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Using Constructive Worry to Combat Insomnia

Young woman spending free time in bedroom, sitting on bed cover, writing in notebook that is on her knees

It’s the eve of the 2014 Blue Cross Broad Street Run and I am about to run it for my second time. I’ve never been a good runner; but after a disastrous first attempt in 2011, I decided it was time to focus and try again. I started training earlier. I ran almost every day and cross-trained on off-running days. I went to bed at 9 p.m. to get enough sleep.

The worrying started around 9:30 p.m. What if the train is delayed on the way into the city? Will I have enough time to stretch and warm-up? What if I miss my starting time? The worry and anxiety consumed me and before I knew it, at 3 a.m., I was worried about not having enough sleep.

Nothing about the worry I felt that endless night was constructive for running a solid ten-mile race the following day. Lucky for me, I ran a better race than the one I ran in 2011. But sometimes I think about if I had turned the worry down from a ten to a three if I would have run an even better race.

More Worry Equals Less Living

Clearly, I worry about things before they even happen, and that are completely out of my control. The last year has been especially hard with the state of the world, a pandemic, and life-altering changes in my family. My sleep has greatly suffered in response.

Beginning this year, I knew I had to make a change. It felt like incessant worrying was holding me back from living my life because I’m exhausted and sleep-deprived.

I started to analyze the worries that keep me up at night. What am I worrying about? Why am I worrying about it? And what can I do to fix it? If there is no solution to the worry, then I must move past it because it’s out of my hands. In other words, worrying about things that I can’t control is counterproductive. I must redirect my energy from unproductive worrying to solving the problems that cause the worry.

The Constructive Worry Method

One thing that has helped me is the Constructive Worry method, developed by Dr. Coleen Carney, the director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto. Dr. Carney says that bedtime is the wrong place to start solving your problems because the problems themselves will cause you to worry and have anxiety, therefore, keeping you awake.

Her method of constructive worry should help manage the tendency to worry when you’re supposed to be quieting your mind for sleep. Instead, Dr. Carney says about two hours before bedtime, take 15 minutes to write down the worries you have in one column, then in the next column write down the solution to fix it. Once you’re finished, fold the paper and put it next to your bed.

Once bedtime rolls around, if you begin to worry, you can remind yourself that you have already solved your problems as best as you could because your tangible list of worries and solutions is sitting right next to you.

It may take some time and patience, but if you practice this every night, your worries lessen over time and you will use bedtime for what it’s supposed to be used for: sleep!

Tips for Decreasing Worry-Related Insomnia

It’s not easy turning your mind off from worry. Eventually, you become more aware of your worry and take ownership of it. In addition to the Constructive Worry method, there are other ways you can cut back on unproductive worrying.

Keep a journal. Writing is second nature to me since I do it for a living. But I found that the more I wrote my thoughts and feelings down, including the things that were eating away at me, the less they were keeping me awake at night. You can get a nice leather-bound journal and write by hand or even keep an ongoing list on your laptop or phone. It may even be nice to have a record of how far you’ve come!

Meditate. About 35-50 percent of adults experience insomnia, and a lot of that is related to stress and worry. When I have trouble turning my mind off, I use a mediation app called Avrora to help me relax and fall asleep. But there are many others out there that help you meditate at all times of the day.

Stay active. For me, exercise has been a vital part of my daily routine because it helps take my mind off worrying during the day and helps me fall asleep faster at night. In fact, studies show that regular exercise helps individuals fall asleep 13 minutes faster and stay asleep 18 minutes longer.

If all else fails and you’re unable to combat worry and insomnia yourself, consult your doctor for help in determining your best options.

Ashley Weyler

I’m a writer and a film, music, and TV buff who loves Philadelphia sports. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, which means I’m always on-the-go. I try to make healthy decisions that fit with my lifestyle; whether it’s choosing healthy food while eating at a restaurant, finding exercises I enjoy doing so I stay motivated, or achieving a good work-life balance.