Helping Our Clients Get To Sleep

Kimberly Morrow

How often do you have an anxious client who has difficulty getting to sleep because they can’t stop the worrying or ruminating when they lay their head down to go to sleep.  I struggled for years trying to help each client develop good sleep hygiene to no avail. They were still lying awake thinking. I now approach this in a different way using both psycho education and mindfulness.

First I like to teach my clients why they are lying awake ruminating. I explain that their brain is only doing what they tell it to do. When they lie down and pay attention to their thoughts by continuing to follow the story line of these thoughts, their brain believes this must be important. So instead of sending chemicals to induce sleep, it sends cortisol to wake them up so they can pay attention to what they are thinking about. This usually brings a smile and makes sense to my clients but they still don’t know how to turn off their brain and stop their worrying.

The next thing I like to teach them is a mindfulness technique. I explain that they have to practice focusing on something outside their mind and involving their senses can be a good way to do this. I ask them to spend some time (1 min or so) looking around the room and describing everything they can see. Then I ask them to close their eyes and describe what they can hear, in detail. When they are done, I ask them to describe what they can feel on their body (cushion under their butt, cool air on their face, shoes on their feet). We practice this together, in session, so that they really get how the experience takes them out of their mind and into their body. I then ask them to practice this every night, as many times as necessary (it usually only takes a couple of rounds), until they fall asleep. We predict together that they may start to fall asleep and then be brought back out of it. I ask them to stay calm when this happens and just go back to what they can hear and feel (they don’t have to open their eyes).

This skill proved useful for one college student when I was asked to show up at the Union of a local university every Thursday night to give a tip to the students to help with anxiety. The night I was talking about getting to sleep, a young man, shared that he could not remember the last time he got to sleep before 2am. He didn’t believe there was anything that could turn off his brain at night. I asked him to do this as an experiment and come back to the Union the next week and share with us how he was doing. He did come back and was blown away by the results. He fell asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed every night by using this technique. I hope your clients have a similar experience. Good night…..

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