Why Ruminating Delays Sleep. And How to Stop Ruminating at Bedtime

In this blog post, I examine one of the most common psychological reasons why people can’t fall asleep: Rumination. And I discuss what you can do about it.

Ruminating means to persist in hashing out a concern in one’s head, potentially past the point of it being helpful. It involves repeatedly thinking about the concern, typically examining it from various angles. One’s thinking might then go “around in circles”, revisiting the concern without making much progress.

Rumination, as you can imagine, is a source of unhappiness. Anxiety and depression, two sides of the same coin, are often maintained by rumination. It may appear to be adaptive, because keeping a concern in mind might help ensure one resolves the problem. But in rumination (as some psychologists define it; see the final paragraph below), no progress is made. This can rob one of the opportunity to focus on solvable problems. People who have obsessions (in “obsessive-compulsive disorder”) are classic ruminators. If you’ve ever experienced an out-of-control emotion (in grief, for example, or if your child developed cancer), then you’re probably familiar with rumination. The same mental mechanisms are involved in all these cases.

Rumination is “insomnolent” meaning it tends to prevent one from falling asleep. (“Somnolent”, on the contrary, means “tending to promote sleep”.) Rumination maintains the target motivator’s “insistence” in your brain. (Insistence is the propensity of a motivator to capture and maintain your attention.) In other words, rumination is a positive feedback loop. And if you’ve studied “control systems”, you know that positive feedback loops are rarely helpful in nature. (Compare: a furnace’s control system, or thermostat, has a negative feedback loop that shuts off the furnace when the temperature reaches a certain point.) When your “sleep onset control system” (SOCS, the part of your brain that puts you to sleep) detects that there’s a very “insistent” motivator, it tends to say “better keep the brain awake”. That system (the SOCS) is too simple to realize that you’re simply ruminating. All it knows is that your mind is busy churning over an insistent motivator. So it tries to maintain your vigilance.

Aside. The concept of insistence is critical to understanding the mind. Insistence is largely a “bottom up” source of mental activation (coming from your “less conscious” mind). However, it can be maintained “top down”, through rumination (your “more conscious” mind). Most of academic psychology hasn’t picked up on the concept of insistence yet. It was proposed by Aaron Sloman. The concept figures prominently in my Ph.D. thesis and my discussions of motivation, emotion and insomnia.

However, the brain/mind (including the sleep regulation system) are complex. So, other factors also play a role. For instance, sleep pressure (time spent awake) can eventually knock someone into sleep. Your cortex might tire itself out, becoming unable to ruminate.

Here are some tips for dealing with bed-time rumination. This is not an exhaustive list.

  • Avoid processing unfinished business at bedtime. There are studies on rumination that show that thinking about incomplete tasks tends to increase rumination. (Roberts, Watkins & Wills, (2013).) Ironically, however, deliberately trying to avoid thinking about something tends to backfire, unless you have a constructive strategy. Here follow some.

  • Try the cognitive refocusing technique. This involves selecting (before you go to bed) a competing pleasant motivator to think about, i.e., to distract yourself with. If you like decorating rooms, you might imagine yourself decorating a room in your house. If you are a football fan, you might mentally design plays for various game circumstances. Of course, don’t start ruminating about your distractor. Move on. By focusing on other motivators than the potentially disruptive one, you’re not strongly maintaining the activation of that motivator. Cognitive refocusing was developed and studied by Dr. Les Gellis, who is currently a psychology professor at Syracuse University. It is not a silver bullet; but it can still help one get to sleep. Dr. Gellis and I are preparing a study to compare cognitive refocusing with the cognitive shuffle (serial diverse imagining).

  • Think more concretely (less abstractly). There is some evidence that thinking in very abstract, verbal terms maintains worries and is insomnolent. (See pages 6–7 of Schmidt, Harvey & Van der Linden for a review.) “Thinking in images” may inhibit this type of insomnolent mindset. (We call this process “counter-insomnolent”). This is discussed next.

  • Imagine a single object. Robert Woolfolk and Terrence McNulty in 1983 published the first study that systematically examined the effects of “imagery distraction” on sleep onset. They got their participants to intensely visualize an object in bed while trying to fall asleep. This has repeatedly been found to be moderately effective in decreasing sleep onset latency. (For example by Alison Harvey and Nancy Digdon). Alison Harvey predicted that people would get bored of this. But Nancy Digdon disconfirmed Harvey’s hypothesis. Still, I think there’s more than a grain of truth in Harvey’s concern, which is why I call the Woolfolk & McNulty technique monotonous imagery distraction or simply boring imagery distraction. However, that grain of truth needed to be expressed in a broader theory of motivated attention. I have developed such a theory, which draws on research with Aaron Sloman at the University of Birmingham, England (our “Cognition and Affect” Project). (This is discussed in my book, Cognitive Productivity). My theory also makes use of a theory of “Motivated Cognition” or “cognitive energetics theory” by Arie W. Kruglanski, Jocelyn J. Bélanger, and others (2012). My theory is also based on several other theories and findings. From my theory, I developed the cognitive shuffle, discussed next. We’ll have a new paper on theory in the not too distant future.

  • Imagine one object, person, place, action or scene at a time, mixing it up (the cognitive shuffle). This is the technique that mySleepButton supports. It involves multiple components of “working memory”: your mind’s visual/spatial “scratch pad”, its “phonological loop”, its “semantic buffer”, and “central executive” (these are Alan Baddeley’s terms). That’s why it’s quite an engaging task. That means, it doesn’t leave much room for rumination. As a result, the potentially disruptive motivators lose some of their insistence. This is “counter-insomnolent”, meaning these motivators won’t as strongly inhibit your “SOCS” (sleep onset control system). This is not to say that the untimely motivators will be completely inactive. They may still gently pulsate/throb “in the back of your mind”, distracting you every now and then. But hopefully not enough to keep you awake. We think our technique is more engaging than the others. That’s why we’re involved with multiple universities to test this hypothesis. (And we invite other labs to use our software to run their own tests. We’ve built a variant of mySleepButton specifically for sleep researchers.)

Our technique has another special property that makes it different from and incompatible with rumination. It’s “globally incoherent”. This means that your thinking pattern doesn’t “make much sense” of real world concerns and issues. With our technique, you successively focus on unrelated content – forming a mental kaleidoscope. Rumination, on the contrary, is a desperate attempt to make sense of world situations and solve problems. In fact, in a very elegant recent experiment, several psychologists demonstrated that rumination involves a tendency to focus on “why” a problem exists. (Andrea Bassanini, Gabriele Caselli, Francesca Fiore, Giovanni Maria Ruggiero, Sandra Sassaroli, and Edward R. Watkins, 2014) “Why questions” often lead to abstract, worrisome answers: For example, “Why is this happening?” might lead to the a global self-attribution like, “because I am not competent” (p. 22). Such thoughts are not constructive in the daytime. And they can interfere with your sleep if you have them in bed. The cognitive shuffle is meant to replace this mental content long enough for you to fall asleep. The cognitive shuffle is not a silver bullet — there isn’t one. But it can be combined with other helpful techniques such as minfulness, discussed next.

  • Mindfully accept your emotions without self-indulgence. This is one of the most promising long-term strategies for regulating emotions. And in two papers that were published within the last year, mindfulness seems effective at reducing insomnia. These were papers by M. Larouche, G. Côté, Denis Bélisle and D. Lorrain in Sherbrooke, Canada. (Historical note: In the 1980’s, Denis Bélisle and I were both supervised by Prof. Claude Lamontagne of the University of Ottawa.) I discussed mindfulness in a previous post on acceptance and commitment therapy. Here you would approach bedtime with an attitude of acceptance towards your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. You might spend the first few minutes of bedtime performing a mindfulness activity (there are many to choose from). Then you would mindfully engage in the cognitive shuffle (with or without mySleepButton).

The combination of mindfulness and the cognitive shuffle is superficially ironic (but then, so is “paradoxical intention”!) in that we are combining a distraction technique with an acceptance mindset. However, below the surface, notice how easily they can work together. For during the day you can also be mindful while engaging in productive work. (Your mindfulness guru is not telling you to quit your day job and zen out all day. The idea is, even at work, when an emotion distracts you, to acknowledge the motivator and gently redirect your mentation towards your valued pursuit, doing what you are paid or supposed to do.)

Furthermore, the cognitive shuffle is not merely an emotion regulation strategy. That is to say that it is not merely designed to be counter-insomnolent. It is also designed to be pro-somnolent, i.e., a trick to positively help induce sleep. Mindfulness as a deliberate strategy, on the contrary, was definitely not designed to be somnolent. If anything, mindfulness is supposed to promote wakefulness. (I discuss this in my original paper on super-somnolent mentation). However, the cognitive shuffle is based on the idea that there are some patterns of thinking in which one can deliberately engage that are both counter-insomnolent and somnolent. And if you have such a pattern of thinking that often helps you fall asleep (whether times are tough or not) and in which you engage only at bedtime (to avoid “cue overload”), then conditioning theory (on which lots of psychotherapeutic techniques are based) predicts this will itself promote sleep onset even in troubled times. The potential to combine mindfulness with the cognitive shuffle is enormous. It’s also an exciting potential area of research. (Again: we invite other labs to use our software to run their own tests.)

Rumination gets a bad rap in the psychology literature. Rumination is often even defined as an unproductive process. That’s not appropriate, however, because rumination also has constructive, adaptive roots. The study of expertise and creativity points to obsession. Consider that “cognitive miserliness” (intellectual laziness) is a major source of human suffering. People who have a high “need for cognition” get better grades, solve problems better, and have better outcomes than those who have a “need for closure”. (That too is discussed in Cognitive Productivity.) Productive and destructive rumination are not the result of two completely separate brain systems! A proper account of rumination will explain it in terms of mechanisms that account for other forms of motivated cognition, for progressive problem solving and for perturbance.

As Aristotle pointed out: Virtue lies in a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of defect. Your brain’s “CEO” must sometimes be willing to invest “energy” (as Kruglanski and colleagues put it) when the likelihood of a breakthrough seem remote. Progress is not all about harvesting low lying fruit. But it must also be willing and able to put the breaks on insistent motivators. Excellence requires mindful self-control: focus. I’m reminded of Apple’s product road mapping retreats headed by Steve Jobs. They’d brainstorm and argue for and against a large list of possible products, which Steve would rank on the whiteboard. Then he’d draw a line at the top one or two and say “These are the products we’re going to develop.” And then they’d focus again. The productive brain’s CEO also needs to know when and how to stop, which is what the next sentence will do for this post.

The foregoing concepts and techniques are part of a rumination regulation (“self-regulation”) toolkit.

Suggested readings

President, CogSci Apps Corp. Author, Cognitive Productivity https://leanpub.com/cognitiveproductivity/

3 Comments on “Why Ruminating Delays Sleep. And How to Stop Ruminating at Bedtime

  1. Well this sounds like what I have going on!!! It used to get to me in the daytime too but that has stopped. But as of late, my “ruminations” are stupid, petty things like a song playing in my head if I wake briefly and then it moves onto other crazy things and then I wonder how I ended up thinking about whatever it is I’m thinking about…even tried tracing the thoughts back lol It is very frustrating though to try to sleep and can’t because your brain just won’t stop! I wish it had a toggle switch! I have tried focusing on my body getting heavy and pressing down into my mattress, focusing on breathing, etc…but this morning was super odd…like I was in twilight sleep with the ruminating and I couldnt tell if I was asleep or awake but it didn’t feel like I rested at all…I will read the article again and again and try to cement the ideas in my mind to focus on at bedtime. I wonder if a white noise machine might help? Thanks for the info!!!

  2. There’s no evidence to my knowledge that white noise would help with rumination, nor is there reason to believe it would. You could try practicing meditation during the day and then meditating in the evening. When your mind wanders from your cognitive target, you’d simply bring it back to the target. The cognitive shuffle can be considered a form of meditation. It’s easier to use with software (https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=740251957) but there is also a DIY version as noted above http://mysleepbutton.com/support/do-it-yourself-cognitive-shuffle-sdi/ .

  3. Amazing! I heard about this technique and they gave the example of peach and then you think of words beginning with p etc etc. I tried it and was asleep almost in seconds even with my CPAP on and the Fan roaring away on a hot night. Thank you for this.

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