At times, we’re all affected by scary and unpleasant thoughts. From wearing self-loathe or humiliation from a recent event to a distressing story from the evening news, these troublesome, scary images continue popping up continuously despite our best efforts to block them. It’s not just the elements in your thoughts that leave you feeling miserable, but the fact that you can’t inhibit them makes you feel like a captive of your punishing mind.
Not surprisingly, these fears can keep you up at night. When you’re scared to sleep because of nightmares, being alone or some frightening news, it activates a primitive stress response in you. This increases adrenaline levels, thus, elevating your alertness. While for some, this may cause trouble falling asleep, for others it may lead to frequent awakenings, resulting in sleep not being restorative or restful.
There are effective ways of overcoming scary thoughts and getting quality rest. Understanding your fears, managing stress and anxiety, incorporating mindfulness and distraction techniques are all excellent approaches to stop thinking about scary things when trying to sleep.
But first, let’s understand why you’re failing at blocking out your fears every night.
The Science of Blocking Out Scary Thoughts
According to most people, there isn’t much you can do about troubling thoughts. They believe that these thoughts have to occur and that there is no point in trying to suppress them. The good news is that they’re wrong. Yes, you can block undesirable, distressing, and counterintuitive thoughts and feelings. You need to be equipped with the correct techniques.
The reason that blocking out a thought is difficult is that most often, suppressed thoughts rebound. They sneak up on you when you least expect them. This can be explained via ironic monitoring theory.
Blocking Out the White Bears
According to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s in his 1863 “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” an account of his journeys in Western Europe, if you try to not think of a polar bear, it will continue to come to mind every minute. However, the research that proved it correct only came out over a century later via the findings of social psychologist, Daniel Wegner, Ph.D.
Wegner’s research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested the white bear supposition by asking participants to express their flow of consciousness for 5 minutes while suppressing thoughts of a white bear.
Participants were asked to ring a bell if a white bear did come to their mind. In spite of being given clear instructions to not think of a white bear, on average, volunteers rang the bell more than once per minute.
The second part of this experiment involved asking participants to try to think of the white bear, while the rest of the experiment remained the same. Participants thought of a white bear more frequently than another group who were instructed to think of white bears from the beginning. Findings showed that trying to block out a thought for the first five minutes of the test resulted in a more pronounced rebound effect in the volunteers’ minds in the second part of the experiment.
Over the next ten years, Wegner established his “ironic monitoring” theory, explaining why suppressing unwanted thoughts can be so challenging. The idea is that when you are trying to block out a thought, while one part of your brain does avoid the unwanted thought, another is actively scavenging for any of these thoughts to inhibit them. This, ironically, causes your unwanted thought to become more accessible so that as soon as you’ve let your guard down, it springs up. Now, your mind is plagued with this unwanted thought, and you can’t stop thinking about it.
How to Block Out Scary Thoughts
For a while, the common notion among psychologists was to allow yourself to think about white bears (the troubling thought) because your brain wasn’t searching for these thoughts anymore or trying to suppress them. Eventually, your thoughts would fade, and you won’t have to worry about them. Now experts have figured out that these thoughts can be blocked, without a rebounding effect.
It helps first to understand that suppressing a thought is always going to be a little challenging, regardless of what the thought is. However, just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean you need to let your mind think about it continuously. Believing that your mind has a secret agenda is what promotes a rebounding effect. The more meaning and importance you give to the challenging aspect of inhibiting a thought, the more likely you will continue being troubled by it.
According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which explained to participants in advance before blocking out a thought that suppressing any thought is difficult – found that embracing the fact you don’t have to think it zaps a rebounding effect.
What to Do if a Scary Thought Occurs
It helps to have a plan for when a troubling thought does emerge. This can be as simple as telling yourself that if the thought does come, you will ignore it. You can also replace an unwelcome thought or emotion with a positive one.
For example, if you have an exam tomorrow and the fear of failing is what’s keeping you up at night, then remembering the times you passed your tests should help you conquer your feelings.
What Happens When You Don’t Block Scary Thoughts
Any time that you’re feeling scared or anxious, your natural human response is to activate your “fight or flight” response, also called your sympathetic nervous system. Prompting your sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, histamine, dopamine, and serotonin, which increase alertness.
When the neurotransmitters reach higher than normal levels, it can be more difficult for your body to switch them off and shut down so that you can sleep. Even if you can fall asleep despite the rush of these chemicals, you may find yourself waking up frequently in the night, often facing difficulty falling back asleep.
When you are scared, your brain increases your alertness and awareness, while your body maintains its energy and muscle tone. This is an evolutionary aspect among humans which allows them to detect and swiftly escape from a potential threat in a dangerous situation. However, this isn’t normal with sleep. Proper sleep is characterized by muscle relaxation, lower energy levels, and diminished alertness.
An active sympathetic nervous system may cause hyperarousal during your sleep, where your brain observes your environment with greater caution. This can cause you to experience lighter sleep with an increased awareness of what’s happening around you, allowing you to be easily woken up from sleep. Some people may also experience nightmares and parasomnias (such as sleepwalking or sleep eating) as a result of their muscles being highly active.
How Fear Makes Sleep Less Restorative
Sleeping in a hyperaroused state causes light sleep that can be easily disturbed. Therefore, it is not going to be as restorative and refreshing as it would be if you weren’t sleeping hyperaroused. Increased activation in the brain inhibits the brain’s ability to eliminate waste materials that have built up during the day, a natural aspect of restorative sleep.
Therefore, switching off your sympathetic nervous system, especially during REM sleep, is vital for diminishing the fear element from your experiences. If you have increased sympathetic nervous system activity due to exposure to fear or anxiety, it can readily increase your chances of having continuous nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder.
This indicates that it is especially important to acknowledge fearful stimuli early and seek appropriate treatment so that your risk of prolonged hyperarousal and stress disorders is significantly reduced.
What Are the Causes of Nightmares?
If your bedtime anxiety is a result of fear of nightmares, then you’re not alone. Scientists have found that 75% of all dreams induce negative emotions, or may contain undesirable content. Nightmares are characterized by frightening images, emotions, ideas, and sensations that occur uncontrollably during sleep. They can be surprisingly vivid and realistic, causing a mix of emotions, which include fear, grief, sadness, anxiety, depression, guilt, and anger.
These images can be so disturbing and unpleasant that it can force one awake. Sometimes, these feelings continue to stay, making it harder to go back to sleep. While scientists are yet to discover what causes bad dreams, some evolutionary psychologists believe that nightmares may have an evolutionary purpose.
According to the psychologist, Antti Revonsuo, nightmares may a type of “threat simulation” that allowed our ancestors to rehearse being in a dangerous situation so that they were more prepared for the dangers of the real world. Revonsuo argues that even though nightmares are fictional and disturbing, they may help you deal with a realistic situation in a more effective manner. However, the exact cause of nightmares is still not known.
What is certain is that nightmares are driven by psychological and emotional factors. In many cases, nightmares are more common during the following conditions:
- Being ill or having a fever.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from drugs and stimulants.
- Use of antidepressants or blood pressure medications.
- Going to bed right after eating due to an increase in metabolism.
- Having sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
- During stressful periods, such as financial concerns, a job change, fights with your partner, or pregnancy.
- During traumatic experiences, such as a serious accident, loss of a loved one, or witnessing a distressing event.
- Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nightmares are common among first response workers such as firefighters, paramedics, and police, as well as war veterans.
- While preparing for surgery, or recovering from one.
- Having mild head injuries.
What To Do When You’re Scared at Night and Can’t Sleep
One of the most critical approaches to managing fears is to recognize them for what they are. In today’s world, we generally live in safe conditions and most of our scary thoughts are not actual threats. It can be difficult to step back and approach this with a wider context when you’re scared to sleep, but doing so can have a monumental impact. This is especially the case with children who do not have a broader perspective and can become increasingly disturbed by what they watch on television, making threats seem more likely than they are.
In addition to putting your fears into perspective, the following can also lead to positive outcomes when you’re trying to sleep.
In one of his studies, when Wegner asked participants to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a polar bear, he found that providing something else to focus on, allowed participants to avoid unwanted thoughts. Therefore, if you are wide awake at night and are not able to extricate yourself from a cycle of scary thoughts, consider picking an absorbing task and focusing on it instead. Relaxation techniques make excellent distractors in this situation, because not only can they grasp your focus effectively, they can also calm your mind and alleviate muscle tension.
Try shifting your focus from scary thoughts to concentrating on visual imagery and muscle relaxation that will allow sleep to return. Progressive muscle relaxation is an effective deep relaxation method to control stress and anxiety and reduce symptoms of insomnia and chronic pain. The technique is simply based on the act of tightening each muscle group, following by relaxation to release tension. Progressive relaxation can also be used to treat headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and cancer pain. Here’s how you can do it:
- Inhale deeply, contracting one muscle group, such as your upper thighs for 5-10 seconds.
- Exhale, releasing the tension in this muscle group.
- Take 10 to 20 seconds to relax. Move on to the next muscle group, such as your buttocks, tightening them as you inhale. Release again while exhaling.
- As you release your muscle tension, try paying attention to the changes you feel as you relax that muscle group. Using imagery can be especially beneficial while releasing tension. For example, imagine stressful feelings in that region in the form of a ball of glowing energy that exits your body as you release that muscle group.
- Work your way up your body, gradually tightening and relaxing each muscle group.
Progressive muscle relaxation is an excellent approach to learning about your body and understanding the signals it is giving you. With some practice, you’ll be able to accurately recognize and reduce the signs of emotional and physical stress in your body, helping you sleep more soundly through the night.
One way to interpret the fear in a wider context, while being less focused on scary thoughts, is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness involves practicing being present and unplugging from the emotion and judgment involved in your experiences. This can help you see fears in their true essence and gain an understanding of whether you should be fearful or whether your fears are not reasonable and realistic, or are overly exaggerated.
Most people find it easier to practice mindfulness meditation by concentrating on one object, thought, or sensation – such as a candle, understanding your fear, or your breath. Be sure to meditate in a relaxed position, in a quiet area, and in comfortable, non-restrictive clothing. Here’s how:
- Sit in a comfortable position in bed, a cushion, or a folded blanket. Adjust your position to allow your spine to be erect, and your head, neck, and spine to be in a straight line. You can also sit in a chair, without crossing your arms and legs.
- Close your eyes and start regulating your breathing. Inhale deeply for a count of 5 and exhale for 5. Breathe normally again and focus on how the air feels as it voyages in and out of your nose. If you lose focus, bring your awareness back to your breathing as you inhale and exhale.
- However, avoid forcing yourself to focus. The goal is to reduce any physical and emotional strain. Acknowledge your mind as it wanders and gently, yet consciously return your awareness to your breath.
- Note that it will take patience to return your thoughts to the present moment, but some practice can benefit you immensely. Just avoid passing any judgment to yourself, or punishing yourself, if your thoughts do wander. Meditation isn’t about being perfect or winning a race.
- Now bring your awareness to the object, thought, or sensation you want to focus on. You can continue focusing on your breath, or shift your focus to a visual object placed near you. Gaze softly, if it’s an object. If it’s a thought, focus on it without judgment, blame, or guilt.
- Avoid fighting your thoughts. When your thoughts wander, guide them back gently to your object of focus. Acknowledge wandering thoughts and let them pass, while being aware of your object of focus.
- Perform this exercise for at least 10 minutes before you sleep, gradually increasing the length of your sessions to 20 minutes or longer.
Practicing mindfulness can also play a massive role in reducing hyperarousal and symptoms of troubled sleep. In addition to the above exercise, you can also find useful guided mindfulness meditation apps and videos that can help you strengthen your meditation practice.
Delaying Your Thought
Your mind likes to anticipate things, rather than react to them.
Scientists have found that asking individuals to set aside 30 minutes a day for their worrying, allows them to avoid focusing on their troubling thoughts for the rest of their day. If a troubling or scary thought is keeping you up at night, then having a set plan to address it another time can be beneficial. Therefore, the next time you do come across an unwanted thought, tell yourself you are not going to think about this until next Tuesday, for example.
Avoid Stimulants Before Bed
Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can have a significant impact on your thoughts before you sleep. Not only are they linked to increased stress and anxiety when taken in higher amounts, but they also last in your system for hours, causing you to wake up frequently during your sleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep due to scary thoughts, consider cutting back on your coffee, alcohol, or smoking habit as the three are notorious for causing poor quality sleep and emotional disorders in the future.
Seeking Medical Help
If you continue to have trouble sleeping, even after trying the above strategies, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep physician or a psychologist if they feel you require further treatment. Some treatments used by health professionals include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-I). In some cases, even after a person addresses their fear, their sleep issues persist because of altered behavior and thinking around sleep. This can be managed using cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also used in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
- Imagery Rehearsal Treatment. This treatment method encourages individuals to change the endings of their nightmares while they are awake. Imagery rehearsal treatment is a cognitive therapy where individuals can create alternatives for themselves that are less troubling than their dreams. Researchers have found that over 70% of people claim that this treatment is beneficial, including patients with insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Medications. Your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce your sympathetic nervous system response. Alpha-blockers or beta-blockers can be useful in reducing the occurrence of nightmares and disturbed sleep, which are common aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you are feeling scared, anxious, or stressed before you sleep, take heart in knowing that you can block out negative thoughts if you set your mind to it. And if this doesn’t work, there are plenty of effective options available, such as meditation, progressive relaxation, controlling your diet, and seeking medical treatment. Your best bet would be to try each of these techniques for many days and if one doesn’t work, move on to the next one without giving yourself a hard time for not responding to your treatment.