Scary worries in the dark

People with chronic insomnia have some pretty scary thoughts when they are anticipating another sleepless night.

“I’m not going to be able to sleep and I won’t be able to function”

“Tomorrow is going to be terrible”

“Why can’t I sleep? I can’t handle another crappy night”

As you might imagine, these types of thoughts exacerbate fears and anxiety about not getting enough sleep or the consequences of poor sleep. Unfortunately, anxiety is the natural enemy of sleep, which means that these thinking errors can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Learning more about whether these thoughts are actually substantiated by evidence can be helpful in a couple different ways. First, it may reduce anxiety to know that these thoughts are not likely to be true. And second, this may make us feel less pressure to have to sleep well – which paradoxically leads to better sleep.

Although there can be hundreds of different anxious insomnia-related thoughts, many of them fall under certain themes that I’ll talk about in today’s post. I’ll also provide some information based on sleep science to debunk some of the myths of sleeping (or not sleeping).

sleepy dog

1. Failure to Function

One common sleep worry is associated with functioning. Many times, I have heard from my patients that they’re worried they can’t sleep and won’t be able to function the next day. That they won’t be able to get through the work meeting, won’t be able to take care of the kids, and be successful in life.

Yet these were individuals who were generally quiet successful: they got through graduate school; were awesome parents; and did well in their careers. And these accomplishments were usually done during significant bouts of insomnia.

These anecdotes are consistent with the research. Generally speaking, insomnia affects how difficult we perceive tasks to be, but overall performance is retained (e.g., Orff et al., 2007). Simply put, everything is a lot more effortful – but you can get the things you need to do done. You’ll probably still do well on your work presentation, you’ll take care of the kids just fine, and you’ll through the day – but it doesn’t feel as easy as you would on a good night’s sleep.  

Tired at work
Finishing a 3 hour Zoom meeting on 4 hours of sleep

2. Misplacing our sleep efforts

Another worry that people with insomnia begin to develop is an underlying belief that “I need to do something to improve my sleep”. Usually, people with insomnia begin to develop specific rituals to get sleep, such as having a specific routine, taking melatonin, using a bunch of different strategies in bed to fall asleep. Sometimes it works; usually it doesn’t.

The paradox of insomnia though is that the more effort we put into sleep, the harder it is to come by. Moreover, efforts to try and obtain sleep can sometimes impede our bodies’ natural ability to produce sleep. For example, trying to catch up on sleep by napping or going to bed early can eat up our build-up of sleep drive, which can lead to being awake in the middle of the night and less restorative sleep.

The issue with sleep effort is that the behaviours we engage in are ultimately underlying an anxious belief: “if I don’t do these things, I won’t be able to sleep”. This traps us in a constant fear of sleeplessness. And when these strategies inevitably stop working, they generate even more distress.

Ultimately, we have to move aside to let our body do the work. If you’re interested in learning more about how insomnia is maintained, check this article out on how to break the insomnia cycle!

3. Not being able to sleep is intolerable

People with insomnia find the experience of being awake, especially in the middle of the night, as intolerable. It’s a frightening experience for them to be awake, wide-eyed, with no hope of sleep coming any time soon.

As you may guess, this fear only contributes to our arousal levels and makes sleep even more difficult to obtain.

Although it’s easier said than done, I would encourage you to really consider whether being awake in the middle of the night is that much more dangerous than being awake in the afternoon. Yes, it’s different. Yes, most people are asleep. But is it as frightful of an experience as our mind’s make it out to be?

Probably not.

In fact, many of my patients with insomnia in the past have found that one of the biggest positive changes they noticed in their insomnia was when they changed their perspective on being awake in the middle of the night. Instead of a time for despairing, they decided that this could be a good opportunity to enjoy things they wouldn’t normally be able to – watch their favorite show, read up on a book they haven’t been able to pick up because of work and the kids, or get a little work done.

For them, going to bed almost became a win-win. Either they fall asleep and get a good night’s rest; if not, they got a chance to enjoy some nice alone time, sleep a little later and maybe a bit more of a challenging day afterward. Unsurprisingly, this frame of mind ensured that their next night was a lot better.

4. Unhelpful desires for sleep

There are a lot of myths out there about sleep. Perhaps the most common one is “I need 8 hours in order to properly function”. In reality, people’s sleep needs are genetically determined and varies from person to person. Striving for 8 hours of sleep when you can only comfortably produce 6 or 7 can lead to insomnia. Instead of focusing how the number of hours (quantity), focus on how you feel during the day (quality).

5. Feeling refreshed in the morning determining sleep quality

A common way that some people measure how well they slept during the night is how they feel when they wake up in the morning. If they woke up feeling somewhat groggy, then they must have had a poor night’s sleep.

In reality, sleep inertia is a common phenomenon, in which a person will generally feel groggy when they wake up in the morning regardless of how they slept the night before. This is because sleep chemicals are still washing out of our body.

There are certain fatigue management strategies that can break through the sleep inertia quicker, such as getting up as soon as you wake up the morning, getting some sunlight, drinking water, and engaging in some light activity (e.g., walking, yoga).

person holding coffee suffering from sleep inertia

6. Fears of nighttime awakenings

Some people with insomnia worry that nighttime awakenings mean that something is wrong with their sleep. In reality, it is very common that we remember waking up a few times in the middle of the night. Usually, we go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, come back, and fall asleep within a few minutes. From an insomnia perspective, these awakenings become more of an issue when they last more than 30 minutes.

I hope this post was helpful in relieving a little bit of anxiety when it comes to scary thoughts at night.

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Best wishes,