How to welcome the unwelcome thoughts that prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep

Wide awake person

Photo credit: The Guncle via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

Everyone I know has trouble sleeping every now and again. For some people, it seems to be a chronic problem and for others, it’s situational. Got stress in your life? Chances are it’s interfering with your sleep.

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez is no exception. When she was going through breast cancer treatments about two years ago, getting a good night’s sleep was a struggle.

Even after she finished all the treatments and was beginning to feel better, she still endured sleepless nights. She’d get to bed and her first thought would be “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.”

It can become a vicious cycle that triggers the fight or flight response says Beth Eilers, a licensed clinical social worker at Healthful Counseling in Portland, Maine. “When people are struggling with insomnia,” she explains, “they want to push away the things that are bothering them, which actually creates more internal stress.”

Beth teaches people how to welcome those unwelcome thoughts. “In welcoming the unwelcome, in a way, you’re surrendering to them,” she says. “You’re accepting them and that allows you to relax more.”

The techniques Beth uses were developed by the sleep experts at the Sleep School, based in London and New York. First, she usually talks to people about the basics of sleep science and then she guides them through a meditation that is about 10 minutes long. The exercise is meant to help them relax.

She and Stephanie, longtime friends who are both therapists, recently developed their own sleep solutions program. It incorporates art therapy, which is Stephanie’s expertise into Beth’s guided meditation. You can read about Stephanie in another blog post How art therapy can relieve some of the pain and suffering of a life-threatening illness.

As Beth guides people through the meditation, she’ll be asking them to envision images as well as some sensory information. At a number of points along the way, they’ll stop and Stephanie will encourage them to use some simple art supplies she will provide to express what they are feeling on paper.

“You’re not going for a piece of art that will hang on the wall,” she says. ” A lot of people think, oh my God I have to draw something literal on the paper. No, I want you to choose a color that represents how your insides feel right now and then what that might look like on the paper. It could be short intense lines, it could be anything.”

The idea is to use the meditation to slow things down. To help you get out of the habit of treating sleep like a battle, because it’s not. “It’s a natural bodily function,” says Beth. “Our bodies know how to sleep. We just forget that sometimes. Meditation can help.”

“And one of the reasons the art therapy component is so powerful,” says Stephanie, “is that it’s when you go through something  traumatic there’s a nonverbal component. It is an energy or a sensation or a visual image that you carry inside. Art can help take that from an internal process to an external one.”

Stephanie and Beth will be teaching their technique Wednesday, November 2 from 4:00 to 6:00 at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland. Go to the Cancer Community Center website for more information or to register.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.