Is Late-Night Mental Chatter Ruining Your Sleep? Try This
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
Recently, I had not been sleeping well. At some point during the night, I’d wake up with a mind on full alert. Events from the day or the past week that had felt trivial at the time—what someone said, the way they looked, or what I said or didn’t say—would play on a loop in my head like a record. Sometimes, it would get stuck in a particular groove, such as on an incident I’d long forgotten. Or it would start obsessing about something that, in all likelihood, would never happen.
It was really hard breaking away from the mental chatter. The more I tried, the wider awake I became. Most mornings, I’d get out of bed feeling like I hadn't slept at all. If you’ve had sleepless nights of your own, you know what a terrible feeling that is. You sense you've been robbed—not only of your night, but also of your day. Your mind is slow and it’s hard to focus. You have little energy to start new things, even things you’d really like to do. Worst of all, you walk around with your emotions on edge, ready to off-load them on anyone and anything that tests you in the slightest way. And boy, is life testing us these days.
Then I tried a different approach. One that was less about forcing the noise in my head to quiet down and more about giving it space to be. And, fingers crossed, that has been working for me. If you’re struggling with your sleep, I urge you to give it a try.
Step 1: Acceptance
When I hear the mental chatter at night, I invite it in wholeheartedly. Instead of tensing up, I smile and hold out my hand, quite literally. Some days I say: ‘Hello MC (mental chatter), take a seat on the couch across from me and tell me how you feel.’ This naming and distancing process helps me separate myself from my mind’s fears and anxieties. You may be surprised by how quickly the mind runs out of ideas when you give it permission to speak. My MC is loudest when I’m carrying stuff on my mind from the day. It helps to try to resolve most issues before going to bed, so the mind doesn’t have to work overtime at night to make sense of the day’s events.
Step 2: Presence
While MC yammers away, it’s helpful to shift your attention to the present moment, so you don’t get caught up in its anticipatory cycle of dread. Sometimes, focusing on your breath works well. I like to feel the softness of my bed, and the sheets against my body. It reminds me that right in this moment, everything is basically okay. Some days, I let my thoughts wander to dreams I have, places I’d like to visit, or the loved ones in my life to help me feel a warm sense of connectedness. Or I think of the millions of others around the world who are lying awake in bed at the same time as me. The feeling of common humanity is a powerful antidote to the frustration of ‘Urgh, why me?’
Step 3: Surrender
If MC is having a particularly fussy night and insists on dragging you back into its premonitions, you may want to simply surrender to it. Not a surrender of panic but an almost cheerful surrender of Doris Day’s famous song "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." There will be nights when you won’t sleep. There will be nights when you feel restless or in pain. Or when you worry about what the future holds for you and your family. It’s all part of life’s package. Your job is to take these darts in stride, without beating yourself up for it, or worrying yourself silly about it. Mothering the adult in us is often the most graceful thing we can do.
These days, the thought of my son leaving home is top of mind for me. When I wake up midway through the night, I feel my heart ache as I'm flooded with memories and left capsized by thoughts of how quickly the years have flown by. I also worry, as mothers do, about little things and big things, especially given the uncertain world we live in. And then I surrender. I stop trying so hard to make sure things will be okay. And I trust that whatever unfolds, we’ll find the courage to brave it through. Que sera, sera!
Homaira Kabir is a women’s leadership coach, author, and champion for women’s flourishing. In her new book, Goodbye, Perfect, she offers help for shifting from fragile to authentic confidence. Take her free confidence quiz.
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