Many things can keep you up at night, but high levels of stress and anxiety are indeed the number one reason why we struggle to fall asleep. The causes of stress and anxiety could be any challenging experiences like a problematic financial situation, relationship problems, or declining health or job security. It could also be that you are focusing on something positive, such as excitement about an upcoming event. Or you’re just thinking about the next day’s to-do list.
But have you ever thought about how you think about your challenges? Human thinking can generally be divided into two modes, visual and verbal. When you think about your next vacation and imagine sitting under a palm tree sipping a cold drink, you are probably thinking visually. If you think about what you will say when you give a presentation at work, you will likely think in words and sentences and create an inner language.
Often both modes are used together. Since visual thinking is deeply ingrained in our brain, we often create visual images to accompany our inner speech.
What means visual or verbal thinking for our psyche?
Researchers believe that thinking about a challenging emotional issue in verbal mode can lead to a decrease in physiological response, which may be more pleasant at that moment. Still, in the long run, it may prevent you from adequately processing difficult feelings. Translating these experiences into an image, on the other hand, will increase your physiological response, and this will ultimately facilitate successful processing and resolution of the emotion.
So if you think of your unwanted intrusive thoughts at bedtime, do they take the form of verbal thought or visual imagery, or a combination of both? People with insomnia usually show fewer pre-sleep imagery than good sleepers and tend to engage in excessive verbal thinking, which is counterproductive for both sleep and daytime functioning.
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In one study, people with insomnia were exposed to a stressor (giving a speech in public) just before sleep and instructed to think about it and its implications in either images or verbal thought. The results showed that the image group reported more stress and arousal in the short term than the verbal group.
However, in the longer term, the image group individuals were falling asleep more quickly and reported less anxiety and discomfort about the public speaking event than the verbal group. These results show that if you can translate your concerns and worries into images, you can ultimately better process them.
Using mental imagery to interrupt distressing thought patterns
So the question is if you can use imagery to reduce your unwanted pre-sleep cognitive activity? In an experiment designed to test this, people with insomnia were instructed to either distract themselves using imagery, or they didn’t receive any instructions.
The imagery distraction group participants were asked to distract themselves by imagining a situation they found interesting and engaging, but also pleasant and relaxing. Apparently, with success because they reported shorter sleep-onset latency compared to the no-instructions group. They also rated their pre-sleep thoughts, worries, and concerns as less uncomfortable and distressing than the other group.
If you want to try this method for yourself, next time you go to bed, close your eyes and think about a particular moment, scene, or story that is relaxing. For example, imagine you are sitting on the beach, the waves are beating at your feet, or you are reading under a tree, the leaves on the branches are gently swaying in the wind.
Go into as much detail as possible – what do you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel? And do not rush the process – go slowly. If you find that your thoughts are wandering back to what kept you awake, just focus on the images again. Keep doing this until you drift off.
What to be aware of when using mental imagery for sleep?
There are two things you need to be aware of. First, it’s important to keep in mind that regarding this effect’s durability, the authors of the study mentioned above note that imagery distraction may be an effective short-term method to manage unwanted thoughts at bedtime. However, it may become less effective in the long term because any exciting and engaging content will lose some of its attraction over time and will have to be replaced by new content.
Second, being an insomniac in recovery, I know that many people with sleep problems tend to rely on unhelpful control strategies that have the potential of backfiring if the efforts involved lead to increased arousal. Attempts to verbally regulate a racing mind while trying to get to sleep are especially dysfunctional. Sleep is an unconscious process, and it is difficult to fall asleep by simply telling yourself to do so.
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However, focusing on specific images can also become another unworkable control strategy, same as suppressing your thoughts, extensive worrying, or rumination.
It always boils down to this: having negative thoughts and feelings is one thing; what is more important is how you relate and respond to your thoughts and feelings before sleep. The more you try to avoid or suppress them, the more they can keep you awake.
Try spontaneous mental imagery
So better not to rely on mental imagery at all to improve sleep? Not necessarily because what can be working in the pre-sleep situation is to mindfully observe spontaneous mental imagery, so not images that you consciously create but those that show up spontaneously.
If you do that, you break that constant loop of describing, categorizing, and evaluating the experiences that leave you entangled in your thinking process where you take your thoughts as literal truth, rather than seeing them as what they are – just a product of your mind.
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Suppose instead, you train your ability to observe spontaneous physical and mental processes such as appearing images and all accompanying thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations in an uncontrolled way. In that case, it’s easier to detach from them. Instead of struggling with your experiences, you choose an open and accepting way of dealing with them, without evaluating them as good or bad, true or false, healthy or sick, or important or trivial.
In other words, you experience thoughts, images, feelings, and memories that appear while you’re still awake as they are, without defense and attempt to change them. This open and accepting approach towards your experiences has a calming effect on your mind and creates a good foundation for natural sleep.
How to get started with spontaneous mental imagery?
There is a simple exercise you can try out. When you close your eyes, you see behind your eyelids lighted and shaded areas. Focus on these picture like phenomena and observe all the details without evaluating or thinking about what you see. My experience is that this spontaneous imagery helps to interrupt distressing thought patterns and may gently carry you into the first sleep stages.
However, even something like observing spontaneous imagery is a matter of learning a new skill, which is a process that takes time and shouldn’t be used as a technique with the expectation to fall asleep instantly.
Like with all methods for treating insomnia, even simple mindfulness and acceptance techniques like this one may draw you into potentially self-defeating attempts to control your sleep. That is, they may all be used as techniques for the explicit purpose of falling asleep more or less instantly.
Instead, you should approach this technique in such a way that while you accept that you are awake and cannot sleep, you use spontaneous imagery to become aware of your current experience. If this helps you fall asleep, consider this a bonus, but do not go into the exercise with the explicit goal of falling asleep immediately.
Also, like with any mindfulness technique for sleep, it’s best to practice it during the day first, and when you feel comfortable with it, you can also try it at night in bed.