Dealing with occupying thoughts that keep you awake


Q:  I can’t sleep if I hear random noises of any kind.  Seems I lay in bed for hours anticipating cars driving by or noises from the TV or sounds of any kind.  These noises keep me up and it’s hard for me to tune them out.  Any ideas to help me sleep?

A:   Focusing on random sounds while in bed is symptomatic of the “occupying thoughts” syndrome which can make falling asleep difficult.   You are not alone in experiencing this, many insomniacs share this difficulty.

Earplugs or a white noise machine may help with random noises, but be aware that sleep disrupting occupying thoughts are by no means limited to random sounds in the night.  Other forms of occupying thoughts can still keep you up even if you’re in a completely quiet bedroom.

For instance, some people are kept awake by a tune that plays and replays over and over in their minds.  Others think about solving the next day’s problems.  Worry about something you may have done or not done the previous day is yet another trigger for insomnia.  The list of various forms of a racing mind or occupying thoughts goes on and on — and such thoughts are about 180 degrees opposite of the “letting go” mindset that is conducive to falling asleep.

The real solution is to turn off your mind so you can sleep.  For an insomniac though, letting go is often much easier said than done.  Fortunately, there are a number of good proven methods you can deploy while in bed to help yourself sleep.

One of the very best ways to help let go is the combination of deep abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.  This effective method basically duplicates the kind of slow deep breathing one experiences while asleep, while consciously releasing muscle tension.

A second method is distraction from occupying thoughts, including the age-old technique of simply counting sheep.  There are many more elaborate ways to distract yourself in bed, however, including guided imagery — in which you imagine yourself immersed in a beautiful relaxing scene that helps you let go of mental stress and tension.

Yet another  method that has been proven effective but is probably out of the reach for most of us is intensive sleep retraining.  This method typically requires a minimum of 25 straight hours in a sleep lab, but rapidly diminishes insomnia by effectively reinforcing the mindset of falling asleep.

We can describe this mindset generally as a feeling of letting go, of letting one’s thought’s wander, of physical relaxation.  The process of falling asleep cannot be forced in any way; that is often counterproductive and only leads to a state of heightened and worried wakefulness.  So instead of forcing the sleep process, what we can do is enable the process.

Enabling good sleep can take many forms, and is usually most effective when methods are combined simultaneously.  Using in-bed relaxation methods is just one part of a comprehensive solution for insomnia that does not require drugs to work.


Explore posts in the same categories: anxiety, Insomnia, sleep, stress

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3 Comments on “Dealing with occupying thoughts that keep you awake”

  1. […] Finally, getting a handle on both stress and a racing mind will help you fall back asleep if and when awakened during the night.  There are proven methods to manage stress that are drug-free, as there are ways to turn off a racing mind. […]

  2. […] some combination of stimulus control, sleep hygiene, consistent sleep timing, stress management, relaxation training, and control of anxiety.  Any of these issues, if not properly managed, can and will disrupt […]

  3. […] variation is to excessively focus on one thing or another, which is a form of the occupying thought.  It may be listening to the slightest sounds in your bedroom, or replaying a tune over and over […]

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