As a kid, did you ever keep a journal or a diary? Well, sleep journaling is something a little different.
During childhood, we may have used journaling to write about our everyday lives and experiences, including our dreams, goals, and worries. Perhaps it gave you some peace of mind to internalize what you were thinking and helped you make sense of things as you grew older.
Even beyond our childhoods we often grapple with anxiety, worry, and racing thoughts. These thoughts can be overwhelming and may inhibit our day-to-day lives as well as negatively impact our sleep. But they don’t have to.
Writing your thoughts in a journal can be a very effective way of processing your feelings. Not only that, but journaling can help you recognize unproductive or negative thoughts and behaviors, and can help you respond to these behaviors in a more constructive way. And when you can handle life’s stresses in a positive way, it’s much easier to sleep well at night.
What is Sleep Journaling?
Sleep journaling is simply the act of recording your thoughts and feelings a few hours before you fall asleep each night. It may sound similar to keeping a sleep diary, sleep log, or a dream journal, but there are key differences between them.
Sleep diaries and sleep logs are intended to keep track of your sleep habits, rather than your thoughts. A dream journal is exactly what it sounds like: a written account of your dreams or nightmares. All these activities serve their own purposes, and can be very helpful for better sleep depending on your needs.
There is no right or wrong way to approach bedtime writing— as long as you’re able to practice mindfulness and write what you feel, you’re off to a great start. But if you’re not sure where to begin, there are easy ways to help yourself get into the habit of writing.
What Do You Write in a Sleep Journal?
Each person’s circumstances are unique, so it’s important to center your writing around your specific experiences and be as open and thorough as possible. Even with this in mind, you may still be wondering how to organize your thoughts on paper. Following a writing prompt can be a very helpful way to do this— writing prompts encourage you to think critically and really ponder your thoughts, rather than just idly jotting them onto a page.
If you’re not sure what to write, try some of these suggestions.
1: Vent Your Day’s Worries and Frustrations
Anger, worry, and frustration are natural and healthy responses to life’s stresses, but it’s important to release them in a healthy way. Journaling is an excellent way to blow off steam and let go of some of the anger you may be feeling. Writing down your angry or unpleasant thoughts can help you make sense of them, as well as provide a sense of catharsis you can’t get from bottling up your emotions.
It’s also worth documenting troubling experiences here so that you can examine why they’re affecting you, and how you can respond to or move past them.
2: Keep a Gratitude Journal
On the opposite side of the coin, you can keep track of things that make you happy. Reflecting on what brings you joy can help put you in a more positive mood, which can also benefit your physical health, your mental health and lead to better sleep.
Consider a positive experience or event that has happened recently, and be sure to note why it brings you happiness. Some extra positivity in your life can really go a long way in helping you get a better night’s sleep.
3: Make a To-Do List
Writing out a to-do list may seem overwhelming if you’ve got a lot on your plate, but it really is helpful for quieting anxious thoughts and helping you clear your head each night.
Begin by compiling the unfinished tasks you need to address tomorrow, big or small. Not only does this provide you a clear list of intentions for the following day, but it also helps you keep track of your progress and removes the anxiety of pondering all these tasks as you’re trying to wind down for bed.
You can follow these prompts as much or as little as you want— the important thing is that you are writing!
If you’re looking for physical journals that not only help you organize your thoughts but encourage personal growth, I recommend the range of Best Self Journals and Planners. I’m proud to be a partner of Best Self because of their commitment to self-improvement, making positive changes, and helping everyone live their best lives.
How Does Journaling Help Sleep?
I discussed above that sleep journaling can be beneficial to your mental health by allowing you to process your racing thoughts in a healthy and productive way. This is a key step to ensuring you get a good night’s sleep.
Bedtime worry is a significant factor in delayed sleep latency, or difficulty falling asleep. By slowing down and taking the time to make sense of your thoughts and emotions, you can make it much easier to fall asleep each night.
A 2018 study by Baylor University required fifty-seven healthy students to do one of the following each night five minutes before bed: Create a to-do list for the following few days, or compile a list of tasks that they have completed each day. Participants who created a to-do list each evening actually fell asleep significantly faster than those who noted their completed tasks.
In addition to that, the more thorough participants were in creating their to-do lists, the more quickly they fell asleep each night. While the findings are encouraging so far, a larger study with a wider variety of participants would be beneficial for finding additional information.
Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and director of Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory noted that certain personality traits, as well as anxiety and depression, can have different effects on a person’s ability to fall asleep. While it’s unclear that these findings would also apply to patients with insomnia, similar writing activities have been shown to benefit those experiencing insomnia.
NOTE: If you are making a list of things to remember or a gratitude list, you can do that in bed or right before bed. But if you practice journaling as described below, try to do it right after dinner or 2-3 hours before going to bed so you have plenty of time to process.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety and Insomnia
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for racing thoughts and an anxious mind. Through CBT, patients can learn to cope with their anxieties, stop the cycle of negative thinking, and help them get the restful sleep they deserve. Journaling is a common technique used in CBT because its use helps to bring awareness to a patient’s mental health struggles and encourages self-reflection as part of the path to wellness. CBT uses a process called ABC and it looks like this:
A: Activating Event
Write down the event that led to your unpleasant or anxious feelings, and describe the initial thought that came into your mind when you experienced the event. It may be an automatic thought that you have during these kinds of experiences.
Identify the negative thinking behind your belief, and ask yourself if you can think of a person or event when this kind of thinking first occurred. It may be challenging, so you’ll have to look deep. Write that down as well.
What are the consequences, both short and long term, if you continue this kind of thinking? Be sure to consider the potential physical, emotional, and mental consequences.
Disputation is where change occurs. Challenge your reasoning by looking for evidence for and against your way of thinking about the situation. Now that you’ve considered your thinking, write down a healthier way of approaching these thoughts. Now, write down your new positive way of thinking and consider ways you might act on that line of thinking in future situations. Finally, ask yourself if you feel more positive and optimistic. This step allows you to reinforce the idea that if you change your thinking, you will change your mood.
As well as being an effective treatment for mental health conditions, CBT is also a common treatment for insomnia. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, or CBT-I, seeks to find a connection between how a patient thinks and how they sleep. CBT-I is found to be highly effective in patients with primary insomnia— as many as 70 to 80 percent of patients showed improvement in their symptoms following therapy. That’s a huge difference!
When to Seek Help
Some nighttime worries and the occasional sleepless night are normal in our everyday lives. However, if you regularly struggle with racing thoughts and poor sleep, it’s important to seek out your treatment options.
If you think you may have a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea, it’s important to get tested so you can begin the necessary treatment. To find accredited sleep experts or sleep centers near you, check out this tool provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
If you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety, hopelessness, or negativity, get in touch with your doctor or your insurance provider. They can help you figure out your treatment options, and help you not only feel better but sleep better too.
It may not always be an easy habit to get into, but journaling before bed can really make a difference if you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep. If you’re preoccupied with nighttime worries, give it a try! Good sleep and renewed peace of mind could be just a few minutes away.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor