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  • Writer's pictureElle Pedri

The Merry-Go-Round That Keeps You Awake


Person with repetitive thoughts

Picture this. You’re in bed. The thermostat is set to your desired comfort temperature. Your preferred source of white noise hums in the background. The bedsheets are crisp and clean. Yet, sleep eludes you. You try counting sheep, but they dance away, their hooves leaving fading imprints on the repetitive thought du jour.

If that scenario is the unfortunate blueprint for most of your nights, you’ve got company.

Repetitive Thinking*


Person caught in a cycle of repetitive thinking

Repetitive thinking is the process of thinking attentively, repetitively, or frequently about oneself and one’s environment. Two types of nighttime repetitive thinking are believed to play a role in insomnia: worry and rumination.

“But…it’s productivity, not worry!”

If like me, you consider yourself a Very Efficient PersonTM, you might be chafing at having nighttime planning or problem-solving labeled as “worry”. After all, you’re not wringing your hands; you’re making good use of time. There might be new responsibilities at work or an uncomfortable conversation to be had with a friend or relative. Writers, you might be working out the kinks of a certain difficult scene. Thus, planning or problem-solving, given your sleeping troubles, is merely being productive, right?

Worry is a coping strategy for planning or problem-solving that focuses the mind on future threats and uncertainties.

No. It is worry.

What about rumination?

Worry contemplates the future and rumination dredges up the past.

Rumination is a coping strategy that involves dwelling on the past to understand and, potentially, alleviate negative emotions. Do you replay the moment when you made a mistake during a workplace presentation? Do you analyze a prior communication and brainstorm more suitable words than the ones you offered? Most of us have done so.

Whether as worry or rumination, repetitive thinking is a whirlpool in which your preoccupations swirl without ending.

“Just Thinking” or Preparing to Outrun a Tiger?

The exact mechanisms by which nighttime repetitive thinking disturbs sleep are poorly understood. Even so, we now know some of the effects of nighttime repetitive thinking on the body (as opposed to the mind).

Evidence suggests that nighttime repetitive thinking places enough strain on the brain to prevent the automatic inhibition of wakefulness that occurs around sleep onset. So, thinking about that spreadsheet or to-do-list, since you can’t sleep, keeps your body alert, which is incompatible with sleep.

Nighttime repetitive thinking also increases the heart rate and leads to elevated evening levels of cortisol, a hormone that is mainly released at times of stress.

Therefore, through repetitive thinking, the body enters a state similar to the biological basis for the “fight or flight” response. You’re in bed, yet your body is bracing for an attack from an invisible tiger.

Interrupting the Vicious Cycle

Bird escaping from a cage

Clinical studies indicate that mindfulness-based techniques alleviate rumination and worry.

Mindfulness is defined as techniques for “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”

Evidence indicates that aspects of repetitive thinking such as self-blame (rumination), and fear and uncertainty (worry) are ideal targets for mindfulness-based interventions, which emphasize non-judgment, acceptance, letting go, trust, non-striving, etc.

However, it is my belief that mindfulness separated from biblical truth is merely a tug of war between “positive thinking” and “negative thinking”. Eventually, one’s supply of “good vibes” will run dry.

God’s Promises


Opened Bible

God tells us in the Bible how to handle worry and rumination. Here are some examples:

Worry

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 34)

That spreadsheet, scene, or other burden that squats in your mind at nighttime can be dealt with the next day.

Further, this is what the prophet Jeremiah says about God’s faithfulness in Lamentations 3:22-24:

Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.

They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.'”

Why strive on your own when you could receive a new provision of God’s mercies the next morning? Even if you don’t have a lightbulb moment that illuminates your problem or provides a new perspective, waking up with a refreshed rather than a battered mind is a mercy.

And on a pragmatic level (for my fellow Very Efficient PeopleTM), Jesus said it best by asking in Luke 12:25:

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”

Ouch! Nighttime repetitive thinking has only left me with daytime misery, dark circles, and probably a shortened life expectancy.

We’re invited to cast our cares on the Lord (Psalm 55:22) and He will sustain us; to put our trust in Him when we’re afraid (Psalm 56:3); and to trust in Him with all our hearts and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Rumination

As to rumination, churning thoughts of self-condemnation is succumbing to the lie that you’re worthless, unforgivable, and forever stained by sin.

However, God’s Word gives us the truth. He forgives all of our sins (Psalm 103:3), redeems our lives from the pit, and crowns us with love and compassion (Psalm 103:4). He has removed our transgressions so far from us as the east is far from the west (Psalm 103:12).

Above all, Jesus Christ has already paid the price for the sins of those who have faith in Him.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.(2 Corinthians 5:21)

Self-condemnation attempts to diminish Christ’s atonement of our sins.

So, stop rewinding the tape and cling firmly to God’s promise that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

I hope and pray you have a night of sleep devoid of repetitive thinking.

* There’s new evidence that in addition to rumination and worry, invading thoughts also play a role in sleep disturbance. Unlike repetitive thoughts, invading thoughts burst into the mind and trigger anxiety spikes.

Sources:

(1) Bible verses are from the New International Version. (2022). BibleGateway.com. http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/

(2) Pillai V, Drake C. 2015. Sleep and Repetitive Thought: The Role of Rumination and Worry in Sleep Disturbance. In: Babson K, Feldner M, editors. Sleep and Affect. Academic Press. p. 201-225.

(3) Lancee J, Eisma M, Van Zanten K, Topper M. 2017. When Thinking Impairs Sleep: Trait, Daytime and Nighttime Repetitive Thinking in Insomnia. Behavioral Sleep Med. 15(1): 53-69.

(4) Melo J, Campanini M, Souza S, Andrade S, González A, Jiménez-López E, Mesas A. 2021. Work-related rumination and worry at bedtime are associated with worse sleep indicators in school teachers: a study based on actigraphy and sleep diaries. Sleep Med. 80:113-117.

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