Soothing Yourself to Sleep

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 19-year-old female. I am 5’4″ with a healthy weight of 155 pounds. I have battled severe depression, and it is still a daily struggle. I have also stopped taking the Depo-Provera shot (insight on my medical history).

I have now encountered a sleeping issue. Every night before I go to bed, I watch the same movie, around the same time. Once I am tired of the movie after a couple of months, I switch to another movie. I find it self-soothing, and even though I do not sleep by myself (boyfriend) it helps me feel as though I am not alone. It makes the apartment feel more familiar, in a way. It is almost as if my body/brain is registering the movie as ‘bedtime.’

The problem is that I cannot sleep without watching the movie first. I lie awake for hours, lost in thought, if I don’t. My question is this: Why? Also, is this healthy? Could this sleep ritual have something to do with my depression? I’m starting to get worried.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds as if the depression gets very big for you sometimes — especially at night when all the distractions of the day have ended. Many people seek distraction from their own thoughts before falling asleep, but some sleep rituals are more useful than others. Your awareness of this habit and questioning of it is a step in the right direction to help yourself sleep better and perhaps make the depression smaller.

You mentioned struggling with depression, but did not mention whether or not you are currently receiving treatment. It is possible that stopping a medication such as Depo-Provera could interfere with your mood and sleep, as could abruptly stopping an antidepressant medication. It may be worthwhile to consult with your physician to rule out any medication-related side effects or any physiological conditions that might be contributing to depressed mood and sleep difficulties. Alternately, having difficulty sleeping can be a symptom of depression. It can also create a vicious cycle: depression can interfere with sleep, and sleep deprivation can increase the risk of depression. If you are not currently receiving treatment for your depression, seeking assistance from a mental health professional may be a good first step. The American Psychological Association offers a web-based psychologist locator that could be a helpful place to start.

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Whether or not depression is at play, you have identified one of the most common robbers of sleep: screens. Watching a movie (or television, being on a computer or smartphone) before bed can certainly interfere with sleep. The light, moving images, and content all activate our frontal cortex, which is not conducive to entering the slower brain waves that help induce sleep. What you describe, however, also sounds like a means to quiet the thoughts that would otherwise keep you awake at night. The ritual has become a coping strategy for you, but perhaps you are ready to explore other ways to fall asleep without relying on the movie.

One of the most effective strategies for stopping a behavior is to substitute a more desirable behavior for the one you wish to stop. If you are watching an entire movie, perhaps you can start this ritual earlier in the evening so that it does not interfere with the seven to nine hours of sleep that most experts recommend. If that is difficult to do, perhaps you gradually taper the length of the movie by the number of scenes on the DVD (or time on the recording). For example, begin with watching three-quarters of the movie for a few days, then decrease to half the movie for a few days, then one-quarter, and then by five-minute increments until you are down to the smallest amount of the movie that works for you before falling asleep.

Alternately, some people find it helpful to substitute another more relaxing non-visual medium, such as soothing music, nature sounds, white noise, or a guided relaxation podcast or CD. If your mind drifts to thoughts that interfere with falling asleep, simply notice or observe them without judgment or pressure to make them stop. Give yourself permission to write the thoughts down and schedule time in the morning or during the day to think about them.

If these ideas appeal to you, then you might be interested in a research-based treatment created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD called “Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy,” or “MBCT.” To explore these ideas further, a practical book and audio CD based on MBCT entitled “The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhapiness” [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] could be useful for you. (This book has also been reviewed on our sister site CounsellingResource.com.)

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