When You Have Trouble Sleeping

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Psychological/Emotional Issues with Sleep

Two very common causes of difficulties with sleep are anxiety and stress. If you are facing some impending event that is important to you, your adrenal glands will put you in a state of hypervigilance: flight or fight awareness, even when you are sleeping (In this case trying to sleep). It can cause you to have difficulty falling asleep or it can cause you to awaken frequently during your sleep period. If there is some worry or stress that you are experiencing beyond your normal concerns you will have the same reaction.

Other emotional-psychological issues such as depression, embarrassment, and frustration can work the same way on the physiology of your body to impact your ability to relax and sleep. There are skills and behaviors you can train yourself to have that can help you fight this problem and learn to relax and rest (even if you are not sleeping) and can, over time, help your ability to sleep. Not all of these skills help everyone but many of them help most people. You should pick a few and try them consistently to see if they will help you with your sleep problems.


First work on habituation of a sleep preparation routine, whatever it is that works for you. Perhaps you shower, brush your teeth, and do twenty sit ups; perhaps you read some poetry with a glass of wine, perhaps you watch a boring TV show that you are used to falling asleep to, perhaps a warm glass of milk. Many who use this pattern when they are not having trouble falling asleep find that it does not work when they are experiencing anxiety or stress at high levels. For these individuals we suggest some combination of the following. We would encourage you to remember not to focus on not being able to sleep, not to get frustrated every ten minutes and say “this is not working”, open your mind to the idea of relaxing and resting, not on the idea of sleeping. The initial goal is to get some rest and be able to relax, if you can do that you will eventually fall asleep. While you are not sleeping your body is still benefiting from rest and relaxation! It is recharging itself for the next cycle of activity and attention. This requires that you learn the technique of thought stopping so that you do not keep recycling the same thought or worry or concern over and over like a song that plays over and over in your head and you can not turn it off.

Helpful skill based strategies for relaxing and ultimately sleeping:

  • Deep- breathing
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Any self-soothing exercise that works for you to help you relax (i.e. reading, watching TV, listening to music, Cleaning house, baking, etc.)
  • Keep a pad and pen next to the bed and when you wake up with your mind racing, write everything down and then go back to sleep.

Do not spend energy on telling yourself that you can’t sleep and that you are soooo frustrated and angry. Go back to thought stopping and re-try some of the skills we have discussed.

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