D., director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says people often worry about what happens after a bad night’s sleep.

Often this looks like fear of the fatigue you predict you will feel the next day, worry about whether you will need medication to help you sleep, or fear that your sleep is slipping out of your control. In addition, Rumble says people often over-focus on how exhausted they are the next day.

For Torres, worrying about falling asleep only made sleep more elusive. “It turned into this terrible cycle.”

After trying “virtually everything that could be recommended,” Torres turned to a sleep therapist. Together, they took a multi-pronged approach that included rethinking Torres’ thoughts on sleep.

What she learned can help you too.

See every night as a new night

Under the guidance of her therapist, Torres realized that poor sleep the past few nights didn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. She remembers her therapist saying, “There’s no evidence right now that you won’t sleep tonight.”

When you notice that you’re afraid of a bad night, Rubman suggests flipping the script like this: “Maybe I’m going to have a bad night tonight. Maybe I won’t.”

Rubman also advises that last night’s bad sleep doesn’t force you to go to bed too early. She says: “Sometimes people think, ‘Oh my God, I slept badly last night. I need to go to bed early tonight to sleep.” But it won’t work if you get under the covers before you’re really tired.

“You’re not hungry after having dinner on Thanksgiving, are you?” You have to let that hunger build-up,” Rubman explained. Similarly, you cannot force yourself to sleep if you have not been awake long enough.

Use a scientific approach

Torres remembers staying up at night, worrying about how terrible the next day would be. “I would get too hung up on how I couldn’t sleep, tomorrow I’ll be exhausted, it’s going to be a terrible day.” Learning that the data does not necessarily support this worst-case assumption turned out to be “a really important rethink.”

You probably won’t feel as good after a bad night’s sleep as you would after a good night’s rest. For example, sleepiness while driving is a real thing. While the health risks associated with chronic sleep deprivation are well known, one night of sound sleep may not be the disaster you predict.

If you don’t keep a detailed sleep diary-like most people do, you may exaggerate the impact of the occasional bad night.

No matter how badly you slept, instead of preparing for a terrible day, Rubman suggests staying open to the possibility that your day could go really well.

Work with your thoughts

When negative thoughts about sleep arise, Rumble suggests working with them rather than ignoring them or trying to fight them.

Name your thoughts. For example, if you catch yourself worrying about not being able to sleep through the night, saying “I have an idea that I won’t be up all night” out loud or to yourself can help. Rumble says it’s a simple yet powerful practice that creates distance between you and your thoughts and can eventually loosen their grip.

Be kind to yourself. Rumble suggests facing negative thoughts with self-compassion. Notice when you catch yourself catastrophizing yourself and thinking things like, “This will never get better.” Then switch your thinking to: “This is hard. I just need to take one day and one night at a time.”

Torres can tell. Through therapy, she learned to change her dark thoughts about her sleep into new, softer ones, such as, “This is where we are right now. I might be a little tired tomorrow, but we’ll get through it.”

Today, Torres rarely has trouble sleeping. She thanks her therapist, who not only helped her change her mindset but also gave her a strict sleep schedule and a prescription for Zoloft. And while Torres had a basic understanding of some of her negative thought patterns, she credits the help of a professional with helping her through those changes.

Now, on those rare nights when sleep doesn’t come easily, she quickly says to herself, “My body is set up to sleep.” You, too, can make the same changes to your attitude to improve your sleep.

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