As the Coronavirus slowly makes its way into major cities and small suburbs across the nation, it’s becoming increasingly more challenging to remain calm and not panic. And if the current situation is disturbing your sleep, you’re not alone.
Our sleep is very sensitive to our general well-being, so it is normal for sleep to be disturbed when we feel stressed or worried or when we are not feeling well.
You need to return to a state of emotional balance
At the moment, you may not get as much sleep as you would like. You may wake up more often and spend more time awake during the night. There in your bed, you’re maybe anxious, and worried about your health, about finances, the world economy, and how long this crisis may go on. The fear you’re experiencing may feel like a strong current pulling you down into the deepest darkest emotional waters.
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What you need at this time is to return to a state of emotional balance, so you’re mind is peaceful and calm and allows you to return to restful sleep.
We are extremely adaptable
First, it is important to remind ourselves that our bodies and minds are incredibly adaptable. Worries and fear that come with challenging situations are normal and may even be helpful for our lives. Think of it: Experiencing joy wouldn’t be possible without also having experienced sadness.
Second, what’s now important is to develop skills on how to deal with worries and fear, especially when they keep you awake at night. Because at night, there aren’t all these distractions like during the day that may help to take your mind off things.
And here is the secret: to better manage your unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and sensations at night, you shouldn’t try to avoid them (that would only amplify them). What you need to do instead is to watch and accept them mindfully. The act of accepting your undesired experiences will help you to realize that they are present but don’t need to control you.
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I know that this may not as easy as it sounds, but here are two simple but effective tools that you can start using tonight.
1. Describing your experiences
A good starting point is to describe all the emotions and physical sensations that occur in your body without judging them. Imagine that these are objects that you’re looking at. To support your objectivity, scan your body, and answer the following questions:
- What feelings are there? I can feel fear and panic, for example.
- What physical sensations are there? For example, I can feel my heartbeat and the pressure in my chest.
- Where do you feel the strongest and weakest emotions in your body? For example, 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 and rough and cold.
When you have answered these questions, imagine the emotion or physical sensation in front of you. Just observe it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is – a product of your mind. When you are ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place within you.
Why does describing your experiences help you to deal with them better?
Recent research shows that when you can describe your experiences, you reduce the response of your amygdala and limbic system, the areas of the brain that cause emotional stress. The act of describing activates the rational part of the brain, the so-called prefrontal cortex, which then assesses whether the current emotional response is helpful or not.
So in times of increased stress, when you can’t sleep or wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts not trying to avoid but facing your experience and objectively describing it is often the most helpful response.
2. Create space and play with your experiences
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. Take time to observe all that’s showing up and see how it feels to let it exist within you instead of always struggling to get rid of it.
Once you are familiar with your experiences and can see them as separate from you, you can start playing with them in your mind. Take a moment to give them a real character. Imagine yourself sitting in the audience in the theatre and watching them come on stage one after the other. Dress them in playful clothes and let them act according to their characters.
What’s the benefit of these exercises?
Giving your thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations a character and putting them on stage is not intended to mask or avoid them in any way. The playful characters help to objectify them and thus increase your willingness to come closer and experience them for what they are – a product of your brain rather than reality.
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So describing your thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations without judging them and playfully watching them will help you realize that while your current experience may be unpleasant, it cannot really hurt you. This signals your brain that you are not in danger and that there is no reason to go into fight-or-flight mode, which is causing the stress that keeps you awake at night.
When should you practice the exercise to welcome your thoughts?
You can do these exercises at any time of the day or night. However, it can be helpful to practice these exercises during the day first to prepare yourself to sit with your emotions and sensations at night when they often feel worse.
Dealing with stressful experiences is challenging…
…and there will probably be times during the process when you think that things will get even worse.
However, we all have to remind ourselves that we are, by nature, very adaptable and strong. We are capable of facing the fear, stress, and uncertainty that come with such unprecedented times in which the entire world is on edge and fearful, utterly uncertain about the future.
What matters now is how we respond. We have a choice: let fear rob us of our power, or take this time to adapt and learn how to deal with our experiences in the most helpful way.
I’m confident that if we choose to face and accept our worries, fears, and stresses instead of avoiding them, we will eventually become even stronger and develop the ability to bounce back. Who knows, but we might even discover that these times also involve the opportunity for profound personal growth.