Sleepless Nights? Check Your Mental Health

A client came to see me and, right away, I could tell she was sleep deprived. She looked like a drooped daisy in desperate need of watering. When I asked her what was going on, she informed me that she was only getting a couple of hours of sleep each night, brought on by her spouse asking for a divorce. We talked about the thoughts that were going through her head while she tossed and turned. “I keep asking myself if the divorce was my fault,” she said. So we began the process of eliminating blame from her thoughts. And as she moved toward realizing it was more important to focus on letting go than who was at fault, her sleep greatly improved.

It is not unusual for life’s stressors to lead to sleeplessness. In fact, three out of 10 Americans suffer from insomnia on any given night. When you’re overly stressed, it’s difficult to get a good night’s sleep. According to the Stress in America Survey, approximately 42 percent of adults report getting fair or poor quality sleep when they’re stressed. That same survey found that 21 percent of adults report feeling more stressed when they are sleeping poorly. You can help break this vicious cycle by discovering the root causes of the stress and making behavioral modifications to address and protect your mental health.

How do you go about ending the sleepless nights? Start with these four steps:

1. Face up to your stress. As illustrated by the example above, professional counselors know that the first step in addressing sleeplessness is to acknowledge your stress. Focus on the thoughts that are racing through your mind when you can’t fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night. Note the absolute qualifiers (the shoulds, musts and cants) around the stress that causes you to worry. It is also useful to record your stress dreams. After all, dreams are the mechanism that the right side of your brain (which does not have access to words) uses to alert you that something is amiss. For example, when I get stressed, I often have dreams about missing a train. Those dreams tell me that I am worried about making a deadline, and that I need to address that deadline head-on instead of trying to solve the problem while I am sleeping.

2. Change your dreams. Believe it or not, you do have the power to change your dreams. For example, if you are having a reoccurring stress dream about venturing out in public without clothes, repeat this to yourself 20 times as you lie down: “This time, I WILL be wearing clothes.” Willing yourself to change stressful dreams really can work.

3. Practice stress inoculation. Stress inoculation, developed by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, combines relaxation training and coping statements. It operates according to the principle of reciprocal inhibition, which states that you can’t engage in competing responses at the same time. In this case, you can’t be relaxed and stressed at the same time, so promote relaxation. You can practice stress inoculation by engaging in deep breathing, yoga or other mindful relaxation techniques before going to bed. During your relaxation exercise, tell yourself that you can handle the stress. For example, you might repeat the phrase, “I have handled many tight deadlines before, and this one will be no different.” Your mind may allow you to get a good night’s sleep after it is convinced that you can handle the stressor.

4. Keep a steady routine. Stress-induced sleeplessness often occurs when we go through major life changes such as starting a new job, moving to a new town, beginning or ending relationships, or losing a loved one. Interestingly, research by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe has shown that even positive life changes, such as graduating from college or being promoted in your job, can cause significant stress that can lead to sleep disruption. The antidote is a steady routine. Go to bed at the same time each night. Try to have your meals at the same time each day. Engage in the same nightly routine when you get home from work. Making your life as predictable as possible after a major positive or negative life event will help your mind to adjust and ultimately lead to a better night’s sleep.

Seek help from a professional counselor if stress-induced sleeplessness persists. To find a qualified counselor in your area, visit the American Counseling Association’s website at counseling.org/findacounselor.

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