Strategies to distract you from rumination when you wake up unexpectedly during the night 

Don’t think you’re alone. We all do it. 

We wake up at 4am worrying about something or other, willing ourselves to stop thinking about it in the hope we’ll drop back off to sleep, before relenting, clambering out of bed and starting work on the thing dominating our ruminations.

I did it earlier this morning. 4.30am. I’m worrying about what my bank balance might be in January next year. I shit you not.

We don’t wake up because we’re worried. We wake up because we’re not in a deep enough sleep. The first thing the brain does when we wake up and it kicks into operation — those initial moments when the brain is most free of everyday distractions — is respond to everything in its memory banks. That will mean anything with a negative bias. 

We are at our most vulnerable to negative thinking spirals in the first moments after we wake. Don’t seek resolution of those worries, strive for distraction instead. 

I have three strategies I deploy in such situations. I share them here for you to either use, develop or deride. Totally up to you.

1. Describe exactly what you’re thinking about in the third-person

For example, “Jon is currently thinking about what his bank balance will be in January 2020.”

It might seem like a stupid thing to do, but that’s exactly the point of the exercise. You don’t have to say it out loud (although its most powerful when you do), just think it in your head if you’d prefer. 

The statement forces you to think about what you’re doing from a third person perspective. It interrupts the rumination and, if you keep at it — ie following up with subsequentthird person statements — the process should remove the sting from the thinking process. 

2. Count down from 100 

Imagine in your minds eye writing every number on a separate piece of A4 paper. When each number is complete, the page is moved into a lever arch file. You don’t move onto the next page until the cycle of writing and filing is complete. Each cycle is the equivalent to a long breath in and a long breath out.

This is a meditative process. It’s about focusing in something as boring as numbers. Doing it in reverse is vital — it requires a certain amount of thinking. Start at 1000 if you fancy a bigger challenge.

3. Confront the thing you’re ruminating about 

Again, in your minds eye, actively write out in a carefully laid out document exactly what you will do to meet the challenge.

This is a tough kind of distraction technique. The purpose is not to find the solution to the problem, but rather just imagine yourself engaged in the banality of reporting on the solution. The more outlandish the solution the better.

Thoroughly Good Coaching is a personal and professional development service lead by Jon Jacob — a BBC-trained, International Coach Federation-accredited Executive, Management and Life Coach with over six years professional experience. To work with him, email jon.jacob@thoroughlygood.me.

Discover more about the people who seek out Thoroughly Good Coaching to help develop their thinking, build their motivation and increase their confidence on the Thoroughly Good Coaching Case Studies page.