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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

When You Just Can't Sleep

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 15th 2010

sleepOver 2 million people struggle from sleep disorders. We can have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or both. A barrage of thoughts often haunts us through the night, “I can’t believe I can’t fall asleep, tomorrow’s going to be horrible, please, please, please fall asleep.” The anxiousness grows as we fall further and further from a restful state of mind. So what can we do when it seems like sleep is an impossibility?

Perhaps we can take a lesson from poet Wendell Berry in his The Peace of Wild Things:

"When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. 
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."

One practice that we can develop when have difficulty sleeping is to intentionally and nonjudgmentally bring awareness to where the wild things are. In other words, bringing attention directly to the anxious thoughts and feelings themselves. One of the reasons anxious thoughts continue to spin is because we’re caught up in them relating to the problem of sleep from the anxious thoughts instead of stepping out of the whirlwind of the mind and relating to the anxious thoughts.

In the past I’ve suggested practicing the body scan when having difficulty sleeping, but another practice is to actually bring your awareness to the thoughts themselves. See if you can imagine you’re in a movie theatre looking at the talking and images on the screen go on by. These mental events are a reflection of the electrochemical interactions occurring from your brain and you are just witnessing the content that pops up and passes away. Here and there you will get caught up in the content itself and when you do, just notice that you’ve jumped into the movie and choose to get back in your seat.

You may find that when you take yourself out of the equation, the energy behind the thoughts begins to slow down and as you sit in the “presence of still water…resting in the grace of the world.”

Keep in mind to try this out as an experiment, without expectations of falling asleep. The expectations themselves will create a monitor in your mind that will always be checking which creates more stress. Do it for the sake of learning how to relate to your mind differently and being curious about all the crazy content that’s there.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

sleep support - pat - Dec 16th 2010

I do the same thing. When I lay down, and my mind wanders, I try to invite my mind to wander wherever it wants, and I am just a spectator, eagerly awaiting the dreams to come

this is not insomnia - - Dec 15th 2010

people don't just have problems sleeping  because they lie awake with their thoughts racing. maybe this can cause  a few nights of insomnia, but chronic insomnia is much different than just racing thoughts keeping you up.

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