We grew up hearing that if you can't sleep, count sheep. Turns out, it is not as silly as it sounds. When we are worried and can't sleep with something on our mind, we keep going over the same worries repetitively. Indeed, we can get really revved up and unable to fall asleep. That's because thinking of worries turns on our fight/flight part of our nervous system. If we need to fight or flee, we don't want to be all relaxed and sleeping.
So, where does counting sheep come into this? Well, sheep are harmless and kind of fluffy and cute. And counting is rhythmic. So, we are doing two things that turn on our rest and relax, parasympathetic nervous system. Now, let's say you don't really want to count sheep, are there any alternatives? Actually, there are. You can imagine a beautiful ocean and make as complete a picture of the ocean in your mind. Then imagine yourself comfortably sitting on the warm sand and count waves. You can even tell yourself with each wave I am more relaxed. Or, you can count your favorite vacation spots. Imagine each one as fully as you can.
The other reason that this can offset repetitive thinking about worries is that you are doing two things, imagining and counting, and you are really working on imagining fully. When our minds are doing two things, there's not much room for a third--our worries. Our minds may drift back to worries, and we may have to push ourselves to get back to the pleasure imagining and rhythmic counting.
As with any advice like this, if it does not work, and if worries are really troubling you, try sharing them with a friend or loved one, as seeking support can really help reduce our anxiety. And if that doesn't work, it's time to talk to your family physician or a mental health professional who is trained in addressing such problems. Sleep is critical and essential to mental and physical health. Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation as well: https://sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/sleep-news/sleep-tips-insomnia-sufferers. Wishing you the blessing of a good night's sleep.
This blog is just to bring some interesting ideas from cognitive psychology to your attention. And some of it, may bring some new insights for you.
We like to see ourselves as acting rationally and that our behavior follows our clear thinking. The fact is, our behavior is just too complex to be thought through by our conscious thinking. Let's look at an example. When we enter a room at a party, we don't think, "Okay, how should I behave now?" Rather, we just involve ourselves in the goings on. Yet think about how complex being at a party is. This person is not so close, tell her less. This person is a close friend, tell her more. The party is work-related, so drink less. The party is with old friends, so talk about old times. We don't think and decide these thoughts and behaviors, they just sort of come "naturally."
How else might this "below the surface thinking" affect us? We are more cautious with people who don't look like us--its a built-in bias left over from our evolution as humans. Research even suggests we are more friendly with a warm cup of coffee in our hand because we find it soothing. John Bargh, a noted Yale psychologist, found that if we are sitting in a hard chair, we are tougher in negotiations. He also found that if we holding a heavy clipboard in an interview, we think the applicant is more serious! Again, we didn't think through those things, they are ways we "think" that comes from below our level of awareness.
How is this relevant to our psychological distress or conflicts with others in our lives? Well, once we've created a framework about someone or some others, we create a distorted prism and any new information comes into us through that distortion. We do it politically and we do it with family members. People certainly are prone to do it with their ex-spouses. And we do it with how hard we are on ourselves, harder than we would be with someone we loved. So, perhaps we can step back and be a bit more truly thoughtful, gentle with ourselves and others, ready to take off the distorted prisms we have developed.
As in all my posts, these are not meant to in any way be a substitute for psychotherapy and counseling. Rather, they are attempts to share knowledge that psychologists have developed through their research. If you are reading this because you've been feeling a lot of distress, anxiety, or depression, talk to a mental health professional, talk to your family physician--help is out there. www.stress-resilience.com.
Being told to "Count your blessings," when you are hurting can be maddening. "Can't they see I'm sad, anxious, troubled?" But research suggests that counting blessings and expressing gratitude, in your head or in writing, can have value. First, it reminds us that things aren't all black and dark. We tend to overweight the negative and undervalue the positive, especially when we are in a negative spiral, so counting blessings and expressing gratitude counter-balances this natural tendency we have. Second, if your busy counting blessings, you are not going over and over the negative things that are on your mind.
But, what if you find yourself low on blessings? Well, perhaps that's a sign to work on building blessings. Work on friendships, work on our relationship with our children, parents or siblings, work on our marriage. Maybe its time to go back to school, or get that additional work certification. Maybe its time to work on our health, exercise, eat healthier, drink less. Perhaps its time to go back to Church or Synagogue or volunteer to help others, sharing your skills and creating blessings in another's life.
If you are stuck and can't seem to turn around your anxiety, depression, or distress, that's when you might want to start a conversation about this with your family physician or look to a psychologist or mental health professional. Many people benefit greatly from psychotherapy and the help a mental health professional can provide getting you on a positive track. The essence of therapy is a positive relationship with a caring professional, identifying where you are undervaluing what you have, and helping you make changes to improve the quality of your life.
Often when we have worries on our mind, troubles, or fears we review them repeatedly. We go over and over what happened, what could happen, or what should have happened. Like a tornado, these thoughts can gain speed and power, and our anxiety accelerates accordingly.
There is some good in our doing this, as our minds are searching for solutions. So, here is a strategy that can help. Schedule a half hour or an hour (at most) a day and write down what occurred, what you fear will occur, and your "solutions." But make that the time for this "work of worry." After a few days, you will usually see that there is nothing new to write down, but if there is write that down. Make this the "worry time," but let the other 23 hours a day be time you don't do this worry. Fill the other time with your work, family time or time with friends, time to seek entertainment, exercise, healthy eating, and healthy sleep. When thoughts or worries pop into your head, tell yourself that you will attend to that during your scheduled worry time, and if true, remind yourself that you've already written that down, so "nothing new there." A psychologist or other mental health professional can help with this, and if trying this exercise on your own leaves you still too anxious, depressed or feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to seek professional help.
Nothing in a blog, mine or anyone else's should be seen as psychotherapy or counseling. But from reliable websites we can learn some general principles that apply broadly and can help us out. One such general principle is the importance of preserving or starting healthy routines. Healthy eating, exercise that doesn't overdo your level of conditioning or health, reading a good book, yoga, meditation, visiting with supportive friends or family, can all help ground and stabilize us. Oftentimes when we are in distress we will say, "but I don't feel like doing that." Research suggests that feelings follow behavior, and getting active with healthy behaviors leads to better sleep and better feelings. And speaking of sleep, keeping a positive sleep routine is critical. If you are really not sleeping, I suggest speaking to your physician, as he or she can help with that, as sleep is fundamental to well-being and your health. A psychologist can also help with insomnia, and indeed research shows that psychological treatment of insomnia is often more effective than medication. A poet once said, "Be gentle with yourself," and caring for ourselves is a gentle act.
Stress and anxiety may just be symptoms, but they are often highly distressing, and even experienced as painful. A mental health professional can help, and the first step is often reaching out for therapy. Just knowing you have an appointment with a mental health professional can be scary, but it is also often a step that makes you feel like you have grabbed a lifeline. Anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts are warning signs that something is wrong, either in your present or in your past. Don't ignore them. Research suggests that even sharing your thoughts or worries with a close friend or trusted family member, can ease some of your distress. So perhaps start there, but remember, mental health professionals have spent years of training to learn to understand and help, and we can make a difference in your life. www.stress-resilience.com