Self-Care: What to Say to Yourself in the Middle of the Night
When you wake up worried about something, do you toss and turn to Dr. Google, Ph.D? I know plenty of people who do this—and what they usually find are more reasons to fret.
Fretting is one of those activities that is better postponed until tomorrow. Unless you can put it off forever, of course. Here are three ways to procrastinate in good faith, whether your worries are vague and apocalyptic, or specific and personal. Each is better than seeking advice from a search engine in the wee hours.
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
Most people ask that question so they can show you how unfounded your fears are. To laugh together at your baroque imaginings. That can take the edge off, but I don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as treating our fears as if they could be real.
Everyone has her most-feared scenario. For some, it’s earthquake. Aneurysm. Terrorism. Bankruptcy. For me, it’s being dumped. I’ve been happily married for years, and I still wake up in the middle of the night, dreading abandonment.
This is an old, old fear, from a time when being left alone meant something really different from dividing possessions and looking for apartments.
Which is why it’s good to look more closely at what it is we’re frightened of, the worst that can happen. Am I really afraid of apartment hunting? No. It’s a drag, but it’s not terrifying. I know everything about how to do that.
No, I’m actually afraid that in being left, everyone will know I’m unlovable. What?! Three-year-old me must have thought that. Sixth-decade me is a little sturdier. Sixth-decade me has access to things like the Goop newsletter, which reminds me that no relationship is a hedge against existential reality. (You just never know where you’ll hear the ring of truth.)
So then I review. OK, worst case: I’ve been left for good, out of the blue. I look for an apartment and start over. Best case: I am happily married and live with my husband and I also live with some existential loneliness anyway.
See? The worst case and the best case are both realistic, and not completely different! Weirdly comforting, isn’t it, to take yourself seriously.
Side note: This is not a one-and-done kind of thing, because the deep mind doesn’t work that way. Our terrors will come back to haunt us; that’s what they do. I just run through my little scenarios, yup, yup, apartment, yup, I’m keeping the dutch oven, yup, existential loneliness, OK and good night!
In the MDK Shop
Check for Errors in Thinking
Perhaps you don’t find apocalypse plans weirdly comforting? Then by all means poke holes in your fears. Dr. Faith Harper, author of The Revolution Will Include Cookies, writes about the different kinds of cognitive distortions that can color our thinking—until we get hip to them. Here are some of my favorites from her book This Is Your Brain on Depression (interpretations, and any errors, are mine):
- Polarized thinking: no middle ground, no third solution, it’s either one way, or the opposite, and probably neither of them look good. A rested brain can find a thousand solutions. A 3 a.m. brain, not so much.
- Control fallacy: you’ve got to make the right choice. Everything depends on it! But which choice is right? There’s a question to keep you awake. Reality is that nothing in our connected world depends on a single choice. We’ll always have more choices to make, even about whatever’s got us panicked right now.
- Filtering: literally millions of possibilities in any situation, but we can only entertain the one that matches our mood of doom. We only see reasons for failure, because that’s all we’re looking for. Maybe we just lay down on the wrong side of the bed.
- Emotional reasoning: we feel some kind of way, therefore that’s how it is. We’re worried, therefore there’s something to be worried about. We feel ashamed, therefore we’ve done something wrong. We feel depressed, therefore life objectively stinks.
Dr. Faith Harper lists many more, most of which you would recognize. So where’s the off switch for distorted thinking? It can be pretty hard to find in the dark, which is why I’ve memorized approximately where to look. As soon I had a nice set of labels—oh, there it is, just where I left it: Polarized Thinking! right next to the Fallacy of Heaven’s Reward—it got a lot easier to shut that thinking down.
Once we can escape faulty thinking, it’s much easier to deploy the final tactic:
Put It Off until Tomorrow (Unless You Can Defer Even Longer)
I’ve begun using a dead simple rule: If it’s past dark, it’s not problem-solving time, The End. Is it after dinner? The only problem I really need to solve right now is the washing up. Is it the middle of the night? Definitely defer.
A brain that’s been working all day isn’t going to come up with a genius solution by running in the same tight circle over and over. And that’s all you’ve got the juice for in the middle of the night. If you want to gas up and go someplace better, your brain needs rest.
This method works best if you build trust by really addressing the issue when you’re fresh. Knowing that you can count on yourself to take action, instead of continuing to procrastinate, lets you relax and makes it easier to go back to sleep.
So a quick acknowledgment, like “Yes I need a new babysitter, and I will tackle that tomorrow” lets your brain move the problem from the “pending: URGENT!” list to the “pending; under control” list, magically lowering the stress response and reassuring us that this is a non-immediate problem.
In fact, I have come to believe that the only problems requiring immediate action are the kind that don’t require reflection. We don’t fret about calling 911 if we smell smoke. That’s an immediate problem, and it doesn’t ask us to get worried.
Everything else will look better in the morning. And if you can get some good sleep, perhaps the solution will even come to you in a dream.
What about you? What works when you find yourself riding the worry train in the middle of the night? Let us know in the comments.