Dear Therapist: Over the last few months, I’ve been waking up multiple times a night, and I cannot find a way to fall back to sleep. My mind is constantly racing and I start to feel overwhelmed. I then get frustrated with myself for not being able to calm my mind, which then causes me to spiral, and it only makes sleeping feel more impossible. Are there any exercises or thoughts that can get me out of this spiral and back to a better night's sleep?
Frame Therapist Ellen Ottman weighs in…
First of all, I want to say that your struggle with staying and falling back asleep sounds incredibly frustrating. Good sleep is the foundation for everything, and I can imagine that not getting adequate sleep on a regular basis is taking a big toll on you!
I believe that there are a few things that you could implement that may be more supportive in getting the deep sleep that you need and are craving. The first is to take a look at your sleep hygiene - this goes beyond just brushing your teeth and washing your face.
- Are you eating or drinking sugar close to the time you go to sleep? A late night glass of wine or bowl of ice cream may be okay for some, but for others this spike in sugar can really impact your body’s ability to rest deeply and fully. If you want to learn more about the impacts of alcohol consumption on your sleep read more here.
- It can be supportive for many to have a ritual around getting ready for bed. Some ideas for this are: try and go to bed around the same time every night; minimize screens; practice meditation, journaling, or read a book; drink a cup of (non-caffeinated!) tea or other warm beverage, spray aromatherapy on your sheets before you get into bed. If there is a ritual that is practiced often, your body and brain will begin to associate these things with getting ready to rest.
If changing your sleep hygiene doesn’t change anything and you are still waking up frequently at night, I would try the following techniques:
- Breath Work - our breath is a direct way to impact our nervous system and our experience of anxiety. Try 2:1 breathing, which is a breathing technique where you exhale for twice as long as you inhale (if you breathe in for 2 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds… etc.). Try a few rounds of this breath, many find it to also be soothing to place a hand on your heart and/or belly as you breathe.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation - Start with your toes and tense them up as tightly as you can for 5-10 seconds and then relax them. Next move to your calves, then your thighs, and slowly work your way up your entire body. This can be a great way to bring in mindfulness and relaxation. Try and stay with your breath and the physical experiences in your body as you do this.
- Practice self-compassion. I can completely understand feeling frustrated when you are having a difficult time falling back asleep. I also imagine that this frustration towards yourself paired with the pressure you may be feeling to fall quickly back asleep are making your body more and more tense, which is going to make it less and less likely that you will be able to relax enough to drift off. It’s almost like getting angry at a little kid for feeling anxious about their first day at school. Could you perhaps try being more gentle and kind to yourself in these moments? Instead of, “why does this always happen, what’s wrong with me? I have a big meeting tomorrow and if I don’t fall asleep right now I am going to perform poorly!” Could you try, “I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed right now and that’s okay. This is going to pass. I know how to take care of myself when this happens.”
This is obviously a muscle that is not yet fully developed, but if you can build trust with yourself and your capacity to soothe yourself it might feel less scary or overwhelming when waking up in the middle of the night.
About the Author: Ellen Ottman, LMFT, is a somatic trauma therapist. She specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ folks as well as those who are interested in feeling more embodied and connected to themselves and others. Learn more about Ellen by viewing her Frame profile here.
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