Tips for Getting to Sleep When Cancer is Keeping You Awake
CancerCare's Men’s Cancers Program Director, Richard Dickens, MS, LCSW-R, offers tips to reduce anxiety and help you fall asleep.
Q: One of the toughest times I have is when I go to bed at night. After I turn off the lights and am in the dark, my thoughts go immediately to my cancer and possibly dying from it and all the things I should do in preparation. Any suggestions?
A: Anxiety is very common among people with cancer. For some it occurs when they wake up, and for others, as they try to go to sleep. You mention three concerns which trigger anxiety as you’re trying to fall asleep. The first is turning off the lights, the second is the fear of dying, and the third is wanting to have your affairs in order.
The dark can be an especially scary place for people facing a life threatening illness. Absence of light is a metaphor of the darkness of unknowing. Try changing your bedtime routine – relax into your pillow with the light on. Like a child who sees monsters in the dark, turning on the light, even dimly, can provide comfort and a sense of control, allowing you to relax and fall asleep.
Your second concern, fear of dying, triggers a “fight or flight” reflex, hardwired into all of us for survival. Using mindful meditation, focus on your breath while non-judgmentally looking at your thoughts when your mind wanders, especially thoughts of worry. When you feel anxious, gently bring your focus back to your breath. Breath, specifically oxygen, is life, which fuels us, and aims to keep us in balance. Anxiety makes us take short breaths depriving our body and mind of oxygen and making us more anxious. When anxiety is high, take a deep breath, hold it for a comfortable amount of time, then release it, and repeat. You can do this for a few minutes or until you fall gently to sleep. You might also try listening to a pre-recorded guided imagery exercise, if you have difficulty meditating on your own.
Finally, thinking about unfinished business, especially if there is a perceived timeline, often makes people anxious. Putting one’s affairs in order does not mean giving up on life, it simply means taking care of, and continuing to invest in our lives. With the worry of cancer it can be hard to focus on individual tasks, thereby increasing one’s anxiety. Try writing down the things you need to take care of, and then prioritize them. Use creative visualization, by imagining yourself doing and finishing each task, and enjoying a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed. These visualizations can serve as a first step and increasing the likelihood of completion, which in turn can free you of the worry that is keeping you awake at bedtime.
To learn more about reducing anxiety, please read our fact sheet, Relaxation Techniques and Mind/Body Practices. To hear tips for falling asleep for cancer survivors, listen to our podcast: Trouble Sleeping? Sleep Better to Feel Better: Tips You Can Use.