Getting Over Insomnia - Free Self-Help

By Diana Holbourn

Article Summary

This article gives some information about what can cause insomnia and ideas as to ways of overcoming it.

The last part suggests a way of gradually withdrawing from sleeping pills for people who've been using them for some time and are beginning to feel more confident they can do without them because they're trying out what the article recommends and it's working.

The books this article's based on mention a few things that might help.

The Main Contents

Bright Light can Reset the Body Clock

Enjoying the sun

Apparently, people's body clocks reset themselves every morning by the light of the sun or morning daylight. It makes it difficult when there isn't much sun about or when they're blind. But it still could help if people get up early and go out in the sun early in the morning or stand at a window where the sun's coming in for as long as they can when there is some. Maybe some people could try finding somewhere outside in the sun to eat their breakfast, or eat it near a window indoors where the sun's streaming in if possible.

Or since sunlight can make people feel more alert, if people start waking up too early, they could try getting as much evening sun as they can in the hope they start going to sleep later at night, so if they get the same number of hours of sleep as normal, they'll wake up at a normal time, hopefully.

Some psychologists think sunlight gives people more energy, so sometimes sitting in it when you don't feel very alert might help.



Exercise helps some people get more sleep at night too; maybe it wears them out just a bit so they're more tired at the end of the day. And some psychologists think it puts people in a better mood, so they're less likely to start thinking stressful thoughts that keep them awake. But don't do vigorous exercise in the hour or two before you go to bed, since that might boost your adrenaline so you feel much too alert to go to sleep when you try.

If you don't fancy doing the usual forms of exercise like brisk walking in the sunshine, riding a bike or whatever, just ordinary physical activity can be a good substitute sometimes, like helping people with their gardening, playing lively games with children, or competing against someone in a sport for fun. And if you aren't feeling that lively after your lack of sleep, you could try doing short bursts of exercise throughout the day, instead of lots in one go.

You could try and think of several things you could do, if you think you might get bored with just one or two kinds of activity.

Reducing alcohol, Caffeine, Nicotine and Other Stimulants in the Evenings

Drinking coffee

It might be tempting to drink alcohol before going to bed to help you sleep, but it's best not to, since the trouble is that it makes you sleep lighter and wake up earlier. The effort the body has to put in to processing the alcohol, and the symptoms of withdrawal you can get after even a bit without knowing, can mean you sleep more restlessly and wake up sooner.

And try to resist the temptation to use stimulants like caffeine to keep you awake during the day, and try to avoid drinking and eating things with it in from the late evening onwards, since that might make it harder to get to sleep.

For people who smoke, it might be good if at a time when not many stressful things are happening, they try to give up, or at least stop smoking in the few hours before they go to bed, because though they might think it calms them down, nicotine's actually a stimulant so it could make it more likely they'll stay awake. And people can get mild withdrawal symptoms from it during the night, which makes them more likely to wake up and sleep more lightly so their sleep isn't so refreshing. Insomnia's a lot more common among smokers than non-smokers. And it can aggravate the upper airways while people are asleep so that's another reason they can sleep more lightly.

Apparently a lot of studies have found that smokers who give up start sleeping better, after about ten days when they sleep worse because they're getting stressed by withdrawal symptoms.

And it's best not to watch television or read in bed, since you might be doing those things because you hope they'll relax you so it's easier to sleep, but if you get interested and absorbed in what you're watching or reading, you'll get more alert so it'll be harder to get to sleep.

Try Getting UP at Roughly the Same Time Every Day

Startled by the alarm clock

It'll probably be best if you get up early even if you haven't had much sleep, since sleeping later will just mean your body clock stays out of whack so it's harder to sleep the next night, because if it means you go to bed when you haven't had the number of hours up that you normally have, your body will likely want to stay awake for the same number of hours it normally does.

It's the same if you try to go to bed early to try to catch up on the sleep you missed the night before - try to resist the urge if you can, because it might mean you have the same number of hours' sleep as usual so you wake up earlier, and then if you get up or don't go to sleep again, you might find yourself getting sleepy later in the day after you've had the same number of hours awake as usual, so you want to go to bed earlier again, and it might continue on like that, so your body clock gets even more messed up.

It'll probably be best if you can get up at the same time every day, give or take half an hour. If it's difficult, maybe it would be easier if you enticed yourself to get up by reminding yourself of something nice you can do; perhaps you could plan something beforehand that you know you'll enjoy, that'll help you motivate yourself to get up, like having something for breakfast you know you'll enjoy, getting out in the sunshine if there is some, or whatever.

Foods to Eat More of or Less of

Dinner time

Some people find that certain foods make them a bit more sleepy so it's easier to get to sleep. The book says foods like bread and crackers have a mild sleep-inducing effect. But foods with a lot of protein in them can help people feel more alert, apart from that turkey's got a chemical in it that can make people feel a bit more sleepy. I don't know how much of those things people would have to take for them to work; apart from how strong the effect is, it might depend on all kinds of other things, like what else they've eaten, how full their stomach already is and who knows what. But it might be worth experimenting.

And some foods can disturb sleep because of their effects in people who are sensitive to them, like eating foods high in sugar near bedtime, which can make people feel more energetic for a time, though they can feel more drowsy when the effect wears off. Also some foods cause indigestion, wind or heartburn. Apparently spicy foods and beans can do things like that. So that can keep people awake. Other foods have a bit of a stimulant effect in some people because they contain monosodium glutamate, a chemical found in some foods like Chinese meals.

Eating meals in general late might keep some people awake, since the digestion slows down when people are ready for sleep, so big meals will be harder to digest. So it's best not to eat a lot near bedtime. Also it might be as well for some people not to drink much in the few hours before bedtime, if they find they have a problem waking up to go to the loo and then not being able to sleep again.

Also, certain mineral and vitamin deficiencies can have a bad effect on sleep quality, like deficiencies of folic acid and the other B vitamins. And calcium and magnesium deficiency can affect sleep badly too. So it might be worth asking a doctor for blood tests to test for deficiencies in those things, or at least eating more foods with them in, like cheese, meat, eggs, milk, broccoli, yoghurt, nuts, and several other things.

Anxious Thoughts Keeping People Awake

Feeling anxious

People who worry about their sleep are more likely to end up with insomnia that doesn't seem to want to go away, because worrying at night makes the body more alert and releases stress hormones that increase the heartbeat and do other things that make it harder to get to sleep. So people can be worrying and worrying about not being able to get to sleep, but it's mostly their worry that's keeping them awake.

And then if their brain starts to associate bedtime with worry because they've done so much worrying at night in bed, they'll automatically think of bedtime as stressful, so before they even start to worry, their brains will release stress hormones that'll make it harder for them to get to sleep.

So try not to worry if you can't sleep well at night for a while; you could use the time awake in bed to plan things to do in your future or things like that. It's very common for people to have trouble sleeping for a few weeks when something stressful's happened; but it's a lot less likely to turn into long-term insomnia if you don't let staying awake for longer than usual at night bother you, since then you can relax more, so sleep is more likely to come.

And the problem you're most likely to have if you don't sleep well for a while is being in a bad mood the next day; but bad moods after nights where people didn't get much sleep are partly to do with their thoughts and feelings about how much it bothered them; so if you don't let it bother you, you probably won't feel so bad. You might feel a bit light-headed and shaky, but as long as you're getting at least some hours of sleep at night, it probably won't be too bad.

Some people think they're going short of sleep if they have less than seven or eight hours so they worry about that and it keeps them awake, but actually, as long as people have about five and a half hours, they won't get seriously sleep-deprived, so they don't have to worry about being too bad at things the next day.

Obviously it's better to have more than that, but it's not essential. Certainly not every night. People have been studied for months and months who were only getting about that amount, and they functioned just as well as normal, apparently, even when they have to do demanding things like study hard. And apparently a lot of people with insomnia still tend to get the amount they truly need. So if you find yourself worrying about not getting enough sleep, maybe you could try to remember that.

The amount of sleep people need differs from person to person. If you're waking up feeling refreshed and ready to go every day, it doesn't matter if you've had a few hours less sleep than experts recommend; you've had as much as you need.

According to one book, there was a little study where some students at Oxford University with insomnia were monitored for a while to see how much sleep they had each night, but unbeknownst to them, the readings on the gadgets monitoring them were altered, so on some nights when they thought they'd slept badly, it looked as if they hadn't had much sleep, when they'd really slept quite well. But on those days, they were more likely to worry and feel as if they couldn't cope with their daily tasks than they were if they thought they'd slept well, and they even have more physical discomfort, such as feeling sleepy and having tired eyes. So it might have been all their worry that was making them feel a bit drained, not lack of sleep.

Apparently some people have still been OK for a little while after only six lots of half an hour's sleep in a 24-hour day! And if someone doesn't get that much one night, their brain will do its best to make up for it the next night by making the person fall asleep, and a higher percentage than normal of that sleep will be the deep sleep the body most needs, and dreaming sleep. So even if the person doesn't sleep any more hours than normal, their sleep will be deeper so the body will be more refreshed afterwards. If you reassure yourself by telling yourself things probably won't be too drastic if you have less sleep at night than other people, the thought might make you relax so sleep will come easier so you'll actually get more than you would have done.

Counting literal sheep

Whatever you do, don't actually Try to get to sleep, because trying to do anything involves concentration, and it can get more stressful the more you think you're failing, so trying will probably actually keep you awake! It's better to just think about something nice till you drift off naturally, if you can.

There are different kinds of sleep anyway. Everyone goes through stages of sleep every night where sometimes their sleep's deeper than it is at other times. It's most important to get the deep sleep. It doesn't matter so much if you miss out on some of the other sleep.

People can soothe themselves quite a bit by the way they think. So, for example, if they think stressful thoughts like, 'I'm dreading bedtime! I know I'm going to take ages to get to sleep and then be in a bad mood tomorrow because of it! It's so hard to cope every day because of this!', and so on, they could try calming themselves down by reminding themselves of all the reasons they can think of why things probably won't be that bad, or bringing more relaxing things to mind. The more they think stressful thoughts, the more stressed they'll feel, and the more worked up they feel, the harder it will be for them to get to sleep. Stressful thoughts can even increase the blood pressure and heart rate, and make the muscles more tense, and make breathing faster, increase the brain's activity, and a lot of those things can stop a person getting to sleep. If they calm themselves down with reassuring thoughts, those processes will reverse a bit so sleeping will probably get easier.

Also, if they think gloomy thoughts when they wake up like, 'I've had a lousy night; I'm bound to not be at my best today!', that'll put them in a bad mood, so that in itself will make them feel bad during the day. Then they might think it's their lack of sleep doing it.

So when people realise they're making themselves feel more anxious with stressful thoughts, they could try thinking things like:

'I always get to sleep sooner or later.
I don't need as much sleep as I thought I did anyway.
As I get more practice at not stressing about it, my sleep will likely get better and better by itself.
As long as I get about five and a half hours' sleep, I'll be getting enough to function on.
And I'm probably getting more sleep than I think.
If I do feel bad tomorrow, it won't just be because I didn't sleep well.
I've survived nights of bad sleep before, so I can almost certainly do it again.
If I don't sleep well one night, I'm likely to sleep better the next night because my body will want to sleep more deeply to make up for it, so even if I only sleep the same number of hours as usual, I'll likely be sleeping better.
There's no evidence that insomnia causes health problems.
Some people just don't need as much sleep as other people do.
The worst thing that'll probably happen if I don't sleep well is that I'll be in a bad mood the next day.
Even if I feel alert if I wake up in the middle of the night, drowsiness might still quickly make me sleepy again.
Even if I feel groggy in the morning, I'll probably feel better later in the day.
The more optimistic I feel about my sleep, the more relaxed I'll likely be about it, so the better it'll probably be, since it's easier to fall asleep when feeling relaxed. Other people have found that, so there's a good chance I will.

They could write those things down to remind them and read them before going to bed if they like.

Having a picnic

Another thing they can remind themselves of is that if there were times when they lost sleep because of something they were enjoying doing, such as staying up on holiday, they probably didn't feel bad the next day; they might well have felt full of energy, ready to do whatever enjoyable thing they had planned for that day. So that'll mean they can tell it isn't lack of sleep in itself that puts them in a bad mood the next day, at least in the short term.

Another reason they might not have to worry as much as they maybe think they do is that it's been found that people with insomnia often underestimate the amount of sleep they get, and over-estimate the time it takes them to get to sleep and the amount they're awake during the night. That's because sometimes you can be sleeping lightly but not really registering the fact that you're sleeping. I think it's the kind of sleep where if it happens during the day when there are people around, you might hear their voices but not understand a word they're saying, but not really be registering the fact that you can't. That kind of sleep increases as you get older, and you get less deep sleep. It's just natural. So at night, people can be having that kind of sleep but think they're awake. So people often don't need to worry about increasing their sleep as much as they think they do, it seems.

Another reason a lot of people with insomnia think they get less sleep than they really do is that when you're not enjoying yourself, time can seem to drag on, whereas if you are, it can seem to go much faster. So when it's dragging, you can feel as if you've been awake for much longer than you really have.

So whenever you start worrying that you aren't getting enough sleep, you could try reminding yourself of that.

And if people do feel groggy some days, it isn't necessarily insomnia causing it. It could be medications - even sleeping pills that are taking a while to leave the system; or it could be an infection, or a heavy meal, or not enough food, or a number of other things. So they could maybe remind themselves of that sometimes too.

And people could try and think of their own reassuring and uplifting things to think, and write all those things, along with the other reassuring things, down on a list, and read it every night before they go to bed. Then when they find themselves stressing themselves out with the worries they're having about not being able to get to sleep, they could try remembering all the thoughts that might put their minds at rest. Or they could read the list in the night if they realise they're stressing themselves out with their thoughts and can't remember the reassuring ones.

Old man

It's common for older people to want less and less sleep as they grow older anyway, so if they can't sleep, it might just be that their body doesn't need so much any more. They could try to relax about it and see if they feel just as good the next day as they would have done with more sleep.

And one thing some psychologists think helps people get more sleep is if they reserve the bedroom just for sleep, plus anything else it's normal for people to do in there, but to do anything that'll keep them alert in other rooms instead, like talking on the phone, arguing, playing on the computer and things like that. Some psychologists think that'll mean the brain comes to associate the bedroom with just relaxing things, so it'll immediately start feeling more restful when the person goes in the bedroom, so it'll be easier to sleep in there. I'm not sure how well that works, but I can imagine the opposite working the other way - if you go in your bedroom and immediately remember that last time you were there you were arguing with someone on the phone or had your bills in front of you feeling annoyed because you were sure they were wrong, you'd start feeling stressed all over again because you'd start thinking of those things again, and that'll make it harder to sleep.

If people's days are sometimes stressful, that might make it harder for them to sleep at night, but that might sometimes be to do with the worrying thoughts that go round and round in their heads, and maybe they could deal with quite a few of those in the way they deal with the worrying thoughts about not sleeping, by reminding themselves of things that mean things might not be as bad as they think.

They might be able to do that sometimes during the day as well as while they're waiting for sleep at night. Like if they have to queue for ages in their lunch hour at work and feel irritated, maybe they could turn it into a time where they think things over or something. And they could try thinking through ways to solve as many problems as they can. Like if, say, they were fed up of one of their kids being argumentative when he came home every evening but noticed he was in a much better mood after dinner, maybe they could give him something to eat as soon as he gets home; if he stuffs it in his mouth he won't be able to complain for a while anyway.

Making the Environment as Cosy and Sleep-Friendly as Possible


If there's anything people can do to make the room a more comfortable place to sleep, it would be worth doing, such as getting heavier curtains to block out light if any comes in, and maybe getting some kind of ear plugs if they're disturbed by noise, or if possible, finding some other way to make it quieter, like, ... I dunno, making a partner sleep on the sofa downstairs if he snores. Actually, some people aren't disturbed by noise so much if they have some device that makes continuous white noise like a fan, that'll keep whirring all night, making no unexpected noises, hopefully, so it might drown out the kind of irritating noises that come and go so they can make people jerk awake when they happen. Or some people find a recording of waves on the shore or rain helps. They find them relaxing, so they're not distracting like some noises.

Some people like to listen to music to relax them when they go to bed, but anyone who tries it should make sure it turns itself off after about three quarters of an hour, because even if it relaxes them at first, it might mean they're more likely to wake up later in the night if it stays on, especially because it might stop them drifting into the deepest sleep, and then they might feel more alert because of it.

And if their bed's uncomfortable for some reason, or not big enough for them to stretch out in as much as they'd like to, it might be worth them thinking about getting a new one, or trying other things out to make it more comfortable. It's best if the mattress is neither too hard or too soft, and if it doesn't sag, since that might mean they don't get neck or back support in some positions.

And it'll help too if their bedroom isn't too hot or too cold, if possible. Apparently some people's sleep isn't so good in a warm room, so keeping bedrooms cool at night might help.

Sometimes drugs can disturb sleep, so if they're on any, besides sleeping pills, Maybe they could ask their doctor if they can be put on another one instead. Some drugs even contain caffeine. Mind you, sometimes taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs at a different time of day helps.


If they've got a problem that disturbs their sleep because it causes them pain or makes it harder for them to breathe, or makes them cough a lot or keep wanting to get up to go to the loo, or it makes them feel agitated like an overactive thyroid, and that kind of thing, maybe a doctor could recommend some kind of treatment for it, or change the treatment they're on if it isn't working well. Sometimes there's a choice of quite a few drugs a doctor could prescribe that do the same thing.

If they're finding they're in bed for a few hours longer than they're sleeping, they could go to bed for fewer hours per night, so they spend more time in bed sleeping. Maybe they could find something enjoyable to do for the time they would normally be spending in bed worrying about not sleeping, if they do that. Or even if it's not enjoyable, it could be things they'll be pleased to have got done, like housework, if there's any they couldn't be bothered to do earlier. That's if they can do some without making so much noise it keeps other people in the house awake, of course. It's best if they have around six hours in bed every night, but beyond that, sleep isn't as important, though when they start to sleep better, they could increase the amount of time they have in bed, maybe gradually if they're not confident they'll sleep more when they do that, perhaps by about fifteen minutes per week.

It'll hopefully help their sleep if they do things to gradually wind down before they go to bed, instead of getting into bed and hoping they'll go from wakefulness to sleep quickly. So maybe in the hour before bedtime, they could do things they find relaxing, maybe listening to soothing music, and whatever else makes them feel calmer. And they could try to avoid anything that'll make them feel more stressed or alert.

I think some people find a hot bath an hour or so before bed helps. Also, if they can think of more interesting things to do in the day, so their brain feels like it's had a bit of a work-out by the end of it, it'll be more likely to want to sleep.

Spraying a scent like lavender about the place or getting a lavender pillow might help sleep come on too.

Things to Do as Alternatives to Lying Awake That Might Help Sleep Come On


If people find themselves in bed, worrying about not being able to get to sleep for a while, it might help sleep come if they get up and read something boring or relaxing, or do something else soothing or boring, till they begin to feel drowsy, if they can think of anything like that. If they start to feel stressed, it might be best if they aren't in bed, because if they're only in bed when they feel drowsy, their brain might come to associate being in bed with going to sleep, which will make it easier to fall asleep, because their brain might start to feel sleepy automatically when they get in bed if they start to think bed is when sleep comes, just as people can automatically start craving a food they like when they smell it, because the brain knows it's something they enjoy and automatically sets it off before they even think about it.

Some people might find it helpful to get up and do things they find almost intolerably boring, like a kind of housework they really find tedious - perhaps ironing or sewing or planning household expenses or whatever, - or some pointless task they invent for themselves, like reading out loud all the things in their food cupboard. Naturally if there are other people in the house, it'll have to be work they can do quietly.

Other people might find something that almost gives them brainache works better, like a book they really have to concentrate on to understand it. And reading it standing up might help them feel more tired.

Bored to sleep

If they get back in bed after doing something soothing or boring but then start tossing and turning and worrying again, they could try getting out and doing something like that again till they get drowsy, then going back to bed, and they could even do that a few times till sleep comes.

It'll probably be best if they do something to take their minds off looking at the clock, since doing that and noticing how much time is passing will likely stress them out more.

They could experiment with reading in bed if they like, to see if they can get to sleep so they can manage without getting up to go and read; but if they find themselves not sleeping, it's better to get up.

But if they start feeling drowsy in the other room, it'll be best if they go back to bed again quickly, so they don't fall asleep on the couch or somewhere in the other room, since they'll probably get better sleep in bed, and it'll help their brain associate sleep with bed.

If they recognise the first signs of drowsiness, like reading a line in a book a few times but not being able to take it in, eyelids closing, yawning, head nodding and that kind of thing, they could take those as signs to get up and go back to bed.

They could try all that and see if the more they do those things, the more their sleep improves. If their sleep improves but then gets worse again, it could mean they tried them but then gave them up before they gave them much of a chance.

People might need to have extra relaxation time before they go to bed on days that've been particularly stressful; not surprisingly, people with insomnia tend to have worse nights' sleep after particularly stressful days.

Using a Relaxation Technique

Day-dreaming about a nice beach

Using some kind of technique to relax can decrease levels of stress hormones in the brain so sleep comes easier, and when people are relaxing, they won't be stressing themselves out with worrying thoughts, so they'll be calmer, and that'll help sleep come more easily too. Using a relaxation technique when you wake up in the night can mean you don't start worrying over things too, so your thoughts won't stop you getting to sleep then either. And the calmer you are, the easier it'll be to drift off to sleep.

Using a relaxation technique in the day might mean stress hormones don't rise so much in the first place, so there will be less at the end of the day to disturb sleep.

People could try lying or sitting in a relaxed position with eyes closed, and just imagine a feeling of relaxation spreading all over them, perhaps from their head to their feet, or whatever they like. If they let their arms and legs go limp, and let go of tension in their facial muscles, it'll help the process along.

Then they could try slowing down their breathing, because when people are stressed, they tend to take fast shallow breaths and that helps work the body up for action. But if you want to do the opposite, deliberately slowing your breathing right down helps.

It might help some people concentrate on that if they put a hand on their stomach while they're doing that; it'll feel as if it's inflating as they breathe in. The slower and more deeply they breathe, the more it'll inflate. Anyway, when they're breathing out, they could think of a word, like 'relax', or whatever they like, or a peaceful image, like their favourite place or somewhere they'd love to be, and they could bring it to mind. That'll make them feel calmer and as if they're enjoying themselves more, as well as crowding out worrying thoughts from their mind. That's the idea anyway.

It's best if people don't worry about whether they're actually relaxing; just worrying will stop them relaxing. It's best to just let it happen at its own pace, not actually trying to make it happen, just patiently waiting while it does. If stressful thoughts come to mind, it's best to just imagine them flowing peacefully away and then return your attention to what you're trying to imagine or the word you're saying. People could try that for some time and see what happens.

It might be hard at first to stop thoughts intruding into the mind; I think most people find that. But with practice, they might well be easier and easier to disregard. Don't worry if they take a while to go; just imagine them floating away as you return your mind to the nice image you've been thinking of or the word you keep saying.

In a hammock on the beach

People who promote the relaxation technique claim that within as little as a few weeks, if a person uses it regularly, the effects will last beyond the time when they're using it, so it'll take more for their stress emotions to kick in than it used to. That'll mean it's easier to sleep at night, because not so much stress will have built up during the day. And they say the more you practise, the quicker you'll be able to relax every time you start using it. But they do say you ought to use it almost every day to really benefit, or stress hormones will still build up quite quickly.

They say that if you think taking time out in the day to do a relaxation technique is an indulgence and would feel like a bad use of time, you can remind yourself that it's supposed to have such worthwhile effects that you'll actually do work better because you might have a clearer head and more energy and be in a better mood. They reckon it's good to take about 20 minutes out during the day to do it. If you don't think you have time, they recommend starting with ten minutes and seeing how things go. But they reckon it's hard to achieve relaxation in less time than that.

They reckon it's best to do the relaxation technique in a quiet comfortable place where you won't be distracted by the phone, people wanting things or making a noise, and so on. I don't know how many places that quiet exist. They reckon that if you regularly do the technique in one place, and don't do other stuff there, it'll get easier to relax, because your brain will be thinking relaxing thoughts as soon as you go there.

They think that if you set aside a certain time in the day to do the relaxation, it'll become more of a routine, whereas otherwise it'll be easy to put it off all day and never get around to it. If it doesn't work at first, it might be that you're trying too hard to relax; effort makes relaxation less likely. So don't worry if it doesn't work well at first; keep practising and see if it gets better. If you've done it several times and it doesn't work for you though, give up bothering, and try using other techniques instead.

It's possible it could work better for you at some times of day than others, for instance it might make you feel in a better mood early in the day, or you might prefer to use it later when a few things have happened to make you feel a bit stressed.

If you've only got a few minutes, you might still get a bit of relaxation from it, if you just quickly imagine relaxation spreading over you from one part of you to another, and deliberately slow your breathing down and focus on something you find soothing, just letting distracting thoughts flow away and pulling your mind back to it when they come to mind.

You don't have to go somewhere quiet to do those; they might not relax you as much, but they can be done in noisy places, or even if something stressful's going on around you. They say people with anxiety have started feeling a lot better when they've got into the habit of using them a lot, and even people who have panic attacks have got into the habit of using them when they begin to feel a panic attack coming on, and they've gone away.

It might be hard to remember to use them, but they recommend you could have something as a reminder, perhaps a bit of coloured tape stuck on your watch strap - every time you notice it's there, you'll be reminded that the reason it's there is to remind you to do mini relaxation exercises every now and then. Or you could make it a rule that every time you do a particular thing, you'll try doing the mini relaxation technique, like when you've stopped in traffic lights, when there are adverts on television, when you're on hold on the phone, or sitting in waiting rooms - any time that might otherwise be wasted time. They recommend you could try putting a little note up on the television or a sticker on the phone and that kind of thing as just a quick reminder to use the technique if you start feeling a bit irritable or tense.

If you do them often, they'll help because they'll reverse the increasing stress that can be caused by anxious or annoyed thoughts going round and around in the brain, bring your mind back to what's going on right there and then so you temporarily stop worrying about what's going to happen in the future or having gloomy thoughts about what's just happened, or that happened in the past, and it'll ease tension. Some people find that when they're not being bothered by a stream of gloomy thoughts, it frees up the mind to concentrate better on what they're doing, so they can do it better. They can even find that when they're not worrying about a problem, they can solve it better, because worrying floods the mind with anxious emotions that make it more difficult to think clearly.

Dealing With Depressing Thoughts About Circumstances

Rain cloud

Thoughts are going through people's minds all the time, and when they're stressed, the thoughts can often be overly-negative, blowing situations out of proportion, or thinking the worst before there's real evidence that the worst is going to happen, so it might not. For instance, someone who loses their job might worry and worry that they'll never find another one at their age, seriously stressing themselves out, and then find it impossible to sleep at night, but when they've calmed down some time later, they might start looking for a new job, and actually find one quite quickly. Or if they are unemployed for a while, they might be able to live off their savings and use the opportunity of free time to do all kinds of voluntary work and hobbies they wouldn't have had the chance to do so much of if they'd still had a job. So they might realise afterwards that what they'd thought would be a catastrophe wasn't that bad after all, so they needn't have got so stressed and depressed about it.

Maybe everyone thinks more negatively than they need to sometimes, so everyone has more stress than they need to in their lives from time to time. Even little things can cause it, like getting annoyed because a book you have to study seems really boring, but forgetting that the end of the chapter might be only a few pages away and the next chapter will be on a different subject so it might be more interesting. Or when a person's about to go in for an exam, they might start worrying about what'll happen if they fail, forgetting to think about how they've actually got a good chance of getting a good grade, considering how much revision they've done.

When negative thoughts come on, people tend to take for granted that they're true, rather than examining the evidence for them. So, for example, they might think, 'This problem's ruining my life!' when really it isn't that bad, and there are things they could do about it if they had a good think of ways to solve it. But when they think about how they think the problem's making life miserable, the thought will make them more depressed, and then they'll feel like having more negative thoughts, and the thoughts will make them feel worse, so a lot of what's making them feel bad is the way they're thinking, not the problem itself.

And if the miserable thoughts go on throughout the day, they can make it much harder to sleep at night.

Anxious man

Sometimes if you notice you're feeling anxious or depressed, whereas before you might have just registered in your mind that you were in a bad mood, you could try to work out what triggered off the feeling; it might have been miserable thoughts you started having when a certain subject came to mind, that are really more gloomy than they need to be.

So when you notice you're having gloomy or stressful thoughts, it can help to ask yourself whether the thoughts are really true, whether things really are as bad as you're thinking they are, whether there really is nothing you can do to improve the situation, and whether it wouldn't be better to at least wait and see if things turn out better than you think they will, or whether some solution will come to your mind.

So if you catch yourself thinking gloomy things, it might help to remind yourself that things might not really be that bad.

According to some psychologists, some people find it helpful to write their gloomy thoughts down and think about how they could look at things differently. One way of doing that is if they sit down near the end of the day and think back to a few stressful things that happened during the day, and try to remember the thoughts they were having that might have increased their feelings of stress or anger or gloom or anxiety.

So, for instance, if they were in traffic and they noticed bad driving, they might have stressed themselves out for some time about how annoyed they felt about it. They might have had every right to get annoyed, but the way they think about it after that will determine whether they just get more angry, only making life miserable for themselves, or manage to calm themselves down. If they think things like, 'What a terrible person they must be! How dare they overtake me like that! They're slowing me down!', they'll likely just feel more angry and for longer, whereas if they think, 'I suppose it's possible they're in a great hurry because they're worried they'll lose their job if they're late for work again; and they've only held me up for a few seconds. Let's just hope they learn to drive more carefully though!', they'll likely feel calmer.

Once they've written down their gloomy or stressful thoughts, they could even ask themselves questions about each one to decide how reasonable it was, like:

Worried man

Ask yourself what you would say to a close friend going through the situation you are. Ask yourself whether you'd say different things than the things you're saying to yourself. If you would, then why not say the things you'd say to a close friend to yourself? You might be being much harder on yourself than you would be on someone else. Say the things you'd say to a friend about the problem to yourself, and see how it makes you feel.

Also you could sometimes ask yourself whether anything like the thing you're worrying about has ever happened before, and if it has, ask yourself how it turned out in the end. I mean, some bad things happen that don't have any positive things about them at all, but people say that a lot of the time, people worry about things that'll never be likely to happen, or if things like that have happened in the past, they turned out a lot less badly in the end than the person thought they might, so a lot of the time it's quite possible that anything like that that happens in the future will turn out better than expected too.

When it comes to mistakes people make, a lot of them can be turned to good, because they can be learning experiences people can use to think about how to do things better next time.

Another thing you can try is that when you find yourself feeling a bit stressed, think 'Hold on!' to yourself, and then think about what thoughts you're having and whether you could be thinking of things in a worse way than you need to. Since people can think more clearly when they're relaxed though, before you start thinking about whether your thoughts are out of proportion or more gloomy than they need to be, it's good to Slow your breathing right down, let your body go limp, imagine a feeling of relaxation spreading over it, and daydream for a little while about being somewhere you find calming. Those things will hopefully soothe stressful emotions a bit and at least divert your attention away from thinking worrying thoughts, hopefully for long enough that the stress they're causing fades.

When you feel a bit more relaxed, think about whether the thoughts that have begun to stress you out are really true. You could either ask whether you're saying things to yourself you'd never say to a close friend and ask yourself what you'd say to them instead, think of some of those questions about how accurate your thoughts really are and try to answer them, or ask yourself how you intend to cope with the situation and what would be the best thing to do about it, and whether you did things in similar situations in the past that helped solve the problem, and whether doing such things again would work. Or you could ask yourself what the fact that you have managed to solve problems in the past means about your ability to cope, so you can reassure yourself you'll probably be able to find a way to solve the problem this time if you think about it.

If something really does go badly, remind yourself that that doesn't mean things will always go badly, and it doesn't mean everything in your life is going badly.

Trying to Stay Positive, Especially While Waiting for Sleep


You can use such techniques at night when anxious thoughts are keeping you awake too. It's possible you'll find relaxation or thinking about your thoughts works on its own. You could experiment to see what works best. If you stay awake for about half an hour after using both of them, you could try getting up or just sitting up in bed to do something calming till you feel drowsy. Then if you don't fall asleep, you could try doing the relaxation technique and thinking about whether your thoughts are accurate again, and then if you still don't sleep, you could maybe try sitting up and doing something calming again, and so on.

Another thing you might well find soothing and encouraging is if whenever you can't get to sleep or wake up in the night and can't get back to sleep again, you think about things that are going well in your life or that have gone well, like something good you accomplished, something you've enjoyed, something that's going well or that you're glad you've got in your life, something you're looking forward to, a day out or holiday you enjoyed, something you enjoy doing, and things like that.

That'll distract you from stressful thoughts and give you a bit of enjoyment, as well as calming you down a bit, so you might be more likely to fall asleep.

And even at spare moments during the day, think about things that'll cheer you up, like all the things you can think of that you can be grateful for in life, and things you're still achieving.

Try not to spend more time than you have to around negative people who bring your mood down. If there are people around who make you feel more optimistic about life, see if you can spend more time around them.

Try and find things to do and care about in life that give life more meaning, and that'll mean your thoughts are often absorbed in things outside yourself, rather than stagnating around the same old thoughts about your life that stress you out.

Not Letting Angry Thoughts Ruin Your Day

Cooling anger

If a person's feeling angry a lot, it could be that they're sometimes getting angry about things and people that don't deserve it. For instance, if they've got children and they're always getting ready for school slowly so they're always late, and that makes the person taking them to school late for work and that gets them into trouble with their boss, it might be tempting to blame the children and shout at them, and then think angry thoughts about their slowness for hours, because they assume the children must be lazy or doing things they should know better than to do; but trying to find out all the reasons why they're slow might calm the anger; for instance, one reason might be that they often might not be able to find all the things they need to take, and the problem could be sorted out if they were just encouraged to pack their bags for school before they went to bed the night before.

Calming anger can help people sleep better, because they can relax at bedtime more if they haven't got angry thoughts going round their brains, or if they haven't stressed themselves out during the day so they're more hyped up when they go to bed than they would be otherwise.

Exercise can help with anger too, since it helps work off the energy and tension it causes, and some people find it soothing.

And getting away for half an hour or so here and there to do something enjoyable or absorbing can calm anger too; if thoughts other than the angry ones are filling the brain, the angry feelings will be bound to diminish; and if you're enjoying something you do, you're bound to start feeling better. So you might go back into the situation you were in before feeling refreshed, so you might not be so angry about it.

And try to think about whether the thing making you angry would still be worth you getting angry about if you had only one week to live. That might help to get things in perspective.

Making Life More Satisfying


Laughter relieves stress too, so if you can get to watch or listen to comedies on television or radio and that kind of thing, or find other things that amuse you, you might find yourself feeling in a better mood and sleeping better at night.

Some people find they get to feel better about themselves and as if they have more meaning and purpose in life, and get a self-esteem boost from feeling like a valued member of society, as well as making new friends, if they start doing some kind of community or charity work. If you go to bed feeling satisfied at a job well done, and you have interesting things to think about as you drift off to sleep like new plans, you might well find it's easier to drift off than it would be if you were thinking stressful thoughts. Sometimes helping other people can make people feel more contented with what they have when they see people with less. And thinking about other people more can distract the mind from worrying and worrying over the same old things till they get to seem like bigger problems than they really are.

Withdrawing From Long-Term Use of Sleeping Pills

Getting sleepy

It's not good to take sleeping tablets long-term, but those who do might be able to come off them with no problems if they try to come off them gradually, just cutting down the number they take a bit at first, and maybe not every night of the week, just some nights. Then they could slowly increase the number of nights they have fewer pills, and slowly reduce the number of pills they're taking, maybe eventually cutting one in half and having half one night and half the next, till eventually they try going a night without any.

Then they can increase the number of nights per week they don't have any, till they're not having any at all. And if they do experience anything that might be a withdrawal effect from the pills, like particularly bad insomnia, they can at least comfort themselves that it won't last long; it'll hopefully have gone in a couple of weeks.

And if they're worried about not being at their best the day after they've gone to bed without taking sleeping pills, actually, since some sleeping pills take a long time to wear off, people taking them can feel drowsy the next day, so they perform badly at things anyway.

It might be good if they tell a few friends that they're trying to gradually come off sleeping pills, since if their friends are pleased every time they reduce the amount they take successfully, it'll encourage them to keep going. And if they try to reduce them too much in one go and have a bad night, they might be encouraged if their friends sympathise with them and support them in carrying on trying.

The best night to start cutting down their dose would be a night where they're pretty sure they won't be that busy and won't have anything to do that requires a lot of brain power or physical effort the next day, so if it takes them longer to get to sleep or they feel unusually tired the next day, they'll be less likely to start worrying and worrying that they'll be worse off if they carry on trying to get off them.

It'll probably be best if they wait till they're happy on one reduced dose of sleeping pills before they reduce it some more; if they go at a pace that feels comfortable to them, it won't stress them out so much. It'll be allright if it takes weeks before they feel ready to reduce it some more. But it might not take anywhere near that long. It might be easier sometimes than other times. But they don't have to worry; if they go at their own pace, they'll almost certainly get there in the end.

Maybe they could start by just taking half their normal dose on one night in the week, taking them as normal the rest of the time, and then when they feel comfortable, reducing their dose by half on another night in the week, though not a night just after or just before the night they're already taking a reduced dose, so they won't worry it's too much; and if they don't sleep so well the nights they take a reduced dose at first, they'll at least get a normal night's sleep the next night. But they can take reduced doses on consecutive nights after a while, till in the end they're not taking any sleeping pills.

When they've reduced their dose by half on all the nights of the week, they could start gradually reducing it by half again, in the same way they did before, first on one night, then on two nights of the week, spaced apart, then on three, and so on, till they're taking half the dose on every night of the week. And they could carry on like that till when they're only taking half a pill a night, they could start going some nights not taking any, and build it up till they don't take any at all.

If they're taking more than one kind of sleeping pill at the same time, they could try coming off one first and then the other.

If they start worrying about not being able to get to sleep once they start cutting down, they might find it easier if they start trying to remind themselves that things might not be as bad as all that, by deliberately reminding themselves of reassuring things, which they could even write down in a list to remind themselves of every time they go to bed.

So, for instance, if they feel sure they won't be able to cope when they reduce their dose of sleeping pills some more, they can remind themselves of how well they've done so far, remind themselves it's common for people to get rebound insomnia when they reduce a dose of sleeping pills but it doesn't last more than a week or two, and so on.

This article is part of a series on self-help on this website, which mostly features articles on overcoming conflict in marriages and with others, recovering from emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, and coping with other difficult life situations. To see what's in it, Go to the list of articles.

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