This was not new for him. It was 3 AM and Herb was wide awake. Forget the fact that he’d just gone to bed at midnight and that he was bone tired. His brain went into action: But what did Gloria mean? What if she really wants out of the relationship? But no, that can’t be because of what Brian said she said……
And on and on. His anxiety was in full control.
A worrying mind flits from one branch of a decision tree down another. Every branch is visited and new ones sprout as the worrier looks. Each branch must be examined and re-examined. Yes, that’s part of it: revisit each worry again and yet again because there could be a new slant on an old situation that went unnoticed before. The new slants produce more doubts, more worries, more questions, more obsessive negative thoughts, and the entire tree must be explored again with the new slant in mind.
The hours tick by and sleep is a gift of the past, the one thing that eludes the watchful eye of the worrier. Insomnia.
This is not just a nocturnal thing; it goes on all day, getting in the way of relationships, work, driving, studying, and living.
Our brains were not meant to function this way; it’s just not efficient. And it inhibits doing the very thing that seems to be hogging the controls: thinking.
Paradoxically, when we stop worrying, we can easily get the answers we want. Here’s why:
We are consciously aware of only a small fraction of what we experience. The rest gets filed somewhere in our unconscious or is dropped altogether. This is the brain’s economy. It enables us to function efficiently because we only experience what we need to know in order to cope with our daily needs. For this reason, when we see a friend, the recognition is automatic. We don’t have to search our databanks to figure out who it was.
Because so much of what we could have seen, heard, felt or in some other way experienced is dropped from conscious awareness, there is no way that Herb can possibly have all the data at hand that he needs in order to solve his problems. He can worry to his heart’s content, possibly coming up with new shreds of information, possibly not, but he will never have it all.
If anything can make this point, the video at the link below will do it, guaranteed. Go now to this video and follow the instructions carefully. Don’t read any more of this article until you watch this video. You would not believe the results and reading the rest will spoil it for you.
(If you’re up for fun and some more learning, go to the website below and see all the videos on these researcher’s page but don’t read the name of this url until you see the video above first: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html)
That was great, wasn’t it? I myself got snuckered in when I first saw it at a Continuing Education Course and so did most of the audience, all therapists, I might add. Well, we are all human, too.
Not only won’t our brains take in all the information we need in order to make decisions, but the decision process itself is so complex that any decision is going to have a large tendency of being wrong. We can place weights next to preferred choices and then add it all up, but we can never be sure of the accuracy of our weights. In worrying about whether Gloria wants to keep or end their relationship, Herb only has access to what he knows, not what he doesn’t. He only can conclude on the basis of subjective impressions. As the researchers show in the videos on their page, we are generally more confident in ourselves and how well we guessed than we deserve.
So what can poor Herb do at 3 AM?
My suggestion is to get a night’s sleep. The wonderful paradox, the gift of creation, is that by not thinking, Herb will solve his problem. Two questions immediately come up: (1) how can this be? And (2) how can he not worry, anyway?
How can he solve his problem by not trying to solve it?
The mechanism for solving problems is not only complex but decidedly personal. Each person’s choices are not merely facts but attitudes and preferences. Part of the question here is what does Herb really want? Does he want Gloria to be part of his life or is he relieved if she’s on the way out? And is he worrying out of fear of repercussions, like court proceedings, for example? Or perhaps he is worrying because he would consider himself a failure even though there’s a part of him that wants the misery to be over?
See, it’s not just about him reading Gloria correctly, it’s also about him reading himself correctly. And he can’t do that when he has set his mind up like a chess board and he’s making all the mental moves in order to figure out what to do. His mind is too cluttered with possibilities and probabilities to listen to the delicate voice of his heart telling him what he wants.
However, if he simply goes to sleep with the question on his mind, in his mind his subconscious will do all the work and he will wake up with the answer. He will tune into his heart.
There are times, for example, in therapy that I’ve been tempted to hear one “side” because it’s easier to believe that side than to make room for the other side. One side looks right and the other seems (conveniently) wrong. But if I stop focusing on all the logical arguments and reasons why the one that looks right is right and I just listen to that still, small voice inside telling me what to pay attention to then I get my answer. The answer I get may be the more difficult one to pursue, but that’s too bad; it’s the one that really does incorporate all the information.
And that’s the beauty of the sleep solution. Herb’s subconscious knows very well that Herb is still in love with Gloria. It knows that Herb really wants to do whatever it takes to turn around this bad situation. With no stress, no weighing of pros and cons, no going over and over what she said and what she did and what it all means, Herb’s subconscious easily gets the answer. In short, with a lot less work, a lot less data to mine, Herb’s subconscious picks out the relevant pieces and puts them neatly together for him when he wakes up.
Sure enough, he blinks his eyes open the next day, telling himself that he will tell Gloria that he loves her and will do what it takes to make this work. How simple! He is relaxed because he “knows” deep down that this is the right answer to all his worries. And he’s not worried now.
That answers question 1, how does this work? But question 2 is more difficult: How to get a worrier to shut off his inner chatter so that he can get that answer-laden good sleep?
How do you stop worrying long enough to fall asleep?
The worrier first of all has to recognize the truth and value of the above information. Once he recognizes that his answer is more likely when he lets go of the question, he will cooperate with himself. Next, he must learn to do slow, deep breathing. When he starts the inner chatter at 3AM, he must just pay attention to his breath; nothing else can enter his head. Having told himself earlier that he aims to have a good sleep so that his subconscious will solve his problem, he need not argue with the intrusive thoughts. Every time a thought intrudes, he must simply focus on his breathing, in and out, slowly.
This is a process and it takes practice to work. It’s called mindfulness and it is amazing. Just try it.