your mileage may vary

A Thought Exercise for When You Can’t Fall Asleep

Photo: yulkapopkova/Getty Images/Vetta

One of the worst parts of insomnia — after the general exhaustion, the frustration, the unshakeable brain fogginess, etcetera, etcetera — is the sense of dread that creeps in at the very beginning, before the rest of the problems start. It’s that sinking realization that, okay, you’ve been in bed for a while now, and yet you’re still staring at the ceiling. And then the anxiety that ramps up as you watch the hours tick by, knowing with each one that passes that you’re going to be that much worse off in the morning. You’re staring down your immediate future, aware that it’s going to be deeply unpleasant and yet powerless to do anything to change that.

By one estimate, around a quarter of Americans will struggle with insomnia at some point in a given year, though only a quarter of sufferers will go on to develop more pervasive problems. And according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, around 30 percent of Americans have some symptoms of insomnia, with one in ten people struggling with sleep enough to cause “daytime consequences.” Many of those people will turn to sleeping pills, which experts say are a Band-Aid fix, delivering a sleep that’s less restorative than the kind attained without pharmacological help.

Some research suggests that a more effective approach than pills is cognitive behavioral therapy, a longstanding treatment for insomnia that involves setting up a sleep-friendly environment, relaxation techniques, and “sleep restriction,” or cutting down on the time you spend in bed. And a new study out of Australia, recently published in the journal Behaviour Change, makes the case for another anti-insomnia technique: mindfulness therapy, which involves meditating, staying calm and present, and not allowing yourself to get caught up in your own anxious thoughts about how terrible tomorrow will be. It’s about changing the way you approach insomnia itself, from a thing you have to fight against to a fate you should just accept.

Which, paradoxically, may be the key to avoiding that fate: restructure your thought patterns so you’re not stuck in a doomsday countdown till morning. The study looked at people specifically receiving therapy for chronic insomnia — defined as trouble falling asleep at least three nights a week over an extended period of time — but its takeaway feels like something that should apply even for garden-variety one-off struggles. Telling yourself to fall asleep is a useless exercise; if that’s all it took, you would have done it already. Instead, tell yourself that it’s okay not to.

And it really is okay! Yes, sleep is necessary for human survival and all that, but think shorter-term: You’re not going to fall down dead tomorrow from sleep deprivation. It might be a long day, sure, and you might have to gulp coffee like it’s air and fight to keep your eyes open during a meeting, and maybe you won’t be the most productive that you’re ever been, but you know what? All of those things are fine. They’ve all happened before. They’ll probably happen again. Maybe, when you’re still watching the clock in the wee hours of the morning, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is take the pressure off.

A Thought Exercise for When You Can’t Fall Asleep