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Sleep

Trying to Quiet Your Mind to Get to Sleep?

Try quieting your nervous system instead.

Key points

  • Societal stress, combined with an overload of electronic stimulation, can spark anxiety, which often triggers unwanted mental activity that interferes with sleep.
  • In addition to restless thoughts, anxiety may also trigger physical symptoms that interfere with sleep, such as a racing heart or feelings of tension.
  • Focusing on soothing these physical symptoms, rather than attempting to quash the anxiety itself, may help you fall asleep faster.
Getty Images, used by permission
Living in our modern society significantly disturbs the body’s natural evolutionary physiology for sleep.
Source: Getty Images, used by permission

Since the beginning of humankind, in order to survive, human minds have evolved to keenly sense danger. Sometimes the danger is actual, yet much of the time, our thoughts are about imagined danger. These thoughts trigger a physiological response that activates a fight-or-flight reaction and creates a sense of hyperalertness in our nervous system and mind. This is why when we lie awake at night having anxious thoughts, it is almost impossible to fall asleep.

Another factor that stimulates excessive mental and nervous system activity is the electronic stimulation from computer screens and phones. Screen time interferes with sleep as the bluish-white light of electronic screens causes the pineal gland to stop the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you feel sleepy. In addition, too much screen time has a negative effect on our brain’s ability to focus, plan, prioritize, manage impulses, and more. All of this can increase excessive mental activity that makes it difficult to quiet our minds when we want to sleep.

In our modern civilization, these factors, along with others—including information overload, global crises, and living in a society that is active 24/7—significantly disturb the body’s natural evolutionary physiology for sleep. This is why today we are experiencing an epidemic of sleep issues in our society, with 1 out of 3 Americans struggling with sleep difficulties.

When people are stressed or anxious, or their mind is very active, that activates the nervous system, making sleep more difficult. When the mind is active, especially at sleep time, people usually try to force their mind into submission to be quiet, but that usually just creates more struggle which makes the mind even more active.

From my 25 years helping people resolve their insomnia, it has become clear that there are a handful of types of thoughts that most commonly interfere with sleep:

  • Thinking about the stresses in your life
  • Thinking about the things you need to do the next day
  • Thoughts fueled by fear of the future
  • Worrying that you won’t be able to fall asleep or back to sleep
  • Worrying that the next day you’ll be tired, which will make the day difficult

While tools like meditation can help quiet the mind, many people find meditation often doesn’t lead to sleep. We need a method that is actually based on the science of sleep.

When people are stressed or anxious, or their mind is very active, they usually try to deal with that in their mind and emotions. But thoughts and emotions don’t have physical form, so trying to calm them can be a difficult undertaking. However, when you are stressed or anxious, or your mind is active, your heart often beats more quickly or feels more “activated” than when you are calm. This shows the fundamental connection between your heart, your thoughts, and your emotions. Your heart is one of the key “switches” in your nervous system that influences the relationship between the body and mind.

When you are having difficulty sleeping, your mind doesn’t like the feeling of discomfort, so your mind stays active as a way to avoid noticing the physiological activation. The mind pulling away to distract from discomfort in the heart or activation in the nervous system is a root cause of mental activity.

A tense body, plus an active mind, equals poor sleep. Rather than trying to quiet your mind, below are steps to calm your heart and nervous system. When you are wanting to sleep, use this process, which helps create new neural pathways to retrain your body to recognize the physiology associated with sleep.

We’ve covered the background principles. Now let’s move into a brief process, designed to have you relax your nervous system and ease you towards sleep. Read the below steps a few times, then close your eyes and try them out. You don’t need to do this exactly as it is described—it’s fine to feel this in your own way. You will then be familiar with this and be able to use it when you want to sleep.

***

Begin by finding a comfortable position and closing your eyes.

As you breathe regularly, without changing your breath, gently feel the rise and fall of your chest.

This helps you feel your breath moving inside your chest, feeling your breath in your lungs.

Envision and feel your breath in your lungs and how your lungs wrap around your heart.

Your breath is in your lungs and your lungs do wrap around your heart, so you are feeling something that already exists.

You don’t have to actually feel your heart. Simply feel deep in your chest and imagine and feel your breath is in your lungs and your lungs wrap around your heart—like holding a child who was hurt or frightened.

This can gradually become the soothing feeling of your breath in your lungs wrapping around your heart with a feeling of comfort and protection.

That feeling of protection can gradually help your heart feel safe, which helps your heart begin to calm down.

That is a feeling of being safe inside yourself, away from other things in your life—like being indoors, protected from a storm outside. That feeling of inner safety helps your mind become quieter.

When a bird flies, it flaps its wings. When it lands, it can rest. When your mind is busy, it’s “flying around,” thinking about things in your life. When you feel calmness deep in your chest and heart, your mind likes that feeling and rests in it.

Your mind then becomes quiet because it’s resting in comfort inside you—it’s not outside you, flying around.

Your mind resting in comfort deep in your chest is a feeling of being protected and safe, away from things you usually think about. When your mind rests in comfort deep in your chest, your mind becomes quiet without trying to make it quiet. The feeling of being inside yourself, protected, helps you feel safe enough to ease toward sleep.

***

During the day, periodically pause, close your eyes, and for just a few breaths, allow your tongue to relax and as you exhale, feel your chest move inward. This will create a neurological pathway within you that makes it easier to feel this comfort when you want to fall asleep or fall back to sleep.

When using this process for sleep, do so without the pressure of needing to fall asleep or back to sleep quickly. Even if you are not asleep as soon as you would like, calming your heart in this way feels very comforting, even healing. This reduces anxiety about not yet being asleep, and reducing anxiety makes it easier to sleep.

The above process gives you a feeling of being protected and safe inside yourself. How to experience inner safety to help you sleep is the subject of the next article in this series. )You may also find it helpful to review my prior article "Sleep: The Ultimate Work and Life Hack," in this Psychology Today series.)

These techniques are based on the Neurosomatic Patterning for Sleep, which has been clinically tested and successfully used by Fortune 500 companies and individuals across the world—and I hope they contribute to a better night’s sleep, and life, for you as well.

Sleep well!

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