by Amelia Ellsworth
The Problem • I’m lying in bed. It’s two o’clock in the morning. I’m supposed to be sleeping and I want to be sleeping, but my brain defies me and its wide awake. Thoughts race through my mind and I can’t shut them off. I’m consumed with worry and I’m exhausted. I know it’s only a few more hours before I have to get out of bed and being awake now, is stressing me out. Why can’t I sleep?
Night after night, I was experiencing this same scenario. The worries in my head playing out my worst nightmares, reciting a cruel mantra: ‘You are stupid. You make bad decisions. You are useless. No one likes you. You’re a failure’. Self-loathing was a blanket of shame I unintentionally pulled closer. After many sequential nights, this led to exhaustion and an inability to make the simplest decisions.
The Cause • At the time, I was having a lot of financial problems and I was sinking into a financial chasm. I told myself it was my lack of planning and I was drowning in guilt. Stress swelled to a level I had never experienced before and it was keeping me awake.
The Awakening • One night while turning circles on the gerbil wheel of shame, something shifted unexpectedly and threw me off. I had recently met with a friend who tearfully shared with me her own troubles and admitted that she wasn’t sleeping at night either. She too was experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress and was hearing harsh words being whispered in her ear, ‘you’re lazy. You’re a terrible mom. Nobody loves you’. Reflecting on this, I realized with a blast of clarity that my friend was experiencing the same thing I was, but for entirely different reasons. I knew definitively none of it was her fault and suddenly I knew my situation was not entirely my fault either. Where were these damaging thoughts coming from and how could I stop them?
Understanding Stress and Anxiety • Stress is our body’s natural flight or fight reaction to external pressure. This is normal and is helpful. It gets us ready to deal with challenging situations or life events and diminishes when the problem is resolved.
Examining what kind of stress we are dealing with is a great place to start because not all stress is bad. Some stress we experience is good, like when we push ourselves to try something new. But critical stress is produced when we have little or no control over circumstances. We may experience this type of stress if something we perceive as negative happens. Although stress can be useful, if left unattended it can also dramatically affect our emotional well-being leading to negative attitudes and behaviours. Prolonged occurrences of critical stress may lead to anxiety.
Anxiety is a thought process that triggers the body into a response which becomes so intense it interferes with daily routines, work and relationships. Anxiety does not dissipate when the stressful experience is over. Feeling excessive worry about everyday situations or experiencing sudden fear or terror that quickly peaks (panic attacks) are signs of anxiety.
The Realization • I realized I was internalizing misplaced guilt for a situation that I had little control over. I let anxiety develop and become a destructive repetitive voice that was keeping me up at night.
1. Truth • I decided to conquer these negative repetitive thoughts, with facts. I took a pad of paper and drew a line down the middle. I labelled one column, ‘Lies’ and wrote, ‘you are stupid’. The other column I titled, ‘Truths’ and wrote, ‘you are smart and credible’, I continued with, ‘you make bad decisions’ and countered with, ‘you make good decisions based on the information you have’. I did this for every negative thought that cycled through my head and found that by reciting my truths repeatedly, I effectively diminished the lies. I stopped allowing shame to dominate my feelings and found strength in the positives I knew to be true for me.
2. Perspective • I needed to change my outlook on the night-time situation. Instead of being stressed that I was not sleeping well and viewing it in a negative way which caused more stress, I chose to view it in a positive light. When I woke up in the middle of the night, without judgment I allowed myself the freedom to use that time. I would make a cup of my favourite tea, read a book or meditate. When I inevitably started to tire, I went back to bed knowing I would sleep in for as long as I could. Accepting my situation as it was helped me reframe it in a positive way.
3. Device Curfew • I set a digital curfew for myself and resolved not to watch a screen for at least one hour before going to sleep. Scrolling through Facebook before bed was not a good idea for me. I learned that my devices released an artificial blue light with a short wavelength which suppressed the release of melatonin. Without melatonin the amount of REM sleep I got was reduced. Instead I chose to read an actual book before bed.
4. Meditation • I found listening to free meditations when I went to bed increased my ability to relax. Not only did it help me unwind, it helped distract my busy bee mind by giving me something else to focus on which was calming. Unlock Your Life, The Mindful Movement and Louise Hay are YouTube channels I used that provide healing meditations and positive affirmations which help to release anxiety, stop negative thought patterns and create a positive mindset.
5. Soul Searching • I created a manifesto and taped it to the fridge: ‘I will make time for myself and the things I love to do, because I am worth it’. First, I wrote a list prioritizing and scheduling the things that made me feel good. I love nature and being in the sunshine made me feel happier, so I scheduled a daily walk. Being around my friends and family made me feel good about myself, so I scheduled time to talk or meet with them. Being creative made me feel fulfilled, so I bought a set of paints and scheduled time to unapologetically use them. The better I felt about myself, the easier it was to look at my current situation and make sense of it.
Deal with The Cause • Getting through a difficult situation includes dealing with the root of the problem. I had to accept I didn’t have enough of the right information and needed professional guidance. Looking at the cause of our stress may seem daunting. We are afraid to face it so we shove it to the back of the closet hoping it will go away. But it doesn’t and negative thoughts become more destructive the longer they are left unchallenged. If we are stressed over money, we need to see a financial advisor and learn what all our options are. If we are worried about our health, we need to see a doctor, seek their expert advice and get that test done. Facing that difficult topic puts us in control of our thoughts, decisions and actions. And we feel better when we’ve taken steps to deal with the things that we can.
My Conclusion • It’s important to recognize when you are experiencing stress or anxiety and to seek help, especially if it is keeping you up at night. Otherwise your worries will wear you down, jeopardize your emotional well-being and could affect your health. Feelings are not facts but reactions. When we learn to identify and deal with stressful feelings by using healthy strategies we can once again enjoy many restful nights.
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Amelia Ellsworth is a freelance writer who has grown up in the Okanagan. In fact she was born right here in Kelowna. Having spent most of her life in the valley she enjoys the usual recreational activities such as hiking, gardening, boating and visiting wineries. She has not yet had the privilege of being a mother, but would describe herself as a child, an adult, sister, aunt, god parent, community member and well rounded human who is part of the world community. Be the change you want to see.