World Mental Health Day: How to Tackle Unhelpful Thoughts About Sleep

Posted by Dr Sophie Bostock - Sleep Expert on 7th Oct 2021

World Mental Health Day: How to Tackle Unhelpful Thoughts About Sleep

The sleep-deprived brain has a habit of focusing on worries about sleep. The more we worry, the more tense our bodies become, and the more difficult it is to fall asleep. Sometimes these negative sleep thoughts can invade our day, as well as our nights.

The good news? Our sleep deprived brains cannot always be trusted to have sensible thoughts. I’m prepared to bet that most of the worries you have about sleep are a little bit irrational, exaggerated, or just plain false.

Next time you catch yourself worrying about sleep, be curious. What exactly are you thinking? Can you think of an alternative response which might have less anxiety attached?

Negative attitudes to getting a good night’s sleep

Here are a few examples..

1. My partner always falls asleep so easily, and sleeps for longer than me. It’s SO unfair!! There must be something wrong with me

We all have different sleep needs, which are partly genetically determined, i.e. we can’t change them. There is no ‘perfect’ amount of sleep for everyone. Falling asleep within 5 minutes of switching out the light can actually be a sign of sleep deprivation. Try not to compare yourself to other people since this is bound to make you feel frustrated. If you’re not sleepy at the same time as your partner, you may simply have different sleep needs. Most adults need 7 or more hours of sleep, but we are all different. Try reading until you feel yourself getting sleepy, and only then switch out the light.

2. If I don’t sleep well tonight, tomorrow is going to be a disaster

This is an example of catastrophic thinking. I suspect there have been lots of occasions where you haven’t had the best night’s sleep. Have they all been truly disastrous? Remind yourself that you have coped with bad nights before, and can do so again. It is true that lack of sleep can influence our performance and energy levels, but humans are also remarkably resilient. You’ve probably come across endurance athletes, for example, who achieve incredible things with just a few hours sleep each 24 hours. If you’re a parent, you will have had to cope with many disrupted nights to look after a newborn. Of course, we all need a chance to recover eventually, but a poor night’s sleep doesn’t need to stop you in your tracks. You will probably find that your sleep the following night is deeper to compensate

3. I feel like I have no control over my sleep. I never know what sort of night I’m going to have

Lack of control is a very unsettling feeling, when it comes to sleep or any other aspect of our lives. Think about how you can take back control. For example, are you able to get out of bed at the same time every day? That will help to train your body clocks to help you feel alert every morning, and sleepy at the same time at night. Another option is to start keeping a sleep diary. Writing down your sleep habits, and what might have influenced them, often reveals patterns we weren’t aware of. Often a sleep diary can help us to see that over the course of a week or more, our sleep is not quite as bad as we had feared.

4. When I have a bad day, I know it’s because I didn’t sleep well the night before

If you agree with this statement, pause, and read it again. When we’re not sleeping well we have a tendency to demonise sleep, and blame it for everything that goes wrong. Sleep is not the enemy! Sleep is a natural and automatic process. If we create the right conditions for sleep, and don’t try too hard, it will happen. The more we attach negative events and emotions to lack of sleep, the more anxious we will feel about it, and the more pressure we put on ourselves to sleep. Everyone has a poor night’s sleep now and again. It can be helpful to accept the occasional poor night, and simply remind yourself: you can still have a good day after a bad night’s sleep. The moment you stop caring so much, the more easily sleep will come.

5. My insomnia interferes with my ability to enjoy life

If you’ve struggled with poor sleep for a long time, it’s not unusual to avoid social events which you think might disrupt your sleep patterns. Have you avoided going for a drink after work, or to a friend’s birthday to avoid a late night? Do you avoid going away for the weekend since it’ll mean sleeping in another bed?

While your intention is to protect your sleep, the unintended consequence might be that obsession with ‘the perfect sleep routine’ becomes counterproductive. Feeling tired tends to make us want to avoid social contact, but you might miss out on the very things which could make you feel positive. Cultivating friendships helps not only brings us pleasure, but it also helps to buffer the effects of stress. Remind yourself: You can still enjoy life and live with occasional poor sleep. Make a decision about events that are important to you, and commit to attending, even after a bad night of sleep. If you don’t let insomnia rule your life, you will start to worry about it less, and over time, it will improve.

If you recognise any of these thoughts, try to avoid being critical of yourself - your sleepy brain is hijacking your thoughts, after all - but do feel free to have a chuckle if you notice any oddball ideas. Laughter can be a potent medicine against worry.

Once you know what to look for, it is easy to swap in a more positive, helpful mental dialogue about sleep. Whenever you catch yourself repeating negative thoughts about sleep, mentally rehearse a more positive response. After a while, you will start to believe it.. , and before you know it, it will be absolutely true.

authors profile
Dr Sophie Bostock
Sleep Expert
Sophie brings a wealth of expertise to the role having spent the last six years researching and championing the importance of sleep science in NHS and corporate settings. Sophie was responsible for improving access to the award-winning digital sleep improvement programme, Sleepio, as an NHS Innovation Accelerator Fellow. She has delivered hundreds of talks, including for TEDx and Talks@Google, and regularly features as a media sleep expert.
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