Stress depends on how you think about it.
It was a nugget of physiological information that I might have accepted at face value, had I encountered it in another setting: Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can literally change neural patterns.
Maybe I’d heard or read about this somewhere else. After all, in recent years, a raft of studies has highlighted the benefits of positive thinking. Research shows that deliberately reframing negative thoughts can lessen them. Challenging the brain’s pessimistic predictions, or even using the noting technique to address and lessen negativity can actually “create measurable physical changes in the brain.”
Now, though, hearing it from a counselor, what I thought was: Is this lady for real? How could positive thoughts ease the anxiety I experienced after emerging from four months of severe insomnia?
“Recognize negative thoughts for what they are,” she said. “Annoying, but dismissible."
The sleeplessness struck without warning, upending my (mostly) tranquil life. Each evening, I drifted off as usual, only to awaken three hours later, a relentless series of nights during which I lay awake in the dark, waiting for slumber that never came, despair and fatigue increasing. I stumbled through the days, barely able to focus on work. Terrified of causing an accident, I stopped driving. Only after I consulted a sleep specialist did insomnia slink away, cowed by the strict behavioral regimen he prescribed. It took weeks, but to my immense relief, the treatment worked. Six months after my sleeplessness began, it was finally over.
There was only one problem: I couldn’t seem to shake the effects of my insomnia. Waking briefly during the night is a normal part of the sleep cycle, I knew; yet now, each time it happened, my brain went on high alert. Was the sleeplessness returning? Would I lie awake the rest of the night? Even after a solid eight hours of rest, I couldn’t help growing anxious as evening approached, my breath becoming shallow as the fears chased each other in my mind. Soon my husband and I would be taking our kids on a long-planned trip to visit relatives overseas. What if insomnia came back and I couldn’t function?
I decided to see a counselor for the first time in my life. Sitting in her comfortable office, with art and plants strung about, I tried to squelch my skepticism and focus on her advice.
“Recognize negative thoughts for what they are,” she said. “Annoying, but dismissible, like the chatty guy at the bus stop. You don’t engage with him, do you?”
No, I agreed, I did not. I pulled out my novel instead.
“Exactly,” said the counselor. “You tune out the guy by absorbing yourself in something that brings you pleasure.”
Oh, you again. You’re just my brain trying to trick me. But I recognize you.
That’s a concrete situation, she noted—the guy, the book. Now I needed to take the same approach mentally. When sleep-related anxiety occurred, my internal response should be, Oh, you again. You’re just my brain trying to trick me. But I recognize you. And that gives me the power to dismiss you and to tell myself that everything will be ok.
It’s a good bet that my counselor had pegged me (correctly) as a “verbal” worrier—someone who mentally ‘talks’ to herself about negative situations. (I will never sleep again!) A 2016 study showed that for verbal worriers, anxiety actually lingers longer than it does for people whose anxiety takes the form of negative mental images. But when verbal worriers deliberately replaced their negative thoughts with positive ones, their levels of anxiety decreased, and their optimism rose.
I didn’t know that then. And I couldn’t help feeling dubious as I walked out of the office that day. A practical person, I had cured my insomnia by taking concrete, documentable steps. Simply switching my thoughts around struck me as an implausible approach to diminishing an anxiety that felt all too real. Then again, it also sounded pretty easy.
Read more: Is insomnia curable?
As a matter of fact, it was. A range of coping statements have been developed to address anxiety, calming, positive sentences like, “Right now I have feelings I don’t like. They will be over with soon, and I’ll be fine.” But what worked for me was the phrase suggested by my counselor. Oh, you again became my go-to when I woke at night, anxious about sleep. I recited it during the evenings before I turned out the light—anytime I found myself dwelling on the potential for wakefulness. Sure enough, the negative thoughts receded. [Editor’s Note: if you want to have a better relationship with sleep, listen to our podcast on how.]
Anxiety, it turns out, loses its grip when we recognize it as a mundane mental phenomenon, one that can be dismissed and replaced by thoughts that are beneficial and constructive. It still sounds almost absurdly simple to me, but I can’t argue with the research—or with my own experience. I’ve had a few sleepless nights since then, as we all do now and again. But insomnia has stayed at bay. And when, occasionally, l find myself fretting that it might return?
Oh, you again.
Artwork by KAREN HONG