If your sleep life tends to not be great and you find yourself dreading bedtime, it’s time to flip the script. Your thoughts about sleep can frame what happens when you shut your eyes. Will it be the restful night you need, or are you in for hours of tossing and turning?
Sleep can go awry for many reasons. While changing your sleep mindset can’t counteract poor sleep habits or a health issue that’s keeping you up, your expectations do matter.
Yale behavioral sleep medicine expert Susan Rubman, PhD, puts it this way: “The way we approach sleep is mission-critical.” And it is something you can change – starting tonight.
Your Sleep Attitude
Leigh Ann Torres, 43, never had any sleep issues until Christmas Eve 2019. That night, she was up until the wee hours of the morning. The Austin, Texas, mother of three chalked it up to holiday anxiety.
But it happened again the next night — and every single night for weeks. At best, she’d fall asleep by 2 a.m. Usually, she was up until 3 or 4 a.m.
“I was a wreck,” she says.
Although her husband and coworkers were understanding, “It definitely impacted my ability to function,” she recalls. “It impacted my attitude around the kids and everybody.” At its worst, it even spurred middle-of-the-night panic attacks.
After her first two consecutive nights of bad sleep, as soon as the sun went down, Torres’ sleep anxiety would flare up. Psychologist Meredith Rumble, PhD, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it’s common for people to worry about what comes after a bad night’s sleep.
That often looks like dreading the fatigue you predict you’ll feel the next day, worrying about whether you’ll need meds to help you sleep, or fearing that your sleep is slipping out of your control. Plus, Rumble says people often hyper-focus on how exhausted they feel the next day.
For Torres, worrying about falling asleep only made sleep more elusive. “It became this terrible cycle.”
After trying “basically everything anyone could recommend,” Torres saw a therapist who specializes in sleep. Together, they took a multi-pronged approach that included reframing Torres’ thoughts about sleep.
What she learned may help you, too.
See Each Night as a New Night
With guidance from her therapist, Torres realized that not sleeping well the past few nights didn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. She remembers her therapist saying, “There’s no evidence in this moment that you’re not going to sleep tonight.”
When you notice yourself fearing a bad night ahead, Rubman suggests flipping the script to: “Maybe I’ll have a bad night tonight. Maybe I won’t.”
Rubman also suggests keeping last night’s poor sleep from forcing you into bed too early. She says, “Sometimes people will feel like, ‘Oh my God, I got a terrible night’s sleep last night. I need to go to bed extra early tonight to catch up on my sleep.’” But that doesn’t work if you’re getting under the covers before you’re actually tired.
“You’re not hungry after you’ve had a big dinner for Thanksgiving, right? You have to let that hunger build up,” Rubman explained. Similarly, you can’t force sleep if you haven’t been awake long enough.
Take a Scientific Approach
Torres recalls being wide awake at night, worrying about how terrible the next day would be. “I would hyper-fixate on how I couldn’t sleep, I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow, it’s going to be a horrible day.” Learning that the data doesn’t necessarily support this worst-case assumption turned out to be “a really important reframe.”
You’re probably not going to feel or do as well on poor sleep as you would after a good night’s rest. Drowsy driving is a real thing, for instance. While the health risks of chronic sleep deprivation are well-known, one night of rocky sleep may not be the disaster you’re predicting.
Unless you keep a detailed sleep journal, if you’re like most people, you may be overblowing the impact of a random bad night.
No matter how poorly you slept, instead of bracing yourself for a terrible day, Rubman suggests staying open to the possibility that your day could go just fine.
Work With Your Thoughts
When negative thoughts about sleep bubble up, Rumble suggests working with them rather than ignoring them or trying to fight them.
Label your thoughts. For example, if you catch yourself worrying you’ll be up all night, saying “I’m having the thought that I’ll be up all night,” either out loud or in your head, can help. Rumble says this is a simple but powerful practice that creates distance between you and your thoughts – and can ultimately loosen their grip.
Be kind to yourself. Rumble suggests meeting your negative thoughts with self-compassion. Notice when you find yourself catastrophizing and thinking things like, “This will never get better.” Then shift your thinking to, “This is hard. I just need to take one day and night at a time.”
Torres can relate. With therapy, she learned to swap grim thoughts about sleep for new, gentler ones, like “This is where we are right now. I might be a little tired tomorrow, but we’ll deal with it.”
Today, Torres seldom has trouble sleeping. She credits her therapist, who, in addition to helping her shift her mindset, gave her a strict sleep schedule and a Zoloft prescription. And while Torres had a basic understanding of some of her negative thought patterns, she feels it was instrumental to have a professional to help guide her through those changes.
Now, on the rare nights when sleep doesn’t come easily, she’s quick to tell herself: “My body is wired for sleep.” You, too, can make the same attitude changes to support your best sleep.