More often than not, the more effort we put into trying to stop thinking about something, or escape an uncomfortable feeling, the longer it tends to linger. When we excessively engage with our thoughts, especially at night, they can become amplified and be treated as facts and truths rather than just thoughts. This can increase our stress, making it harder to let go and allow our body to fall asleep. Engaging with thoughts in this way regularly can become a habit of our mind.
So, what can we do about busy thoughts before bed or in the middle of the night? First, we can learn to step back and remember that our brain is just doing its job: coming up with ideas, some practical, some unsettling or bizarre. Ultimately, we can’t stop thoughts from popping into our heads, but we can choose how to respond and what to do about those thoughts.
Cognitive diffusion is about looking at thoughts and seeing them as they are, noticing them, and not getting caught up in them. We can cultivate a relationship with thoughts that is less adversarial and threatening and reduce the emotional impact they can have on us.
By gaining some distance from our thoughts, it becomes easier to choose how we want to take action or no action at all. This strategy is drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and from Dr. Russ Harris’s book, Act Made Simple. ACT aims to help people accept experiences as they are, create flexibility in their thinking, and make choices based on values that are important to them. The first step is creating acceptance, which is not the same as giving up or resigning to suffering.
What can I do?
Instead of reacting by trying to change, fight, or escape sticky thoughts, try “unhooking” from them using a bit of humour and playfulness. By practicing this regularly, it can become easier to redirect that mental energy towards things you do have control over and that matter in the present moment.
There are several ways to practice cognitive diffusion. Try each one for 30 seconds to a minute and see which one resonates with you.
One way is to label the experience that is coming up for you, such as “This is pain,” “This is frustration,” or “This is excitement.”
Then, it is important to remember that thoughts are functions of our minds and not our enemies. The next time an unhelpful thought pops into your mind, try saying, “Thanks, Brain, for that thought, but I’m not going to work on that right now.” “Thank you for sharing. I’m not going to debate it right now.” or “Thanks, Brain, for that thought and watching out for me.”
Insert a Reminder
When you find yourself ruminating on thoughts like “I’m not going to sleep tonight” or “How am I going to function tomorrow?”, remind yourself that they are simply thoughts and not truths. You can do this by saying, “I’m having the thought that…”
Leaves on a Stream
Try this exercise if your mind is noisy with different thoughts and worries. Gently close your eyes and imagine each thought on a leaf floating down a stream and disappearing.
Just like when encountering annoying ads on social media apps or websites, imagine the thoughts as an ad and scroll past it or close the window.
Sing it Out!
You don’t need to be a professional singer to do this. But by saying it aloud, in a funny or operatic voice, the thought loses its impact, and at minimum, you’ll get a chuckle from yourself or someone within your earshot.
To help reduce the intensity of a thought, you can write it down and play with it by increasing the font, making it bold, changing the font size, adding colour and formatting. This makes the thought more tangible.
Along for the Ride
Imagine yourself as a bus driver with a destination in mind. You have passengers who may be loud and irritating, but rather than getting caught up in their behaviour, stay focused on the road and continue towards your destination.
Practicing these exercises when your mind is noisy or unsettled can help you realize that you can observe thoughts and see them as they are without getting too caught up or losing control of your ability to choose how to respond. Make it a goal to practice these exercises everyday as a way to untangle from unhelpful thinking about sleep, of the key elements that can sustain insomnia.