Allowing Negative Thoughts In

Thought acceptance for better sleep

After a traumatic day or night fighting a fire, saving people from burning buildings, or cutting victims from car wrecks, the natural inclination is to push those memories as far away as possible from the conscious mind.

However, studies indicate that suppressing thoughts, instead of accepting them, can lead to disturbances in the sleep cycles of first responders. Here I will discuss the importance of processing—rather than avoiding—disquieting experiences, with an emphasis on improving your sleep.

Sleep Is Vitally Important

Any firefighters who have tossed and turned in their beds awaiting a call will know the feeling of stumbling, bleary eyed, into action. Dr. Guy Meadows of The Sleep School, a United Kingdom Clinic specializing in insomnia, says, “What we have learned from listening to people is that if the focus of your life becomes about getting rid of insomnia, you paradoxically remain stuck with your insomnia. Essentially, when you can’t sleep, the drive to find a solution increases dramatically as your brain begins to worry more and more about the consequences of not sleeping, so it actually stops you from sleeping.”

All forms of life work according to a 24-hour internal clock, with various body functions controlled by their circadian rhythm. Within the hypothalamus, the production of hormones triggers signals to the body according to the day/night cycle. Cortisol is your main stress hormone, so after a heavy shift, firefighters have elevated cortisol levels and, because fires often occur at night, this goes against the normal time of cortisol production, which should peak in the morning when humans are typically most active. The result is a dysregulation in cortisol levels, wreaking havoc with the sleep pattern as thoughts run through the mind.

Dreams Rebound

Josie Malinowski, lecturer in psychology at the University of East London, has been studying the effects of thought suppression on sleep, dreaming, and well-being. Her research shows that suppressing thoughts leads to “dream rebound,” where negative experiences appear in dreams.

Furthermore, those people who experienced dream rebound reported a poorer quality of sleep and higher levels of anxiety. Another finding was that those who consciously suppressed either positive or negative thoughts for seven nights were shown to have a higher correlation of dream rebound when suppressing negative experiences.

Clearing the Mind Doesn’t Always Work

Researchers in Israel set out to discover why some first responders cope better than others. Gal Sheppes of Tel Aviv University and Einat Levy-Gigi of the University of Haifa, together with several colleagues, found that some people cope naturally by using “regulatory choice flexibility”; they seem to know which negative images can safely float around in their heads and which ones need to be filed away.

The Sleep School Approach

So, what exactly is the best approach to a good night’s sleep when traumatic memories and thoughts of the day just won’t go away? Meadows takes a five-step process at The Sleep School, including the following:

1. Discovering current activities and thoughts that could stop you sleeping.

2. Acceptance of elements you cannot change to help improve sleep.

3. Welcoming negative thoughts instead of suppressing them.

4. Building a sleep pattern by providing essential knowledge about sleep.

5. Living life without focusing on insomnia.

Through acceptance, firefighters can recall traumatic events without consciously trying to change the thought or make it disappear. It has always been considered that the human mind heals itself when confronted by trauma, but the evidence suggests this isn’t the case. Conscious steps are required to regain equilibrium (balance) in the mind.

Steps to Take

After a busy day, take the following steps to help process what has happened:

1. Examine the images crossing the mind and acknowledge how things happened and why they did.

2. Let go of guilt—you did the best you could at that particular time.

3. Make a mental note to improve whatever can be improved—fitness level, reaction time—noting details of what you could have done better.

4. Accept that images of blazes and victims may come into the mind, but these shouldn’t be consciously repressed.

5. Allow negative thoughts to surface, examine them, and then let them go without struggling to push them away. Repressing them can lead to bad dreams, as Malinowski’s research showed.

6. Remain grounded in the present by committing to the moment with openness and acceptance. Once you have dealt with the traumatic images and thoughts, continue with what you were doing.

7. Remember that life is a series of moments, and you need to engage in each one at a time. Once a moment has gone, it has gone; you can only be better prepared for the next moment.

Know When to Engage or Disengage

Acceptance is about being open to events that have occurred in your life—experiencing the memories rather than avoiding them. However, coping is not that simple; the knack lies in choosing the right strategy. Some firefighters naturally understand that certain disturbing flashbacks require engagement for a better outcome the next time a similar event occurs and, at other times, when particularly horrifying images appear, it is better to try to disengage emotionally.

Theories on coping have discussed the critical role of the conscious mind. It is helpful to be aware of the presence of emotions but, according to researchers from Stanford University and Yale University, it is equally important to determine what the presence of such emotions represents. To do this, one must master the art of labeling emotional states, differentiating between them, and understanding their significance. This enables positive thinking and effective coping. According to one study, firefighter trainees who exhibited more emotional control were better at managing live-fire exercises than those with lower levels of emotional clarity.

The key message here is that scientists agree: Suppressing disquieting mental images will result in their resurfacing at another time, which can wreak havoc on your sleep and performance on the job. Approach rather than avoid for a good night’s rest.

Nicola Davies

Dr. Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with expertise in occupational psychology and well-being. You can follow her on Twitter (@healthpsychuk) or sign up for her free blog (