According to the Sleep Foundation in America, a conservative estimate is that 10 to 30 per cent of adults experience chronic insomnia or problems with sleeping. One common way this manifests is through difficulty falling asleep in the first place, especially due to anxious thoughts whizzing about.
Indeed, a study from the University of Oxford found that a key difference between insomniacs and controls was the content of their thoughts at bedtime, with the problem sleepers being more focused on worries and concerns as compared with the healthy controls who tended to think about nothing in particular.
Anecdotally, many of us have had the experience of falling blissfully fast asleep in front of the TV, only to find that when we stir and take ourselves to bed, we lie there wide-awake with anxious thoughts racing through our minds. This common scenario neatly encapsulates one of the main reasons our heads fill with worry at night – it’s the lack of distraction.
When you’re busy during the day, your brain is occupied with all manner of tasks and activities, whether working, doing chores, talking to others or having fun. In the evening, you might eat dinner, chat and then watch TV – all the while, the brain is occupied, especially the regions involved in planning, decision making and other aspects of worry.
Yet the moment you rest your head on your pillow and switch out the lights, all external distraction and engagement with the outside world is gone. Your mind is entirely free to turn in on itself, either to fret about all that’s happened or to worry about the next day to come – the past and the future being the two main sources of anxious thoughts.
Psychologists are increasingly realising that one of the least effective ways to deal with intrusive, troubling thoughts is to try to fight them – doing so only increases their salience, making them hang around for longer. Instead, it’s better to acknowledge and accept the thoughts, then let them pass.
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For anxious thoughts about the day that you’ve just had, one practical way to do this is by writing an emotionally expressive daily journal before bed. A pair of researchers at the University of Oxford found that people with insomnia who spent time before bed writing openly about their worries and concerns subsequently took less time to fall asleep. It’s as if the writing exercise got the anxious thoughts out of their heads and onto paper, making it easier to drift off.
For many people, it’s not worries about the past that keep them awake, but worries about all that they have yet to do – indeed, there’s some evidence that Sunday nights are the worst for insomnia for this reason, with a daunting week of tasks and deadlines looming ahead. If this fits with your own experiences, there’s evidence that you too could benefit from getting those worries out of your head and onto paper.
For a paper published in 2018, researchers at Baylor University and Emory University School of Medicine asked participants at their sleep lab to spend five minutes before bedtime either writing about all that they’d done or all that they needed to do over the coming days – crucially, it was the latter group who fell asleep faster. “The key here seems to be that participants wrote their to-do list rather than mentally ruminated about their unfinished tasks,” the researchers said.
Generally speaking, the research suggests that worry (in moderation) is a normal human activity. Rather than trying to fight it, the trick for a peaceful night is to plan a time earlier in the day to give your brain a chance to vent any anxieties. That way, when your head hits the pillow, you’ll find it easier to sail off to dreamland on calm waters.
- This article first appeared in issue 371 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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