One minute, you’re brushing your teeth, drowsy and ready to pass out. And the next, you’re in bed, eyes wide open, each new thought punctuated by concerns about how you can’t fall asleep and won’t function well the following day as a result. It’s all too easy to get swept up by these racing, anxious thoughts right as you were hoping to drift off to sleep—which is why clinical psychologist and sleep doctor Shelby Harris, PsyD, suggests a technique that’ll swiftly distance you from them. And it’s as simple as turning those same thoughts into a song.
That’s right, Dr. Harris suggests you literally sing your anxious thoughts—either out loud (presuming you don’t have a sleeping bedmate) or in your head—to the tune of an upbeat song like “Happy Birthday.” The idea? By singing them, the thoughts begin to lose their ruminative power, and you’re reminded of the fact that you have control over whether you believe them. “It’s just like when you look at a word that you’ve known for so long, but continue to stare at it to the point that it becomes just a jumble of letters,” says Dr. Harris. “The same sort of thing can happen with a thought: As you’re singing it and speeding it up or slowing it down, it begins to lose its meaning, and you lose your emotional attachment to it.”
Why turning anxious thoughts into a song can help you fall asleep
Though many physical and psychological factors can interfere with good sleep, up high on that list is stress and anxiety—which can often spawn anxiety about being able to fall asleep, too. “I always say it might not be your insomnia that’s the problem but your worries about the insomnia,” says Dr. Harris. So, finding a way to escape the, “I need to sleep—or else” thought spiral is essential to dozing off. “Whenever I see my patients’ thoughts about their sleep lessen in intensity, I know that better sleep is around the corner for them,” says Dr. Harris.
That’s where the singing trick comes into play: It’s a simple way to turn down the notch on those anxious thoughts (after which good sleep can flow naturally). And it works so well because of a psychological process called cognitive defusion, which is commonly practiced as part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for anxiety and depression.
“Sometimes, we become so fused with thoughts that aren’t serving us—like, ‘I’m not going to be able to fall asleep tonight’—that some cognitive defusion may be necessary.” —Shelby Harris, PsyD, clinical psychologist
“In most of our lives, we tend to believe all of our thoughts are reality, which is something we call being cognitively fused,” says Dr. Harris. “So, if the trees look green, we internalize the trees being green as a fact. But, sometimes, we become so fused with thoughts that aren’t serving us—like, ‘I’m not going to be able to fall asleep tonight’—that some cognitive defusion [aka separation from those thoughts] may be necessary to see them for what they are, which is just thoughts.”