Control, Anxiety, and Sleep


Control manifests in different ways, many of which we might not realize. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, fully alert, and check my phone – only to see the disheartening illumination of 3:00am staring back. Defeated, I fall back into bed and lie there with circling thoughts, wondering if I should pick up the phone for some mind-numbing scrolling. News. Pictures. Videos. Shopping. It’s all an attempt to shut my mind back off.

What is control? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, control is exercising restraint or influence over something. Control helps us overcome fear. Thoughts are as real as planes, spiders, snakes, and whatever else comes to mind when someone asks about your fears. What if you were the pilot? Or, had a spider and snake detector? With control comes peace of mind.

Control through distraction

Self-distraction is a method of control, and that’s how we can revisit my middle-of-the-night surprise wakeups. Especially now, with coronavirus and all, I wake up thinking about all the people and places my family interacted with. I think about distancing and whether we were too close. I think about whether my kids are asymptomatic carriers and if they will take out my 90-year-old grandparents.

I think of tomorrow’s dinner; do I need to stop at the store? Will I sweat through my mask?

The creaking floorboards make me think my kids need something and will wake me up as soon as I fall asleep.

I think of work – just a few hours away. I think of the sound of my alarm and if I’ll feel as tired as I think I’ll be.

My phone provides the illusion that I have power over whether I choose to sleep or continue spiraling in digital media. I forget about all the worries that keep me up and thumb through the pretty distractions of the 21st century. But it’s not a healthy habit.

Healthier alternatives

Full transparency: I’m a licensed clinical social worker and I know well that the last thing I would teach someone when they can’t sleep is to reach for their phone. I would talk about breathing techniques, relaxation, grounding, distraction, and thought stopping. But, just like anyone, I’m subject to my own uncertainties and fears and, despite knowing better coping strategies, I get an immediate sense of control the moment I grab my phone.

While I’m no model of utilizing positive coping skills, and often choose the immediate short-term relief, it doesn’t hurt to know what some better skills are:

  • Grounding – Ground yourself back to into just lying in a bed or getting up and running your hands through cold or warm water. These sensations help bring our mind to the present, shifting our focus away of persistent thoughts.
  • Thought-stopping – Imagine a stop sign in your head, and don’t let those overwhelming thoughts enter. Or, watch those thoughts float away on leaves in a river.
  • Breathing – It is something we all do without thinking, but sometimes we just must shift our thinking to our breathing. Try alternative breathing exercises: push all the air out and close your mouth, breathe in through your nose for four seconds, making note of the seconds in your mind, and hold that breath for seven seconds before exhaling for eight seconds. Repeating this for a while can help slow you down and ease you back into sleep.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – the idea of tensing and releasing different muscle groups throughout your body to help ease you back into sleep. I have often suggested to my clients watching Youtube videos on progressive muscle relaxation to get an idea and be guided through it at first, until you have the skill to do it on your own.
  • Distraction (healthy) – Distract yourself with categories, like naming all the movies your favorite actor/actress starred in, type of dogs, or favorite foods.

If you find yourself still struggling and want to build better habits, we can help with individual psychotherapy. Give us a call and we can practice these things together to help you feel less fear and out-of-control in your life.


By: Courtney Bushnell