Tips for Coping with Sleep Disturbance

Taming the Ruminating Brain.

Posted Apr 30, 2018

In my work with patients recovering from auto accident trauma, a frequent problem patients report is sleep disturbance due to racing thoughts that play over and over in their minds.

In psychiatry this is referred to as ruminating thoughts which can be symptomatic of depression and anxiety states.  This is particularly common in post-traumatic stress disorder where intrusive thoughts related to a traumatic event tend to haunt the mind while attempting to enter the sleep state.  Frequently, this involves the perfect storm of the fear of entering the dream state due to likelihood of having trauma related nightmares, worries related to the trauma, and often bodily sensations and sometimes physical pain, resulting from or symbolic of the trauma.

Last week, I had the rare opportunity and privilege of training with Dr. Robert A. Glover in a several day coaching seminar.  Dr. Glover described one of the techniques he developed for coping with what he refers to as “the ruminating brain.”  He actually offers a course by that title.  (See his website drglover.com for details).   

I will describe the technique in a minute, but first a little more about Dr. Glover.  I have tremendous respect for his courage to explore and write about interpersonal and societal gender dynamics where others fear not tread.

Dr. Glover is a gifted teacher, coach, and clinician who authored a seminal work on masculine psychology and recovery issues from his perspective as a marriage, family and child psychotherapist.  I highly recommend his book which has the rather provocative title of No More Mr. Nice Guy.  The book provides ground-breaking perspectives on masculine-feminine dynamics and how to foster healthier relationships.  Quotes from the York Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the book jacket describe Dr. Glover as “A psychology guru” and as veering “…between conventional psychological counsel and edgy outrageousness”, respectively.

Technique for Coping with Ruminations

So now for the technique for coping with ruminations.  The practice involves creating a certain intrapsychic boundary around the stream of cognitive ruminations.  Ruminations are thoughts that play and replay over and over in one’s mind in a kind of washing machine-like agitation cycle that has gone out of control and just won’t stop.  This repetitive cycle often culminates in muscular and mental tension along with deepening depressive and anxiety states that bars the helpless victim from life-preserving sleep.  These ruminations often lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  Ruminations of this type reflect a mind that has run away with itself and is engaged in a dysfunctional, unproductive expenditure of mental energy.   Unfortunately, this pattern is a common one we encounter in day-to-day clinical practice. 

Awareness

As with most psychological treatments, the first step is to achieve self-awareness.  It is conventional clinical wisdom that achieving awareness of a problem or pattern is at least 85% of the solution.  Often, we engage in unhealthy patterns and are not even aware of it until someone or something brings it into focus for us. 

Exercise Executive Functioning

Once you are aware that you are engaging in thought rumination, i.e., playing the same thoughts (or worries) over and over in you mind, the next step is to exercise control.  The control involves telling yourself that you can continue to examine these thoughts in the morning, and actually schedule a time for yourself to do so.  You can even put a time frame on this meeting with yourself.  If the thoughts attempt to intrude again, remind yourself these issues have been tabled until the scheduled time for review the following day.

Give it a try and see how it works for yourself.  In future blogs, we explore additional ways of coping with intrusive thoughts and sleep disturbance.