We already know that negative and worrying thoughts can disrupt our sleep and fuel the vicious cycle of sleep anxiety. We’ve discussed it many times, all over this site. But where do these worrying thoughts and ideas come from in the first place? Often they just seem to pop up out of nowhere. But if we look a little deeper we can see that some of them might be popping up from a habitual mindset lurking deep within our unconscious minds.
So what exactly defines a mindset?
You could describe it as a collection of ideas and beliefs about life and how it works. These ideas and beliefs got established so long ago and have become so habitual that we’re simply not aware of them and how much they influence our day-to-day, moment-to-moment thinking and feeling. And these ideas and beliefs will stay that way—habitual and unconscious—until we make a deliberate effort to examine them.
So while a thought might be very specific, such as “If I don’t sleep tonight I will feel terrible tomorrow,” a mindset idea would be a lot more generalized, such as “I don’t have much control over how I feel” or “I must feel good in order to function properly” or “Once I start feeling bad there is nothing I can do to change it.”
These more general ideas cover a wide range of situations while the negative thought just covers the current situation you are in at any moment—in this case, dealing with insomnia and the aftereffects of not sleeping well.
Mindsets can generate not only spur-of-the-moment negative thoughts and feelings but also habitual and repetitive ways of thinking in specific situations. Mindsets determine how we view ourselves and the world. Mainly, they decide how we view our ability to change, learn, adapt, create, and deal with problems. And for many of us, mindsets tend to limit us in these areas.
It’s more common, for example, for us to avoid learning new things than to seek out new things to learn. It is more common for us to want to escape our problems than to work at solving them. It is more common for us to think we can’t do something than to think we can. Limiting mindsets seem to be a lot more “normal” for humans than any other kind. And if you think about this, it actually sort of makes sense.
Let’s go back… way back.
In our very early history, when our brains were first developing into what we have now, we lived in a vastly different kind of environment—a lot more dangerous and challenging one. Being cautious and wanting to stay safe could literally save your life. When you’re in danger of being eaten by a tiger, It would be much wiser to run away from it than to try to fight with it. It would also be far better to underestimate your ability to outrun a tiger than to overestimate it. Why run away when you can squeeze into an underground cave, and hide there until the tiger leaves the area. What good is thinking empowering thoughts like “I can do anything” when it’s so obvious the tiger is faster, stronger and fiercer than you? No good at all. Be cautious, stay safe, don’t go thinking you’re faster than a tiger.
You could say times have changed bit since then.Now when we have mindsets that tell us not to overestimate our ability to learn, adapt, create or change, we end up with more problems rather than less.
OK, so we have more or less defined what a mindset is. What do we do about it?
I have often said in many posts that you don’t need to make big changes in your life or your personality to get over insomnia. And I know it is true because I have done it myself. I have not changed much over the years but I have recovered from both long-term and short-term insomnia, along with numerous relapses. And I have done this primarily using CBT dialogues along with a few relaxation and visualization techniques.
But if you have been practicing CBT for a while and have found that no matter how often you practice or many times you write down your worrying thoughts and answer back with positive, rational thoughts, you always seem to “snap back” to your old worrying habits, it may be time to address the more general statements of mindset rather than the specific statements of sleep anxiety.
You can do this by adding a simple “because” after your typical CBT worry. Doing this prompts you find the general mindset statement that lurks behind your worrying thought. Sometimes you need to add several “because” statements before you get to the root cause.
I know I’m going to feel terrible tomorrow after a sleepless night…. BECAUSE….
I always do. I have never yet had a sleepless night and NOT felt terrible…. BECAUSE…
Well, this seems to be the way I am… BECAUSE…
OK, MAYBE I tend to think I have no control over how I feel. It doesn’t occur to me that I can do something to make myself feel better. I usually just go along with however I’m feeling at any moment without questioning.
OK, NOW you have reached the root “mindset” statement. Now you can begin to work on this habitual pattern of thinking that is causing you to be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you will NEVER EVER be able to feel even SLIGHTLY OK after a sleepless night.
Changing a long-term thought-pattern is not easy. These mindset feelings have been around for a while and they can feel pretty solid, almost as if molded from concrete. But you don’t have to knock it all down at once. You can simply chip away it one CBT session at a time. And you can do it with gentle suggestions. There is no need to start pounding away with a sledgehammer. Not only does this require a lot of energy, but it usually doesn’t work anyway. The best approach, when you have uncovered a habitual pattern of thinking, is to simply ask some questions:
Is there another way to look at this?
Is it possible I might be wrong about this?
How might I change my perspective about this?
Is this really true or is it just the way I’m used to thinking?
Could I try a different approach now and then?
I’ll be writing more about mindset and long-term habitual patterns in later articles. Stay tuned!