It’s a deeply human experience to encounter times when we’re challenged with difficult and painful thoughts, emotions, sensations, urges, or memories. We all have these moments, but how we respond to these experiences often determines their duration and our level of suffering.
Consider a situation that triggers challenging thoughts and feelings. It could be rooted in uncertainty or other factors. Often, we react on autopilot, with our brain shifting into rumination, worry, and hyperfocus, and this tends to happen more when we try to escape or resist these difficult thoughts or feelings.
To get untangled from intense emotions and feelings, we need to practice switching off the autopilot to disrupt this automatic response and focus on what we can control (because we can’t make thoughts and feelings disappear!). This involves anchoring ourselves until the emotional storm passes.
For example, anxiety and insomnia can perpetuate each other, forming a vicious cycle. The ACE method (Acknowledge, Come Back, Engage) is a mindful approach to break this cycle and support yourself during these challenging times.
Remember, emotional storms always pass. Focus gently on what’s important to you in the present.
Step 1: Acknowledge Your Thoughts and Feelings
Adopt a curious, scientific approach to observing your inner experiences. Silently and kindly acknowledge whatever arises within you:
Mindful Recognition: Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings without judgment. For instance, note to yourself, “Ah, this is anxiety,” or “I am noticing those worrisome thoughts,” or “Thanks, Brain, for that thought!”.
Journaling for Insight: Keep a journal by your bed. Write down anxious thoughts when sleep eludes you. This helps make these thoughts more tangible and less overwhelming.
Compassionate Breathing Exercise: Use deep breathing to acknowledge bodily sensations linked to anxiety or insomnia, like a racing heart or tense muscles. Placing your hands over tense places is a gentle invitation to notice and let go of tension.
Step 2: Come Back to the Present
Avoid turning away from, escaping, or distracting yourself from your inner experiences.
Focused Breathing: Practice breathing in for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for four. This technique helps you return to the present moment.
Cyclical Sigh: This is a great option if counting is too stimulating for you. Take two deep breaths in through your nose to fill up your lungs, and slowly breathe out your mouth and release with a sigh. Repeat for up to 5 minutes to induce physical calm.
Body Scan: Perform a body scan in bed, starting from your toes and moving upwards, focusing on each body part to help return to the present.
Mindfulness Meditation: Incorporate short mindfulness meditation sessions into your routine to train your mind to return to the present, reducing anxiety.
Reconnect with your physical body by:
- Pressing your feet firmly into the floor.
- Straightening your back and spine; if sitting, sit upright and forward.
- Pressing your fingertips together.
- Stretching your arms or neck and shrugging your shoulders.
- Breathing slowly.
You can try this anchoring exercise:
Step 3: Engage in Meaningful Activity
Engage in activities that align with your values and bring meaning. This redirects your focus from anxiety to making choices that can reduce distress.
Value-Based Activities: Pursue activities that resonate with your values, like reading, hobbies, or simply relaxing, breathing or stretching to care for your body, even if sleep isn’t happening. Rest is valuable, too, but sometimes, this needs to happen outside of bed until your body and mind are ready for sleep again.
Consider Kindness: If you’re having trouble sleeping, what does a restful mind look like in this moment? How might you speak or show up for a friend or loved one who was struggling?
You might say:
May I patient be patient with myself.
May I be kind to myself.
Ah, this is a human experience. Even people without insomnia have nights where they have trouble sleeping, especially when stressed.
I’m not alone, and I’ve been through this before.
Take a breath. You’ll get through this!
A gesture of kindness can quieten the internal bully that rarely, if ever, helps promote a calm state that welcomes relaxation and sleep.
Active Problem-Solving: Address specific concerns during the day through active problem-solving, like making lists or planning steps, to reduce their impact at night. You can also write down and delay the problem-solving until a better time.
If you notice your thoughts and emotions start to intensify, refocus your attention on your surroundings by noticing:
- 5 things you can see.
- 4 things you can hear.
- 3 things you are touching.
- 2 things you can smell.
- 1 taste in your mouth.
How the ACE Method Helps with Anxiety and Insomnia
- Acknowledging Reduces Rumination: Recognizing your thoughts and feelings decreases their influence and rumination.
- Coming Back Enhances Mindfulness: Returning to the present reduces anxiety about the past or future, which can create a feeling of safety, aiding the sleep process.
- Engaging Redirects Focus: Focusing on meaningful activities provides control and fulfillment, easing anxiety and improving sleep.
Ideally, run through the ACE cycle slowly 3 or 4 times for a 2-3 minute exercise. Practice these exercises often to build your skills, especially in less challenging situations. Over time, use this method in more challenging situations when thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming.
The ACE method is a practical, mindfulness-based approach to managing anxiety and insomnia. By acknowledging thoughts and feelings, returning to the present, and engaging in meaningful activities, you foster a healthier mental environment conducive to emotional well-being and better sleep. Practice and patience are key, but this can become a valuable tool in your self-care toolbox with time.
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