To sleep, perchance to dream?

  • Derek Roger

Participants in the Challenge of Change Resilience training sessions spend time at the beginning generating objectives for the day, and a common theme that emerges from the exercise is about sleep. One of the defining features of stress is disturbed sleep, and people immediately recognise the scenario of struggling to get to sleep, waking at three in the morning and being unable to get back to sleep, and then feeling shattered even if they’ve then slept for 8 hours.

The problem comes from not practising all the way to the final step in the programme, which is letting go. People sometimes have to take work home in a briefcase, but mostly they take work home in their heads, worrying about what they’ve not finished today and the crisis they imagine coming tomorrow. This isn’t work, it’s just worry. Nothing actually gets done, and if you’re going to do this you should stop pretending you’re at home and just stay at work: you’re somewhere else, and not available for anyone. How often has your wife/husband/partner had to ask ‘Hello! Are you there?’ The correct answer is ‘no’, but at least you then have a choice: either go back to worrying about what you haven’t done and will have to do tomorrow - and have a short miserable life in the process - or wake up, control your attention, see all this for what it is and let it go.

If you continue to worry, it doesn’t get left behind when you eventually get to sleep, which is why what you’re worrying about is the first thing on your mind when you do wake up at 3.00am. There are some simple strategies, like having a pencil and paper by your bed so you can write down whatever it is you need to remember to do. Unfortunately, it might not be something that a written note will resolve until morning, so you go on worrying. Or you might imagine writing it down, crumpling up the paper and throwing it away. Again, it might work for some people or some situations, but not always.

If you are woken at 3.00am by worry, the simplest solution is not to struggle to get back to sleep. We all know that doesn’t work - two hours later you’re still tossing and turning. The strategy for waking up and being in the present in the Challenge of Change programme is to connect with your senses, to just listen, for example. The problem at 3.00am is that it’s generally dead quiet and pitch dark, so the best thing is to get up and find something to do: reading, for example, or watching television. What you’re actually doing is taking control of your attention, actively and intentionally giving it to something other than the thoughts in your mind.

This isn’t just using a distraction. If you get up and read something, you’ll generally get to bottom of the first page not having read a word, because the thoughts continue to bubble away and divide your attention. The strategy is not to try to shut the thoughts out, but to just keep returning to reading the page when you find the thoughts have come back. It won’t take long before whatever was worrying you is put back into perspective, and you’ll be ready for sleep again. This might take half an hour or even an hour, but far better than spending two hours struggling for sleep.

Strategies like getting up and doing something instead of tossing and turning provide an immediate, short-term benefit. In the longer term, the aim is to neither struggle to get to sleep nor to be woken up and kept awake by worry at all. What feeds and sustains worry is habitually drifting into ‘waking sleep’ during the day - in other words, having your attention snatched away by what-ifs and if-onlys, ruminating endlessly about the worst things in my life that never happen. Practice at staying awake and in the present as long as you can whenever you do wake up leads to waking up becoming the habit instead of waking sleep, and the effects will be felt in the quality of sleep at night as well. Practice makes perfect.

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