Many people have minds that race endlessly at night. They worry about their mistakes from the past day, what they’re going to do tomorrow and even about the fact that they can’t fall asleep. All of us probably suffer from this malady at least from time to time. What should you think about instead for better sleep?
One study looked at the thoughts of normal sleepers and those suffering from insomnia. They found that insomniacs experienced fewer images and more verbal thoughts than the good sleepers. The images that were experienced by insomniacs were also more distressing. Another study found that insomniacs focused more on worries, things that had happened that day, noises in the environment and about the fact that they can’t sleep. Good sleepers, interestingly, thought most about “nothing in particular.” One study took these results one step further to see if imagery could help insomonics sleep better. Participants were instructed to either distract themselves, to distract themselves with imagery or received no instructions. The imagery group, but not the distraction group, fell asleep faster than the control group and experienced fewer distressing thoughts before falling asleep. A meta analysis of 13 studies also found that visualization improved sleep quality and reduced nightmares. The positive results were sustained at the 6 and 12 month follow ups.
There’s very little for you to focus on when you’re lying in bed except for your worries. Fortunately, studies show that visualization can take the place of worry and help you fall asleep and sleep better throughout the night. So imagine a pleasant scene or storyline when you get in bed. If your mind starts to worry again, just go back to the imagery.
Note: You should not try and suppress any negative thoughts. Another study had participants identify the thought that was most likely to dominate their presleep cognitive activity. Half of the participants were instructed to suppress the thought, while the other half were told to relax and allow thoughts to come and go. The suppression group took longer to fall asleep and slept worse throughout the night.
Casement, Melynda D., and Leslie M. Swanson. “A meta-analysis of imagery rehearsal for post-trauma nightmares: Effects on nightmare frequency, sleep quality, and posttraumatic stress.” Clinical psychology review 32.6 (2012): 566-574.
Harvey, Allison G., and Suzanna Payne. “The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction.” Behaviour research and therapy 40.3 (2002): 267-277.
Harvey, Allison G. “Pre‐sleep cognitive activity: A comparison of sleep‐onset insomniacs and good sleepers.” British Journal of Clinical Psychology 39.3 (2000): 275-286.
Harvey, Allison G. “The attempted suppression of presleep cognitive activity in insomnia.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 27.6 (2003): 593-602.
Nelson, J., and A. G. Harvey. “Pre-sleep imagery under the microscope: a comparison of patients with insomnia and good sleepers.” Behaviour research and therapy 41.3 (2003): 273-284.