How Worrying affects Your Sleep

By Lisa Franchi on November 20, 2013

Does worrying ruin your sleep? Do you lie awake for several minutes to hours fretting about the stressful experiences you had during the day, the bills to pay, your ever-exhausting job, the arguments you had with your spouse the other day, and the low grades appearing on your child’s report card? A huge body of research suggests that the things we do, as well as the things we think about before bedtime does have a significant impact on the quality of our sleep.

Worrying linked to Nightmares

Having an occasional nightmare can really be distressing. But most of us forget about their bad dreams the next day they wake up. For some people however, the terrible effects of a nightmare could last for hours and days, interfering with their everyday life. Others develop fear over these nightmares that they could no longer fall asleep at night. And here’s where sleeping issues come in.

Why people dream has been a subject of research for the past decades but the answer remained unclear. One obvious problem is that very few remember the specifics of their dreams. Also, the data available for scientific scrutiny is usually based on self-reports so it is not possible to determine what precisely happens in a person’s dream. Thanks to the invention of brain-scanning technologies, scientists are getting more clues on the effects of nightmares to the human brain.

One interesting research by psychologist Edward Selby of Rutgers University, in collaboration with Thomas Joiner, Jr. of Florida State University, was that certain personality qualities are more prone to nightmares. In their study, the researchers found that negative emotional experiences during the day can worsen nightmares in two ways. First is through ‘rumination’ – the act of going over things again and again in your mind. This makes a person feels increasingly upset prior to sleep because of that fact that he or she can’t stop thinking about it. In common language, we call rumination as ‘worrying’. This is often followed by ‘catastrophising’ which means imagining the worst possible outcome of a negative experience. Whenever a person catastrophises, his or her level of negative emotions go way beyond the original negative experience. According to Selby and Joiner, their findings confirm previous research suggesting that people with borderline personality disorder are more prone to nightmares to a greater extent because they have difficulty regulating their negative emotions.

Their study shows that the worries we have from the day can take a huge toll on our quality of sleep. For instance, when bad things happen to you during the day, you tend to have more trouble falling asleep at night. This is because you remain to be mentally aroused. Consequently, your negative emotions become a basis for your nightmares. Worse, you may also experience the so called ‘waking nightmare’ in which you are actually awake but you think are still sleeping.

Another study, which was carried out in 2012 by the researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki, Finland, confirmed that worrying plays a big role in sleep loss, especially during the course of adulthood from early middle age to old age. Using a sample of 16,408 men and women ages 34-79, the researchers created a long-term trajectory for insomnia. They found that sleep loss from worry is at its highest during the ages 35-55. At the age of 55-60, worry begins to decline as a factor in sleep loss, and levelled off with the onset of old age between the age of 66 and 70. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to suffer from sleep loss from worry.

It isn’t clear why worry as a risk factor for sleep loss declines with age but researchers speculate that it may have to do, in part, with the life changes that come along with the shift from middle age to old age. According to them, people in mid years often struggle with financial ups and downs, death of parents, stresses at work and in raising children, etc. Furthermore, many of the pressures of middle age can change and diminish in ensuing years as people retire from their jobs, see their children have grown and become independent, and achieve financial stability.

Dealing with worries

Effectively dealing with worries is something every one of us, regardless of our situations in life, can do. Consider the following tips to reduce your night-time worrying and improve your quality of sleep;

Start a ‘worry journal’. Worries are normal and you don’t have to completely avoid them because the more you shook these worries away, the more they will bug you. A good strategy to face your worries effectively is to start a ‘worry journal’. Hours before bedtime, write about the worries or concerns you had during the day. Beside each worry entry, create two columns and label them “possible” and “nor possible” respectively. Put a check to the row that corresponds to a certain thing you are worried about. This will help you assess whether the worries you have are logical or not. You will be surprised that most of the things you fuss about are not actually worth your time and attention. Furthermore, writing a journal can help you focus more on the solutions rather than the problems themselves.

Set time for worrying. Maybe you can do this as you write an entry to your journal. Don’t judge your worries and try not to censor yourself. Having a schedule for worrying is a great way to prevent those unwanted thoughts from affecting your daily tasks at home or in the office.

As you lie on bed, put your worries to rest. As much as possible, try to steer clear from the pressures and annoyances you had during the day. Instead, focus on the positive things you had. If you write a worry journal in the morning, also create a ‘gratitude journal’ before bedtime. Each night before you sleep, write down at least three things which happened during the day that you are thankful of. This increases your chance of having a restful slumber.

Avoid catastrophising about your nightmares. So you had a bad dream? Hush. It is nothing but a bad dream. Don’t allow those nightmares to ruin your day and life.

Seek professional help. As we have mentioned earlier, some personalities have the tendency to experience nightmares and other sleep issues. Chronic worrying is also a major concern that you may want to consult with a professional therapist. Speaking with a counsellor or a psychotherapist can actually help you master ways to overcome excessive worrying and improve your sleep patterns.

Pamper yourself. The experiences you had several hours before bedtime have an impact on the quality of your sleep. If you want to have a restful slumber, make yourself feel comfortable. Do something to lower down your stress level. This could mean getting a massage therapy or undergoing acupuncture session at least once a week, having a hot shower, spraying lavender extract on your pillow, playing soft music, and visualising happy thoughts.

Worrying is a risk factor for nightmares and other sleep issues, which in turn could affect the quality of your life and make you more prone to chronic illnesses. The good news is that you can take these basic steps to reducing your night-time worries and achieving a satisfying, invigorating sleep.

Sweet dreams fellows!

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