Coping with Intrusive Thoughts for a Better Night’s Sleep

Quality sleep is a skill that can be improved with specific behaviours and strategies. However, it is often said that the harder a person tries to sleep, the more challenging it becomes. Intrusive thoughts are a common roadblock to a good night's sleep. They might revolve around concerns like, “I have to get to sleep!”, or “If I don't get to sleep now, tomorrow will be a disaster.” Our minds tend to wander, and may cause us to  replay and dwell on events from the previous day, such as conversations or actions taken or missed. 

Here are some tips to deal with intrusive thoughts:

Recognize the Truth

When faced with thoughts such as “I have to go to sleep. If I don't go to sleep, tomorrow's going to be terrible,” it’s important to recognize that this statement is not necessarily true. Most people have experienced a night or two of poor sleep and still managed to function just fine the following day, despite feeling tired.

One very effective way to deal with intrusive thoughts, whether they are related to the day’s events or are self-critical-conclusions such as, “I'm a terrible lawyer. I can't believe I lost the trial - I'm going to get fired” - is to resist these unhelpful thought patterns. Instead of allowing thoughts to spiral into a doomsday scenario, a more constructive approach is to ask, “What do I know is true?” What you know may be that you need to prepare a better opening statement next time. Examining thoughts through a critical lens helps to separate baseless fears from actual facts. This helps maintain a healthier, more grounded outlook.

Cultivate Self-Compassion

Those that find themself stewing over mistakes made at work might try exploring different perspectives, shifting from a place of self-criticism to self-compassion. If you made a big mistake at work, recognize and acknowledge that every lawyer makes mistakes. Consider, how would you talk to a close friend or family member who made a similar mistake? Treat yourself with that same kindness and gentleness. Including touch can strengthen self-compassion, such as placing your hand over your heart or stroking your arm.

Mindful Disengagement

Learning to disengage is a valuable skill when dealing with intrusive thoughts. The key is to recognize that not all thoughts require attention or warrant the energy invested in them. Visualizing an unhelpful thought as a cloud passing by, a wave receding into the sea, or even as a leaf floating away down a creek can help. With this visualization, it is possible to detach from intrusive thoughts and reduce their hold.

Prioritize Rest Over Sleep

When struggling with sleep and intrusive thoughts, it can be valuable to focus on rest, whether sleep happens or not. This shift in perspective is helpful because, at times, sleep may remain elusive, despite best efforts. In these moments, it can help to adopt a simple yet powerful mantra, “Whether I fall asleep or not, I am giving my body rest.” Allow your body to sink in and be supported by the bed.

This reduces the pressure and anxiety associated with sleeplessness. When the expectation of immediate slumber is released, the mind becomes more receptive to relaxation. This, in turn, can make it easier to let go of worrying over being awake and, at the same time, appreciate this opportunity for rest. 

If intrusive thoughts keep you awake at bedtime, try these things:

  1. Recognize the truth about the thoughts
  2. Cultivate self-compassion
  3. Disengage from the intrusive thoughts
  4. Prioritize rest over sleep

Remember that achieving quality sleep is a skill and there are certain behaviours that can be implemented to improve it. The ideal duration of sleep can vary from person to person, so discovering our own “sweet spot” is key. Additionally, it is important to maintain a consistent wake-up time each morning. For those struggling with persistent sleep problems, this should be practiced seven days a week to anchor the body's circadian rhythm.

Establishing good sleep hygiene is another way to improve sleep. This includes steering clear of alcohol, caffeine and vigorous exercise in the hours leading up to bedtime. Creating a structured “wind-down” routine, and preparing the body for rest can also significantly improve sleep quality. 

Creating an environment conducive to sleep is very important. This means minimizing artificial light, especially in the bedroom, and ensuring that the bedroom is as dark as possible. Upon waking up, it is advisable to get outside in the natural light as quickly as possible. In situations where this isn’t feasible, investing in a “happy light” might be helpful. 

When faced with a middle-of-the-night wake-up, lasting for 20 or 30 minutes, it can help to get out of bed and do something boring. Even switching to a different bed or moving to the couch can help to break the cycle of restlessness. Relaxation exercises are another option to help promote better sleep.

If you struggle with sleep challenges, don’t lose hope. These strategies can be  effective, but they require patience. Avoid “throwing in the pillow” prematurely; give the strategies time to work. If the problem persists after trying these tips, you may want to  seek out the guidance of a sleep specialist who can provide tailored solutions to your unique sleep needs. Good night!

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.