It’s 3:00 am. You’re wide awake, mind racing. You might be worried about paying your mortgage. You might be puzzling over something someone said to you and rehearsing your response. Maybe an upcoming project has you feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps you are excited, on the cusp of an event you’ve long anticipated. Or maybe the state of the world has got your mind reeling. Each minute that ticks by brings you closer to rising time. This knowledge gives you something else to worry about.
This has been my pattern for most of my life. Whether I have a hard time getting to sleep in the first place, or I wake up in the wee hours, sleep has never been easy. Years ago, I learned to turn the clock around so that I could not see the time. It only made matters worse to know it was 4:00 am and I had to get up in two hours.
Most of the time, what keeps me awake is worry. It’s a longstanding habit. For some reason, worries seem to be much more serious in the middle of the night. Quite often, whatever was so concerning at 2:00 am seems like nothing the next day. But the habit has a lot of momentum.
My favorite metaphor for worry is a traditional story about a Zen monk who created a painting of a tiger on the wall of his cave. The painting was so realistic that when the monk looked at it he became afraid. This is the mechanism of worry—making up a story, believing it to be true and reacting to it. Worry is an essentially pointless endeavor. If your problem is something that can be solved, there is no reason to worry. If it cannot be solved, worrying will not solve it.
It can be helpful to remember this when you are caught in a state of anxious worry. Worry is a component of restlessness, which is one of the “five hindrances” to meditation, along with desire, aversion, sleepiness and doubt. Restlessness is likened to a constant wind, a perpetual movement that finds no rest. Worry causes the mind to spin in never-ending circles. It stimulates and agitates the mind and body, making sleep impossible.
When we worry, we obsess about what we don’t want to happen. And more often than not, whatever it is we worry about never actually does happen.
Being Mindful of Restlessness
Mindfulness meditation practice suggests that rather than getting caught in the story you are creating, you can be present with the sensations in your body. Mindfulness of body sensation can begin to ground and quiet your mind. So when you are in the grip of insomnia, rather than being carried away by the content of your spinning thoughts, try giving your attention to the physical sensations of restlessness.
On Worrying About Sleep
Two points of understanding helped me release worries about sleep deprivation that were compounding my restlessness. First, not everyone needs the eight hours of sleep each night that have become the accepted standard. A New York Times article explains the wide variety of natural sleep patterns and calls the widely accepted prescription the “tyranny of the eight-hour block” of sleep. It is simply not true that every person needs the same amount of sleep, or that every person needs uninterrupted sleep.
The second point that helped me begin to stop the worry cycle was the understanding that reclining and resting the body is a valid form of relaxation even if I did not lose consciousness. Conscious relaxation practices are a cornerstone of yogic traditions. Practices like yoga nidra (psychic sleep) and asana practice are specifically intended to promote relaxation. Combined with mindful attention these practices center and calm the mind-body.
How to Practice
Here are some tips for calming the worry bug:
- Check your breathing. Remember that restlessness is a perpetual “wind.” Begin to breathe more deeply, lengthening your exhalations. Due to a physiological phenomenon called “sinus arrhythmia,” our heart rate slows when we exhale. Lengthening our exhalations can calm our nervous system, making it easier to disconnect from restlessness.
- When you find yourself caught in worry, whether you’re lying in bed or moving through your day, stop what you’re doing and be aware of what’s going on in your body. Staying stuck in the your thoughts will only fuel the fire. Go to your body and feel the sensations of restlessness. Where does restlessness reside in your body? What is its energetic character?
- In the past few years I've found that shifting to kindness practice when I wake up in the middle of the night helps to shift my mind in a positive direction.
- If you’re lying in bed in the middle of the night when the worry bug hits, there are several options for how you might want to position yourself. First, remain lying where you are and redirect your attention to your body (as above). Second, you can sit upright in a traditional meditation position, although this might stimulate your mind further. Third, you can practice a restorative pose in bed. For example, try lying on your back with your legs up the wall.