When You Can’t Sleep

The house is never silent. The furnace comes on at random times, then the fridge makes a noise. The house creaks randomly, and someone turns over in their bed, down the hall. Deep slow breathing, with an occasional hint of a snore from another room. Cars pass and their lights flicker on the walls. The darkness is never complete. There are shapes in the corner made up of objects and shadows. If I look too long and too closely, my imagination takes over, shooting adrenaline through my body and I have to look away.

There’s a sort of buzzing feeling on the inside, not quite a jitter, but just like an energy that won’t settle down. All the positions have been tried and now none are comfortable.

Thoughts swirl. The thing I said to my co-worker that might have been misinterpreted. The e-mail I sent that got no reply. The never ending list of things waiting to be done. My child’s mood lately, my friend’s annoyance at me, my husband’s irritating habit, the rude person on the bus, my fear of missing my alarm clock in the morning, of being too tired to accomplish everything on my plate the next day, my fear of not reaching my goals, of getting too old… and then I look at the clock again and try another position.

Does any of this sound familiar? For some, this is a regular event. Sleep is often the first to be disrupted when life’s stressors add up. While there are things we can do to optimize our sleep environment, (See Sleep Hygiene checklist) the way we approach our daily stressors can also contribute to our sleeplessness. These are things we might do during the day, but which are dramatically increased when all other distractions are gone.

Believing that all items on our to-do list or agenda are critical

All of us have things we need to do on a day to day basis, but it is not possible that everything on that list will cause a major catastrophe if it is not attended to immediately. Letting go of the need to accomplish the impossible list that you’ve set out for yourself as a “Do or Die” situation might help to reduce the list rehashing at night.

Attempting to read minds

When you find yourself getting stuck on what someone might have thought about something you said or did, you are working on reading minds. Challenging the idea that this is your super power is something that might need to be practiced during the day. If you have a conversation with someone that you find yourself worrying about or reviewing, you can start by running over the words you said in your mind. Is there anything that anyone else would consider overtly rude or mean? If so, make a plan to apologize at the next possible opportunity. Is there anything you wish you had said differently? If it does not involve critical information needed by that person, than you can make a plan to say things differently the next time you are in that type of situation. Also, know that you can do your best to communicate well, but that you are not responsible for what other people are thinking if they do not communicate it to you. Reading minds is not your responsibility. If these thoughts happen at night, remind yourself that you can do this exercise in the morning. If you are not able to get it out of your head, you may get out of bed, leave the room, find paper and a pen and go through this process with yourself and then return to bed.

If this is something that happens a lot, you might want to check out Cognitive Distortions to find ways to challenge this kind of thinking.

“What does it all mean?” thoughts

Evaluating your life in the middle of the night rarely produces the type of insight that will result in finding new direction and purpose in the morning. When life is busy it can be hard to take time to consider the bigger picture, life goals, values, etc. Unfortunately, if this is something that you haven’t given much thought to, when life starts feeling mundane, but busy, these thoughts in the night might be an indication to set aside time soon to look at what might need to be changed. However, you may find that, in the light of day, things are better than you felt they were in the middle of the night. If you are still feeling the need to make some big life changes during the day, you might want to heck out What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values; The Rat Race Ain’t Made for Humans – Get out in 4 easy 😉 steps; and/or 8 Steps to Communicating with your Partner about Big Life Issues.

Hyper-focusing on your surroundings

Sometimes while lying awake, we start to notice sounds or sensations and can’t stop focusing – the dog barking down the street, the furnace coming on and off, a partner who is snoring. If you find yourself hyper-focused on these things, you will need to re-focus. Review in your mind the last book your read, the last movie or show you watched. Imagine being in the story or what would have happened if a character made a different choice. See if you can just let the story play out in your mind.

Reviewing Problems

Reviewing situations that have been gone over a million times, is something that brains tend to do when under stress and looking for resolution. The brain seems to believe that if we review something enough times we might discover something new that we never noticed before and suddenly find a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t always know when to quit and will take opportune times to revisit overanalyzed problem… like the conflict with your mother, that has been ongoing since childhood, the re-occurring argument with your partner…you know what I’m talking about. If this is happening a lot, you might need to make a rule that you are not allowed to return to this topic unless some completely new information has surfaced. I know this is easier said than done. It will take effort to consciously acknowledge that your thoughts are back on this topic and decide to focus them on something else. You may need to do this repeatedly, sometimes within seconds until the thoughts start redirecting. During the day, listening to music and forcing yourself to refocus, at night you might need to try focusing on things like, the plot of the last show you watched, the event you are looking forward to, the last 5 books you read… whatever it takes.

Worrying about not sleeping

When you know you have to get up at a certain time and you’re watching the time march on through the night, worries about never getting to sleep, wondering how you will cope the next day and whether you will miss your alarm can increase the flow of adrenalin in the body, waking you up even further. If you’ve had a few bad nights, this worry can creep into your daytime, peaking in the evening, and causing stress before you’ve even laid down.

Here’s the thing. If you have been having sleep troubles for a while, it might be worth trying the following. Set your alarm for the same time each morning but do not go to bed until you are ready to fall asleep, even if this is 4am. You will need to force yourself out of bed each morning at the time your alarm goes off and plan to be tired during the day. Plan to do this for a week. If you do not sleep at all one night, that is okay. Give yourself permission to not sleep and avoid your bed as long as you can but do not sleep in and do not nap during the day. This might sound impossible but it is more likely to reset your circadian rhythm faster than weeks or months of difficult nights.

I would also recommend some breathing exercises  throughout the day and at night, to try and lower the tension in your body.

NOTE: If you have 3 nights in a row without sleep, talk to your doctor.


If you are having difficulty sleeping due to nightmares or re-occurring flashbacks related to previous life events, talk to a counsellor. The body holds stressful and negative experiences and sometimes they come out when things are stressful again and sometimes they come out when things are not stressful.

For re-occurring nightmares, try this:

When you lay down, think through the nightmare in as much detail as possible. Think about one addition or change in the dream that would turn the nightmare into a good dream. For example, while being chased by a monster, you turn around to find that the monster has fallen into a hole and that there is a friend you’ve been wanting to see standing behind you.


Difficulties with sleep will occur for most people at some point in their life. There is no way to guarantee that you will never have a sleepless night, but if some of the above sound familiar to you, hopefully addressing these will help alleviate ongoing sleep issues. If you continue to struggle talk to your doctor and/or a counselor.

For more on caring for yourself see How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions – Part I and Your Emotional First Aid Kit- Part II

You might also want to check out What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide

Self Improvement – 7 Steps to Find out if You’ve done enough

3 thoughts on “When You Can’t Sleep

  1. Pingback: When Grief gets Complicated | It's Not Just You

  2. Pingback: 5 Mental Health Hazards to avoid for Allies/wanna-be’s Trying to Stay Woke | It's Not Just You

  3. Pingback: Nightmares as Signposts | It's Not Just You

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