Sleep problems and your thinking

Sleep problems. If you’ve ever had them you know how sleep problems can affect your wellbeing in particular your mood and anxiety levels. Thinking often plays a role in maintaining sleep problems, such as insomnia. Today, I’m going to walk you though what sleep problems or insomnia look like and then how to address problematic thinking styles that contribute to sleep problems. I also have a blog on things you can do that will help improve your sleep.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a habitual problem with sleep, lasting more than one month. Sleep problems can  include:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night
  • Waking up very early and not returning to sleep
  • Inability to get the amount of sleep required to feel rested and refreshed

Insomnia may require specific treatment when it occurs as part of another disorder such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress. Examining your thoughts and daily habits is a good first step towards resolving insomnia.

How do your thoughts affect sleep difficulties?

Insomnia often begins as a result of a particular trigger, such as stress, pain or many other reasons, and then other factors tend to keep the problem going. DIfficulties with sleep can lead to anxiety and thats where negative thoughts play  a role. Negative or self-defeating thoughts about sleep can play a very important role in maintaining sleep problems. For example thoughts such as:

“I will not be able to cope if i don’t have 8 hours sleep  a night”

“If I don’t sleep well I will perform badly at work”

“I will be cranky with my children if I don’t sleep”

contribute to worry and anxiety about not being able to sleep. They also contribute to apprehension and muscle tension. This leads to further sleeplessness. Often people then develop habits to cope with sleeplessness which actually make the problem worse such as napping, lots of time spent in bed trying to fall asleep, bedtime routines become associated with sleeplessness.

These negative thoughts can occur during the day or night. Negative thoughts about sleep  increase your chances of having poor sleep.

Types of negative thoughts about sleep:

  • Assuming the worst about the meaning or cause of the sleep problems. For example thinking “it must mean I’ve lost the ability to sleep.” is much more upsetting than thinking “I haven’t slept well this past week – I might be stressed about something at work or home, I should address it.”
  • Blaming everything on sleep is another common thinking trap. It is true that sleep can affect mood, concentration, memory and work performance but sleep is not the only cause of problems in these areas. People with insomnia tend to assume that their sleep problems are the cause of everything that goes wrong with  the day.
  • Unrealistic expectations about how much sleep is needed can make people feel worse about problems with sleeping. People who sleep poorly tend to hold the belief that everyone requires 8 hours of sleep to function. In fact, people vary a lt with some coping quite well on  4-5 hours and others needing 9-10 hours. Setting strict rules or targets for your sleep duration will increase your anxiety and interfere with the process of falling asleep.
  • Unhelpful thinking styles such as catastrophizing, black and white thinking, overgeneralisation and selective attention can also contribute to maintaining sleep problems. For example people with sleep problems tend to remember the times the slept poorly but forget the instances of good sleep or will notice every little body sensation when trying to sleep. People with insomnia also tend to classify  a nights sleep as either great or terrible without leaving room for ok or good enough.

Healthy thinking is very important to healthy sleeping. If you are having problems with sleep, consider writing down your thoughts, such as in  a thought diary, to identify negative thoughts about sleep. You could also monitor the  feelings and behaviours that are associated with these thoughts. Once you have identified these thoughts try to generate more helpful and balanced ways of thinking. For example.

Replace: : If I don’t get some sleep, I’ll tank my  presentation and jeopardize my job. With: I can get through the presentation even if I’m tired. I can still rest and relax tonight, even if I can’t sleep.

Replace: I should be able to sleep well every night like a normal person. I shouldn’t have
a problem. With: Lots of people struggle with sleep from time to time. I will be able to sleep with practice.

Build a repoitore of positive sleep facts: Another technique is to build up a repertoire of positive sleep thoughts and to spend some time each day thinking positive sleep thoughts.  Unlike negative sleep thoughts, positive sleep thoughts tend to be facts about sleep (assuming you have good sleep hygiene and healthy sleep environment). Below are some examples which you may like to add to:

  • Sleep is pleasant, relaxing and even blissful.
  • Falling asleep quickly is easy.
  • Sleep is to be enjoyed.
  • Sleep is a time of rest and rejuvenation.
  • It is easy to relax and stay relaxed in bed.
  • Falling back to sleep when I wake up during the night is effortless and occurs quickly.

Tackling your thoughts is just one component to improving your sleep. Also look at your behaviours and see if there are any changes that could be made to promote healthier sleep habits e.g. cut out napping. Try these suggestions – you’re worth it.

Disclaimer: matieral provided in this blog is for information purposes only. It is not a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional.


About Nadene van der Linden

Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is the author of Tales from the parenting trenches. A clinical psychologist vs motherhood and Live life to the full. Your guide to feeling better sooner.
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