How my worry box helps me fall asleep.

One of the most frustrating ways to spend an evening is to lay in bed, ruminating over what happened throughout the day, planning out what might happen tomorrow, the wheels of the mind spinning, spinning, spinning. Can you relate? Some folks, either by sheer luck or over-exhaustion, seem to fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow. That has never been me.

I can remember my first months as a hospice social worker, my first post-graduate job. Working in some of the most impoverished parts of Washington D.C., I sat with patients and their families through some heart wrenching times. I had patients who were threatened with eviction notices, patients who had no food, patients who fought unsuccessfully to get their children out of prison to say a final goodbye, patients whose pain medications were stolen by relatives trying to get high, patients who were left alone and bed-bound, surrounded by rodents and roaches. All while coping with their own terminal illness and imminent death. And I had the privilege to be right there with them, working what felt like constantly to try to bring a little dignity and support to those final days.

I was exhausted, and yet each night my mind raced with the tasks left undone and the terror of the added suffering that could result. Sleep came late and fitfully. And I was at risk of burning out completely.

Here enters my worry box. After processing my mental overwhelm with a wise friend, my worry box emerged. I took an old tin, spent an afternoon with magazine, scissors, and mod podge, collaging words and images of trust and hope and release. I set it on a small table, surrounded by candles, in my meditation corner. And then, that night before bed, I wrote on tiny slips of paper the names or places that I was clenching most anxiously to my chest. And I tucked them gently inside my box and closed the lid.

There is nothing magical about a worry box. Essentially, this technique is just a way to externalize a worry or fear, to write it out a physical piece of paper so we can stop turning it over and over in our heads, and then to symbolically let it go, know that it is held safely somewhere other than our minds. We can pick it up tomorrow. In the meantime, we have to trust that the people and things we care most deeply about will be held safe by the Universe, by God, by Love, by whatever name you want to give it, while we get some much needed rest. Cliche as it may sound, when we don’t take care of ourselves, when we don’t nourish our bodies with sleep and with food and with the bare essentials, we cannot possibly care for others.

I invite you to make your own worry box. It can be as simple as an old jar or tin, set on a table in a place in your home that is peaceful and safe. Decorate it if you want, or don’t. And then fill it with objects, with slips of paper, with whatever you want to surrender, to let go.

As I settled more into my hospice job, I found myself able to hold my patients and their struggles a bit less tightly. I was still moved by their suffering and engaged in the work of supporting them and their families, but I also found it easier to let go and trust that it was not up to me. My “savior complex,” if you will, loosened its grip. I realized how little was in my control and how even when I did all I could, people still suffered, families still fought, systems still oppressed, and the sick still died. It wasn’t futility that I felt, but a real sense of my limits and humanity, which gave me a deeper sense of compassion for myself and others. I could do the best I could with what I had, and that could be enough. Which helped me sleep a lot better.

Now, as parent, I find those racing, anxious bedtime thoughts so easily return. When my daughter was a newborn, I obsessed over her breathing, listening closely to each snuffle and sigh. Now that she is a toddler, I find myself thinking about her eating habits, her perpetual runny nose, her shyness, whether or not to try to get her on a preschool waitlist.

So the other week, I pulled my worry box back out. My daughter’s name will probably be in there as many times as there are days left of my life. To let go once doesn’t mean we won’t need to surrender the same thing, over and over again. And yet, the practice of entrusting her to the force of Love that holds her so much more skillfully and fully than I ever can, that practice is the gift. Breath in, breath out. Let it go and rest.

Originally published at