What are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unnecessary or unwanted thoughts that can pop into our heads without warning at any time – they can be extremely disturbing or distressing.
For example, unexpected reminders about painful past events, worries about catching a serious illness or thoughts of doing something violent or illegal.
Why do anxious thoughts peak at night?
Some people who experience these kinds of thoughts at night also experience anxious or intrusive thoughts during the day. However, many people also have the experience of feeling relatively calm during the day, the reason being that most of us are more easily distracted from our worries and fears during the day. This is because we are working, caring for others, indulging in screen time, and moving rapidly from one activity to another, barely aware of our inner emotional experiences. But when everything becomes dark and quiet at night, we find ourselves alone with our thoughts, and the darker, more difficult emotions or worries tend to come to the surface.
These kinds of thoughts at night can also be attributed to mental health disorders, especially various anxiety disorders.
How can these thoughts disturb your sleep leading to poor physical health?
According to recent research, lack of sleep significantly impairs our ability to stop unwanted and unpleasant thoughts from entering our mind. Insomnia and overthinking often go hand-in-hand. Hence, people will commonly try to shut out those thoughts that are stopping them from a peaceful night’s sleep.
By implementing better ways to deal with intrusive thoughts, the time between getting into bed and falling asleep needn’t be so difficult or distressing. One may also find it easier to fall back to sleep if it isn’t interrupted by racing, intrusive thoughts.
Immediate techniques to stop thoughts at night
There are a number of immediate techniques you can follow to enhance your sleep patterns at night and do away with intrusive thoughts. Some of these techniques include ones such as:
1. Distract yourself
“Imagery distraction” is a helpful technique when you can’t sleep, where you imagine yourself in an engaging and interesting scenario such as:
- a relaxing holiday
- cooking a meal or
- pursuing a hobby
- a nice, sunny afternoon in the garden.
Use of mental imagery has been reported to increase the quality of sleep.
Once you’ve chosen a scenario, the aim is to then immerse yourself in the scenario as deeply as possible by imagining all the sights, sounds, smells and ultimately relaxation that comes with it, so that it becomes completely impossible to think of anything else.
2. Accept your thoughts
As strange as it sounds, not doing anything about your intrusive thoughts can be a surprisingly effective way of dealing with them.
The key here is simply to accept that you aren’t able to sleep because of these intrusive thoughts. However, by not worrying about the implications of these thoughts or trying to fight them, their impact is dulled which means they’re less likely to be arousing and to keep you awake at night.
3. Identify the triggers of these thoughts
It is important to know what triggers certain intrusive thoughts. At night, it might help to just be mindful of these triggers so that you can take the necessary steps needed to eliminate what triggers the intrusive thoughts.
4. Yoga nidra/ Sleep meditation https://youtu.be/7H0FKzeuVVs
Sleep Meditation can be powerful as it requires you to connect with your breath and your body, often naturally distracting you or pulling you out of your intrusive or cyclical thought process. Some audio tapes will also include progressive muscle relaxation technique which enables physical relaxation as well.
5. Regular Journaling
Regular journaling has been found to reduce bedtime worry and stress and increase sleep time and improve the quality of sleep. It helps greatly to note down your thoughts on paper or a computer before going to bed at night.
In conclusion, intrusive thoughts occur to everyone from time to time. However, with a little bit of focus and commitment, it is possible to do away with these intrusive thoughts. The success of overcoming these thoughts depends largely on your ability to fight the urge to worry and obsess over them.
Talking through your feelings with someone you trust can be extremely beneficial. By being open and vulnerable about how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing, might help you to develop a whole new perspective of your situation.
For some people, talking to a stranger can be easier than talking to someone who is known. In this case, therapy might be a good option.
- Bea A, Drerup M. When You’re Trying to Sleep But Your Mind Is Racing, Give These Tactics a Try. Cleveland Clinic https://www.verywellmind.com/racing-thoughts-at-night-5207856
- Espie CA. Overcoming Insomnia: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. London, UK: Robinson; 2006 https://www.sleepstation.org.uk/articles/sleep-tips/thought-blocking/
- Levey AB, Aldaz JA, Watts FN, Coyle K. Articulatory suppression and the treatment of insomnia. Behav Res Ther 1991;29:85–9. https://www.sleepstation.org.uk/articles/sleep-tips/thought-blocking/
- Harvey AG, Payne S. The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction. Behav Res Ther 2002;40:267–77. https://www.sleepstation.org.uk/articles/sleep-tips/thought-blocking/