Healthy Sleeping Habits

The Technique a Sleep Doctor Swears By To Quiet Anxious Thoughts at Night and Fall Asleep in Minutes

Photo: Getty Images/Ridofranz
One minute, you’re brushing your teeth, drowsy and ready to pass out. And the next, you’re in bed, eyes wide open, each new thought punctuated by concerns about how you can’t fall asleep and won't function well the following day as a result. It's all too easy to get swept up by these racing, anxious thoughts right as you were hoping to drift off to sleep—which is why clinical psychologist and sleep doctor Shelby Harris, PsyD, suggests a technique that’ll swiftly distance you from them. And it’s as simple as turning those same thoughts into a song.

That’s right, Dr. Harris suggests you literally sing your anxious thoughts—either out loud (presuming you don’t have a sleeping bedmate) or in your head—to the tune of an upbeat song like “Happy Birthday.” The idea? By singing them, the thoughts begin to lose their ruminative power, and you’re reminded of the fact that you have control over whether you believe them. “It’s just like when you look at a word that you’ve known for so long, but continue to stare at it to the point that it becomes just a jumble of letters,” says Dr. Harris. “The same sort of thing can happen with a thought: As you’re singing it and speeding it up or slowing it down, it begins to lose its meaning, and you lose your emotional attachment to it.”

Why turning anxious thoughts into a song can help you fall asleep

Though many physical and psychological factors can interfere with good sleep, up high on that list is stress and anxiety—which can often spawn anxiety about being able to fall asleep, too. “I always say it might not be your insomnia that’s the problem but your worries about the insomnia,” says Dr. Harris. So, finding a way to escape the, “I need to sleep—or else” thought spiral is essential to dozing off. “Whenever I see my patients’ thoughts about their sleep lessen in intensity, I know that better sleep is around the corner for them,” says Dr. Harris.

That’s where the singing trick comes into play: It’s a simple way to turn down the notch on those anxious thoughts (after which good sleep can flow naturally). And it works so well because of a psychological process called cognitive defusion, which is commonly practiced as part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for anxiety and depression.

“Sometimes, we become so fused with thoughts that aren’t serving us—like, ‘I’m not going to be able to fall asleep tonight’—that some cognitive defusion may be necessary.” —Shelby Harris, PsyD, clinical psychologist 

“In most of our lives, we tend to believe all of our thoughts are reality, which is something we call being cognitively fused,” says Dr. Harris. “So, if the trees look green, we internalize the trees being green as a fact. But, sometimes, we become so fused with thoughts that aren’t serving us—like, ‘I’m not going to be able to fall asleep tonight’—that some cognitive defusion [aka separation from those thoughts] may be necessary to see them for what they are, which is just thoughts.”

Notably, that concept is a departure from the set of thought-stopping techniques typically used to treat insomnia, which come from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). “With CBT, it’s really about challenging your thoughts or trying to look at them from an objective standpoint,” says Dr. Harris. “So, if you’re thinking, ‘If I don’t sleep tonight, I won’t be able to function tomorrow,’ then CBT would suggest you ask yourself if you really have evidence for this. And if you don’t, it would ask you to come up with a challenge statement for that thought, which would hopefully quiet it down.”

But, according to Dr. Harris, there’s a subset of folks who just don’t respond to the above strategy. “They could challenge their thoughts left and right, but it’s really like Whac-A-Mole, where they keep popping up in different ways, and they’re constantly fighting against them,” she says. As a sleep doctor, that's when she would turn to an ACT technique for anxious thoughts—like something that allows for cognitive defusion. Rather than asking you to challenge a thought or assess its accuracy, ACT encourages you to recognize and accept the thought for what it is (again, just a thought), in order to effectively let it go or “de-fuse” from it, she says.

The singing method is certainly one way to do that—it’s just easier to drop an anxious thought when it’s in the tune of “Happy Birthday”—but Dr. Harris also recommends “thanking your mind” as another way to cognitively defuse yourself from unhelpful thoughts.

“Instead of thinking, ‘Okay, I’m not going to sleep tonight, and that’s going to be a problem,’ you could say, ‘Thanks, mind, for reminding me that I have trouble when I don’t sleep,’” she says. While the tone can certainly be sarcastic, the point of the statement is, again, to detach yourself from the thought itself. “You’re thanking your mind for trying to make sense of the world, even though it’s not really doing you that much good,” says Dr. Harris. And that thank-you can be just the kind of closure you need, mentally, to move past anxious thoughts and into the slumber you’ve been craving.

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