Why trying to suppress thinking is likely a big part of your problem with insomnia or nightmares.
by Brian Curtis, Ph.D.
Good. Stop trying to do that.
Let's see how well you can turn off your thinking by running a quick experiment:
For the next 30 seconds, don't think of a purple cow. You can think of anything else you want. Anything at all. Just not a purple cow.
And ... begin.
If you ran this experiment, consider what you observed.
If you're like most of us, although we tend not to think about cows, let alone purple ones, there they were, sprinkled in between a sea of randomly appearing thoughts.
The thing about suppressing thoughts is that we need to remember what we're not supposed to be thinking about. In this case, purple cows.
For people who have tendencies towards obsessions and compulsions, we don't want to think about whether we turned off the stove or whether the front door is locked.
For people struggling with post-traumatic stress, we don't want the trauma-related thoughts or memories during the day or the night ... including our chronic nightmares.
For people struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, we appear to think we shouldn't have any thoughts whatsoever as soon as our head hits the pillow.
Unfortunately, this isn't how thinking appears to work.
Thought suppression is counterproductive.
Not only do our thoughts not go away, they increase.
We try harder. More thinking. We try thinking about something else. PURPLE COWS!!
Instead of our goal being to eliminate thoughts in bed, there is another door to open. Another, and possibly more effective, game to play.
Tonight when you're in bed, run a new experiment:
When you notice thoughts arise, see if you can simply take a mental "step back."
Watch the next incoming thought as if you were sitting in a dark movie theater, simply watching the next thought appear as an image or piece of language on the movie screen of your mind.
And don't engage.
See what happens.
How long does a thought last if you don't engage with it?
And if this feels difficult. Stop trying so hard.
Get up and out of bed. Do something relaxing. Take a bath. Meditate. Light stretching. Whatever works for you.
When you feel sleepy again (head nodding, etc.) back to bed you go. Back to the movie theater of the mind.
Rinse and repeat.
How might this new way of thinking about thinking impact your sleep?
What do you think?