Doesn’t it often seem as if it isn’t us who run the show of our lives, but rather our (often unforeseen and difficult) emotions?
Yes, emotions are strong and have a significant impact on our lives. They determine not only how you deal with people and challenges during the day, but also how well you sleep at night. Therefore, knowing how to master difficult emotions during the day and at night helps you to become mentally stronger and at the same time, can dramatically improve poor sleep.
Difficult emotions are an essential part of our life
First, it’s important to realize that difficult and negative emotions are an incredibly normal and helpful part of our life. We can’t be happy without having experienced sadness. What is more important is understanding when and why negative emotions can occur, and developing skills on how to manage negative and difficult emotions.
Managing your emotions is not the same as suppressing them. If you ignore your sadness or pretend not to feel pain, these emotions will not disappear. In fact, unaddressed emotions and sensations are likely to worsen over time. And there is a good chance that the suppression of your emotions will cause chronic stress and you to turn to unhealthy coping strategies – like overeating or turning to alcohol or other drug abuse.
The secret to better regulate your emotions is to acknowledge and accept them, and at the same time to recognize that your feelings do not need to control you. This is not always easy, but fortunately, there are some simple but highly effective tools you can start using right now.
The exercises which you will learn in this article require only a little bit of practice and a certain amount of dedication, but you can do them anywhere at any time – also during the night when you are lying awake in bed.
Interested? Great, let’s get started!
Why your emotions don’t need to control you
Your emotional reactions and physical sensations are an evolutionary survival mechanism that prepares you to run away from danger or move towards safety. They can be short-lived and intense, like the urge to run when someone jumps out in front of you and frightens you, or the feeling of warmth when you meet an old friend.
We experience the ups and downs of our emotions and sensations all day long. This explains how you can go from feeling happy and cheerful to anxious and angry in a matter of seconds. It only takes the arrival of a sad message or even only a sad thought popping up in your head that completely changes your emotional and physical state. These are natural processes and the product of chemical reactions that take place in your brain and body and are, therefore, out of your control.
However, this lack of control is mutual, because while your emotions and physical sensations may tend to act in a certain way, they do not control how you eventually behave. For example, if you have to talk in front of a group of people, you may feel scared and have the urge to run away, but it is your decision whether to do it or not.
The cocktail of negative and painful emotions at night
When it comes to insomnia, the range of emotional and physical reactions you can experience is broad and individual. For example, if I don’t sleep well for just one night, I experience a whole cocktail of negative emotions. I feel grumpy, hyperactive, and have sugar cravings. Other people may feel sad, nervous, and anxious.
And when it’s time to go to bed again, this anxiety is often becoming even stronger. You may notice that your heart or breathing rate accelerates, especially if you do not fall asleep in time. This then often leads to feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness. At this moment, you feel overwhelmed by the urge to toss and turn or to get up and do something instead of lying wide awake in bed.
Over time, your anger can turn on anything and everything. While I was suffering from insomnia, I often hit my pillow with my fist at night. During the day, my partner, friends, and colleagues had to endure my frustration. In addition, I felt nagging jealousy rise in me while being surrounded by all those happy and active people.
Your feelings at night often reveal deeper, darker emotions related to past experiences
For some, all these feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, and anxiety can sometimes be the tip of the iceberg and bring deeper, darker emotions related to past experiences to the surface. For me, only a night of inadequate sleep can bring the fear of failure to the present with such power that it feels like they never left. For others, it opens the door to old feelings of rejection, fear, and guilt.
In this way, insomnia has the power to reconnect you with your unwanted emotional past, and so it makes sense that you want to do everything you can to get rid of your unwanted emotions and sensations. But here is the thing: you have little control over the way you feel, and trying to control your feelings often only makes them worse.
You can choose how you respond to your nightly emotions and sensations
Remember that while you cannot control what emotions and sensations appear at night, you can always choose how to respond to them. The key is to learn to mindfully look, accept, and even embrace whatever shows up inside of you in the middle of the night.
I know that might sound a bit crazy to you right now. Why should you embrace something like anxiety that is making your life so difficult? The reason is that embracing your unhelpful emotions and sensation is the most effective way to reset your emotional state so that you can eventually sleep peacefully at night. So how to do it?
Step 1: Familiarize yourself with your emotions and sensations
The first step towards untangling yourself from your emotional reactions and sensations is to familiarize yourself with them. Let’s have a look at what your usual reaction my look like when you experience emotions like anxiety, hopelessness, and boredom.
When you feel anxious at night, you may feel muscle tension and the urge to take pills. And feelings of hopelessness and despair can cause a tight chest, or you may feel the urge to drink alcohol. Or, if you feel bored, the resulting restlessness may give you the urge to get up and do something.
Make a list of your painful emotions and the related coping strategies
Now think about your insomnia and start making your own list. Don’t hesitate to add anything that comes to your mind when thinking of the painful emotions and what you do in trying to get rid of them at night. For example, you can write “loneliness – a knot in the belly – checking social media” or “frustration – toss and turn – getting up”.
As you do this, you may start to feel a little uncomfortable or even afraid, and have the urge to stop. That’s perfectly normal. You probably had felt something similar on your first day when you started a new job. When it happens, don’t suppress these feelings, take a moment to acknowledge that these feelings are emerging in your body right now, and then move on.
Step 2: Embracing your unwanted emotions
The second step is now to embrace your unwanted emotions, physical sensations, and urges that come up at night or during the day. Here are some ways how to do it:
Describe your emotions
Take a moment to describe all the emotions and physical sensations that occur in your body without judging them. Imagine that these are objects within you that you are looking at. To support your objectivity, scan your body, and answer the following questions:
- What emotions are there? For example, I can feel fear and panic.
- What physical sensations occur? For example, I feel my heart beating and pressure in my chest.
- Where do you feel the emotions strongest and weakest in your body? For instance, they are strongest in my chest and weakest in my toes.
- Do they have any size, shape, or color? For example, they look like a big, black hole.
- Do they have any weight, texture, or temperature? For example, they feel heavy, rough, and cold.
Once you have answered these questions, imagine the emotion in front of you. Just observe it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is. When you are ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place within you.
The challenge here is that it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and move from describing mode to evaluation or judging mode. Keep in mind that describing means giving an objective and non-judgemental account of what is happening in a particular moment like “I feel my heart beating fast in my chest”. Evaluating, on the other hand, means giving a subjective and judgmental opinion about your experience like “My heart beats so fast that I think I have a heart attack”.
Why does describing your emotions help to manage them better?
Recent research shows that if you can describe your emotions, you will reduce the response of your amygdala and limbus systems, the brain areas that cause emotional stress. The act of description activates the rational part of the brain, the so-called prefrontal cortex, which then assesses whether the current emotional response is helpful or not.
This means that learning to defuse your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations by describing them objectively in your head or aloud may be associated with the therapeutic power that results from discussing your thoughts with a good friend or therapist. Choosing to use such techniques at known times of increased stress, such as when you go to bed, wake up in the middle of the night or the next day, may, therefore, enable you to respond best to bad sleep.
Here are some other ways to welcome your painful emotions and sensations.
Meet and greet your emotions
When you notice your emotions, physical sensations, or urges welcome them in a friendly way, such as “Hello frustration, good to see you tonight” or “Greetings urge to take a pill” or “Welcome fatigue – I see you have decided to join me today”. This light-heartedness prevents you from getting tangled up in them, which would only reinforce them further.
Make space for your emotions and sensations
Allow your emotions, physical sensations, and urges to exist within you by creating a space in which they can live. Take your answers from the previous questions and use your imagination to create a large space around them within you. Allow them to move freely and float in that space.
If you want, you can then bring your breath into the room to create a feeling of openness and freedom to softening your relationship with them. Take time to observe them as they move around and notice what it feels like to allow them to exist within you instead of always struggling to get rid of them.
Play with your emotions and sensations
Once you are familiar with them and can see them as separate from you, you can start playing with them in your head. Take a moment to give them a real character. Imagine sitting in the audience in the theatre and looking at them as they come on stage one by one. Dress them in playful clothes and let them act according to their characters (e.g., think of something like the angry Donald Duck or the short-tempered Tasmanian Devil).
The act of allowing sensation space shows that you are ready to experience it and that you no longer fear it. The playful characters that give room to your emotions and physical sensations help to objectify them and thus increase your willingness to come closer and experience them. Please note that this is not intended to mask them or avoid them in any way.
What is the goal of this exercise?
The purpose of this exercise is to feel your emotions, physical sensations, and urges for what they really are, rather than fearing what they are not. Learning to non-judgementally describe your experiences and welcoming them playfully, helps you to realize that while they may be uncomfortable, they cannot really hurt you. This reduces the chance to amplify them further, which only makes things worse – in this case, your sleeplessness.
However, the exercise is not meant to get rid of your emotions and sensations or to diminish them or change them in any way. While your feelings may disappear quickly when you open up to experience them, don’t go in with these expectations.
But remember that this is not the purpose of the tool, and if it is used, we said in the future that it might not have the same result.
How to deal with objections?
As you do this exercise, your thinking mind will most likely send you a constant stream of sabotaging thoughts like “this is nonsenses”, “this doesn’t work” or “why should I do this”. This is perfectly normal, just accept it, thank your mind for these thoughts, and come back to the exercise. Also, in case you feel the urge to return to unhelpful quick fixes like taking pills, remember that those won’t help you in the long run.
When to practice the exercise to welcome your thoughts?
You can practice this exercise any time during the day and night. However, difficult emotions or sensations often feel worse at night just because there are no distractions like during the day.
If they are strongest, either when you go to bed or in the middle of the night, then it may be helpful to practice the exercise during the day first to prepare yourself to sit with your emotions and sensations at night. You will find that after a while, the process will become easier, giving you a powerful tool that can also be used when lying awake in bed.
Remember, having negative emotions isn’t the problem; what matters is how you act on it.
Managing your emotions can be difficult. And there will probably be times during the process when you think that things are even getting worse – like feeling anger about slow progress.
But the more time and attention you devote to manage your emotions, the stronger you will eventually become. You will gain confidence in your ability to deal with challenging emotions during the day and night because you know that’s always your choice how to respond.