Do scary or intrusive thoughts keep you awake at night?

cbt for insomnia

When you have anxiety, OCD, or depression, every thought that verifies your fears can take on a life of its own. 

Intrusive OCD thoughts are unwanted and repetitive streams of thoughts, ideas, images, impulses, or urges that can stop you from getting to sleep because they prevent you from mentally and physically relaxing.

With the average person having around 12-60 thousand thoughts per day and studies estimating that 80% of those can be negative thoughts, what happens when all of these thoughts seem to arrive when you’re just about to nod off to sleep? 

It may feel like your brain is your own worst enemy when you’re exhausted, but according to clinical psychologist Deborah Vertessy, our brain does this out of the primitive need to protect itself from threats. 

When threats are ever-present, particularly as lockdown restrictions ease in the UK, it can be perceived as potentially life-threatening to be caught not paying attention. 

This way of thinking is referred to as the brain’s negativity bias.

While it can be helpful in certain situations, when they arrive just before bed when we’re most vulnerable, tiredness decreases the strength of the connection between our brain’s emotional centres and the part of the brain that is supposed to put the brakes on our emotions.

This causes a powerful cycle of overthinking, which is fuelled emotionally by exhaustion. 

In a study from the University of York, they tested the ability of participants to suppress intrusive thoughts when they were either sleep-deprived or well-rested. Sleep-deprived participants suffered an increase in unwanted thoughts of nearly 50% compared to those who had a good night’s sleep.

This research suggests that it is challenging to control your thoughts in these moments. Certain CBT techniques and tools are needed sooner rather than later to ensure this behaviour doesn’t get out of your control.

For many people who live busy lifestyles, though, the end of the day is possibly the only time they have to reflect on the day. 

This is where it is important to make time to worry.

Scheduling ‘worry time’ is where you set aside a period of time where you are specifically engaged in your worries, and you do your problem solving for the next day. 

As strange as it sounds to set aside time for thoughts that may serve us no purpose at all, the impact of your own intrusive thoughts is accepted and acknowledged, meaning that they are less liable to be arousing and to keep you awake later in the day.

Here are some examples of intrusive thoughts that are common at night: 

  • Why am I a terrible person?
  • That was such an embarrassing thing you said today.
  • What’s the point?
  • They’ve been lying to me.
  • Everyone hates me. 
  • I’m going to get fired
  • I am destined to be alone. No one will ever love me. 


CBT is one of the gold-standard treatments for OCD – it’s effective in improving the symptoms of people with intrusive thoughts. If you’re really struggling to calm your thoughts at night, speak to an BABCP accredited Onebright therapist.

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