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Circular Thoughts and Insomnia

Jun 04, 2023

Why You Have Circular Thoughts and How to Banquish Them For Good.

Damn those circular thoughts and the insomnia they bring....

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for all day, your body is crying out for it, and you think “Thank god it’s finally time to sleep!”

You lie down in your warm snuggly bed to eagerly await the Sandman, but that fickle man never comes!!!

Instead of sliding peacefully to sleep you begin ruminating about the day, your life, your relationships and how much you need to get done the next day.

This is so common in insomnia clients, and I know it can be amazingly frustrating. Why do circular thoughts and insomnia keep happening?

Unfortunately, bedtime is the PERFECT time for the brain to revisit and mull over any and all stressors and unresolved issues in our lives. Why? Because we are often so busy that we ignore our mind during the day.

How Circular Thoughts and Insomnia Occur:

It’s our brain’s job to warn us of any potential dangers, that’s how we evolved to survive. Your poor mind doesn’t know how to distinguish between the stress of forgetting to do the laundry and being chased by an axe murderer.  Which (let’s face it) is way more probable than being chased by a tiger in this day and age.

Because it is your brain’s job to keep you safe, and you have been ignoring it, pushing alerts down all day, these messages grow in urgency (no one likes to be ignored!)

That’s why, instead of drifting off into a luxurious dreamland, we are constantly plagued by stressful thoughts, right when we don’t want them, and the more we try to push them away the louder they become.

You lie there feeling the stress you have been ignoring for days/ weeks/ years and fear that you will never sleep again. As an interesting aside, I have had some clients tell me they don’t feel afraid or stressed. They feel angry, like they want to kill insomnia. While this is a very valid feeling, does it sound restful and conductive to sleep? Remember the stress response is called FIGHT or flight. It doesn’t matter which branch of it you are in, if you are in a stress response you won’t sleep).

What to Do?

Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to help correct this situation.

  1. Make Time to Acknowledge the Thoughts.

Imagine your brain was a scared child. Would ignoring that child and telling it to shut up cause that child to be less afraid? Of course not! The logical thing to do would be to listen to the child, acknowledge their fears, give him/her a cuddle, and let that child know that everything will be ok.

We need to do the same thing with our poor brains. Right now, they are shouting because YOU WON’T LISTEN!!! And this, my friends is usually what causes circular thoughts with insomnia to occur.

Instead make time before bed to acknowledge the thoughts. Write them all down. This can be a to do list, a list of worries or a journal entry about how your mother/ boss/ spouse (insert person here) upset you (or anything you are worried about) and possibly a plan to fix.

Note: you don’t HAVE to know how to fix all your problems, just having a good brain dump to show your mind that the message was received will help.

  • Keep a Paper and Pen Next to the Bed

This is helpful for any To Do items that you magically think of in the middle of the night. If this happens simply write it down and go back to sleep.

  • Breath Holds

Weird as it sounds, breath holds are excellent for pattern interruption and can be used to break the stressful thought cycle, essentially turning your mind down a new set of neural tracks.

Breath Hold Techniques:

Mini breath holds (breath normally for 10-15 sec and then hold on an out breath for 5 sec, repeat as many as desired) help to build CO2 in the body and have a relaxing effect.

Remember intention is important. Our intention is never to sleep because sleep is an automatic process we can’t control. Instead, our intention is to calm the mind and interrupt circular thoughts, moving us into parasympathetic, which helps to put us in a healthier mindset for sleep to occur.

Mini breath holds are gentle and perfect for in the evening after doing a brain dump or any time you feel stress during the day.

You can also practice stronger/ longer breath holds in the morning. These are often paired with hyperventilation and are an important part of embodied breathing, but they can be stimulating so I don’t recommend before bed. Instead, this stronger breathing style will help you to deal with stress throughout the day, so it doesn’t build up and cause a problem at bedtime.

There are many other helpful practices such as morning journaling (a la the Artist's Way), shaking, mindfulness and more that I can’t wait to cover in more detail in future blog posts. For now, know that there are as many solutions as answers and together we will find the perfect tools to support you!



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