November 10, 2023

Thought Distortions and Sleep

young man in sleepwear suffering from headache in morning
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Thought distortions, also known as cognitive distortions, are ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t necessarily true. They’re common, and we all have them from time to time. But recognizing and reminding ourselves that not everything we think is true is an important step in untangling from unhelpful thinking.

For example, we know it’s possible that we could get hit by a car if we cross the street, but believing that it was certain would be life-limiting. Another more common example is situations where we assume we know what a person must be thinking when, at best, it’s a guess. But our assumptions can lead to behaviours like avoidance, resentment, or even anger.

These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions, telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves or assessing or treating others unfairly.

Here are some of the most common cognitive distortions:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: This is the tendency to see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words like “always” or “never” when thinking about it.
  3. Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or another. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. This includes “Mind Reading” (assuming the thoughts and intentions of others) and “Fortune Telling” (anticipating things will turn out badly).
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also known as the “binocular trick.”
  7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  8. Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to them: “He’s a goddamn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

How Thought Distortions Can Impact Sleep

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Cognitive distortions can have a direct impact on insomnia. They often contribute to the anxiety and stress that prevent a person from falling asleep or staying asleep.

Here are common distortions that might manifest in the context of insomnia:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: “If I don’t get a full eight hours of sleep, I’ll be a wreck tomorrow.” This kind of thinking can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the stress of needing perfect sleep leads to no sleep at all.
  • Overgeneralization: After a few nights of poor sleep, you might think, “I’ll never get a good night’s sleep again.” This can perpetuate anxiety and insomnia.
  • Mental Filter: You had one bad night and focus only on that, ignoring the nights you slept well, which increases your worry about sleep.
  • Disqualifying the Positive: You might discredit the nights when you did manage to get decent sleep, believing those were just flukes and not a sign you can overcome insomnia.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: You might assume, “I know I’m going to have another sleepless night,” which can trigger the stress response and make sleep more elusive.
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing): “If I don’t sleep well tonight, I will mess up at work, and it could cost me my job.” This kind of thinking magnifies the consequences of poor sleep and can heighten bedtime anxiety.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Feeling anxious and thinking, “Because I feel so anxious, I won’t be able to sleep,” can reinforce the anxiety-insomnia cycle.
  • Should Statements: Telling yourself, “I should be able to sleep without any problems like everyone else,” can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy that keep you awake.
  • Labelling and Mislabeling: You might label yourself as an “insomniac” or “bad sleeper,” which can make the identity part of the problem, reinforcing the issue.
  • Personalization: If you hear a family member say they didn’t sleep well, you might unjustly blame yourself, thinking, “It’s because of my insomnia that my partner can’t sleep.”

Untangle from Unhelpful Thinking About Sleep

Thought distortions can be challenged and altered through various cognitive behavioural strategies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Insomnia (ACT-I), where you learn to recognize and change these distorted thoughts. Engaging with these negative thoughts through mindfulness can also help acknowledge them without being overpowered by them. These techniques are often used in therapeutic settings to help individuals understand and adjust their thought patterns, leading to better mental health and well-being.

Cognitive and behavioural approaches to chronic insomnia, like CBT-I and ACT-I, aim to address these distortions by helping you identify them and challenge their validity or reduce their impact on your behaviour. For example:

  • Cognitive Restructuring: This involves monitoring your thoughts, looking for evidence for and against these thoughts, coming up with alternative, more balanced thoughts, and then observing how much you believe in the original versus the alternative thoughts.
  • Mindfulness: This practice can help you observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them, enabling you to let go of the stress and anxiety about sleep and instead focus on relaxation.
  • Psychoeducation: Understanding the mechanics of sleep and how stress and anxiety play a role can empower you to adopt a more relaxed attitude towards sleep.

By working through these distorted thoughts and learning to view sleep in a more balanced way, you can reduce bedtime anxiety and create a more conducive psychological environment for restful sleep.

Contact us to learn more about how sleep coaching can help you get a better night’s sleep.

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