Skip to main content

Postponing Worry:

Postpone intrusive thoughts to help with sleep [a blog post for worriers].


Worrying often keeps us awake.  It disrupts us on occasion in meetings, when trying to enjoy time with friends or when we are sat watching TV with our partners.  It can keep us company when we are alone, like having Darth Vader in the room.  When it’s at its loudest, it can completely take us away from the present moment, sometimes preventing us from focusing on things we need to be doing, like work or sleep, or speaking in a meeting.  We need to be able to control worrying in order to function, and you will be doing that in many moments without maybe even realising it.

Regaining control of your thoughts

Can you think of times where a worry has come along but you’ve been able to push it to the side because of an important task you need to be doing? What did you do differently in that moment compared with when you allow yourself to be caught up in the worry?  Is there anything you do differently in the moments you are in control of your worries, that you could try at times when you feel less in control of them?  For example, it may be easier to push worries away for a while when focusing on something practical, like driving, but then when lying in bed at night it’s not so easy, even though we may tell ourselves we should be focusing on getting some sleep.  What do you say to yourself in those moments?

During times that you are in control of your worries, it may be that there are more options for distraction, that there are other people around or sounds to hear, maybe there’s a radio on, things on TV or dishes to be done.  At night, in bed, or when alone, maybe we are less able to distract ourselves from any overwhelming thoughts, and that is when they are more difficult to bat away.  We may need to try a different approach than distraction, such as finding a way to postpone worrying.

Postponing the worry

If you can successfully tell yourself that you will worry about it in the morning, more often than not, your brain will then allow yourself to sleep.  Say it out loud if you need to.  You may have to be firm with yourself, and to say it more than once, but with practice, postponing worrying becomes easier to do.  By morning, more often than not, the worry will either have subsided to the point of feeling manageable, or it may have disappeared altogether.  If it is there, it may be easier to think clearly and rationally about it, and to take any action towards addressing anything or to talk about it.

Mindful postponement

When trying to postpone the worry, your thoughts may keep returning to it, or it may feel as though you just can’t stop thinking about it. Try bringing your focus onto your physical surroundings, noticing what you can see, hear, feel, onto your physical sensory experiences. Bring your attention onto these things when your thoughts drift back.  Keep telling yourself when the worry surfaces that you will worry about it tomorrow.  Bring your awareness onto your breathing, counting your breaths in through the nose and out again through the mouth.  Put a hand on your stomach and feel the breath moving through your body, bringing your thoughts onto repeating the process as many times as you need until you feel clearer.  This may be tens or hundreds of times of telling yourself to postpone the worry, but don’t give up.  Mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm are really useful for their breathing techniques and meditations to help bring your thoughts into the present moment and away from worrying.

Finding acceptance

Accept that the worry is there but that you can choose to think about it another time, remember that you are in control of when you allow yourself time to worry.  Don’t give in to the temptation to engage with the thoughts or to rationalise them, or even to challenge them.  Accept them without any judgement and practice letting them go for now.

Allocate ‘worry-time’ 

It may help to dedicate a specific time of day to worrying, such as 11am, or after work, allowing yourself an allotted amount of time, maybe fifteen minutes to an hour each day where you give yourself time to think about whatever you need to.  Knowing that you have that time set aside may help you to postpone the worrying.  Just try to make sure that this allotted worry time is not at night when you’re getting ready to go to bed.  As time goes on, you may only need to dedicate worry-time to once a week, or once a month.  How lovely it would be to never worry, how peaceful, but that is not realistic as we are human, and it’s okay to have worries.  The aim is to be feeling in control of them rather than overwhelmed.

Postpone until the morning, if you’re struggling to sleep

At night, we are generally alone with our thoughts, in quiet darkness and with everyone asleep, there may no-one to talk to, so it can in these moments feel heavy and lonely to be with those thoughts if they are worries.  Worrying disrupts sleep, affecting our energy and mood.  We find ourselves worrying about things that matter deeply to us, things that may be causing us pain or could potentially hurt us, and it can be difficult to let go of those fears whilst regulating our emotional response, before getting stuck in a difficult emotional, worrisome state of mind that is not helpful for sleep.

The counting sheep approach

When trying to sleep, maybe having an app playing the sound of rain, or an audiobook, may help keep your focus onto somewhere that’s outside of your head.  Or, try visualising a safe, calm place, or the ‘counting sheep’ approach.  For example, think of something mundane, such as a drawer in your bedroom or kitchen, visualise how many items are in there?  What colour are they?  What texture are they?  Or, you may just prefer to count those imaginary sheep.  It’s about finding something mundane to visualise that works for you.  Before you know it, you may have drifted off to sleep, and the worry will have subsided.

Practice makes perfect

Things really do feel much lighter in the light of day.  Once your brain gets used to postponing worries, that it feels better to do that, you will then find that it becomes easier and easier to do, and it will feel much more manageable.  You will also then likely be getting more sleep as a result, and therefore be less tired, more resilient to the worries when they come along, and have more emotional strength to be able to postpone them.

Continue postponing

Once you get used to postponing them until morning, how about trying to postpone them for a week, or a month?  Or, when totally overwhelmed, try postponing them for an hour, then another hour, or until certain points in the day, such as until after work, and so on, until things feel much more manageable.  And each time you manage to postpone a worry, notice it, how much better feels, trust that you know you can do it, that you can choose to postpone that worry if you need to.