How to Turn Down the Worry Brain (and Sleep Better!)

Three strategies for bringing ease in the middle of the night.

Posted Feb 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A number of years ago, we had torrential rains that turned the area right next to our driveway into a bit of a mud pit. It also happened to be the place where one of our cars was temporarily parked. When my daughter went to back the car up as she often did, the car’s wheels began to spin and sink deeper and deeper into the mud. She kept trying to move the car in the same direction—until it was literally stuck in a rut. My husband, who had more experience with this sort of thing, showed her that you actually have to move the car in an entirely different direction, to create a completely new pathway in order to get unstuck.

The Nature of the Worrying Mind

I thought of that car incident as I have been reflecting lately on the nature of the worrying mind. For me, being caught in worries can often feel like being stuck in that rut. I often want to play that worry thought over and over, as though if I just think about it long enough I will be able to solve the problem. However, the harder I try to think my way out of it, the stronger the ruminations can get, and it can even feel like a bit of an addictive loop that is very hard to escape from. This can be especially so in the middle of the night when I don’t have other activities to focus my mind on. I know this is a common experience for many people. 

Of course, our thinking brain can be immensely helpful when we have immediate problems to be solved or action steps we can take that give us some sense of personal agency. If I’m worried about finances, I can sit down and make a budget and a plan for future spending. If I’ve lost a job, I can take concrete steps to find a new one. But many of our worries involve aspects of a situation that we don’t have control over (sometimes because it hasn’t happened yet or may never happen) or involve sitting with an uncertainty that no amount of thinking will help us resolve.

As James Clear explains about the evolution of anxiety, in contrast to an "immediate return environment” where everyday actions have immediate outcomes (if you see a lion, you run away and that solves the problem), in our modern lives, we live in a “delayed return environment,” where many of the problems we worry about are future-based and can’t be solved right away. So as Clear states, we have this brain that “wasn’t designed to solve the problems of a Delayed Return Environment.”

Move in a Different Direction

That’s when it can be helpful to move in a different direction, to carve a new pathway—and to literally turn on different circuits in the brain besides the ones that are doing the worrying. This can be especially helpful in the middle of the night when many people tend to get most “stuck” with little else to focus on or do.

Some of the strategies I have found most helpful for managing middle-of-the-night worries aren’t about stopping them or trying to get rid of them (which can be hard to do and can sometimes lead to feeling stuck in that rut). Instead, these strategies involve inviting something else in. It is a bit like turning on a light in a dark room. We don’t make the darkness go away by trying to stop the darkness. We just turn on something else (the light), and in the presence of the light, the darkness fades on its own.

Help for the Worrying Brain

Because our survival brain is constantly scanning for cues of threat or cues of safety in a process called neuroception, when we can intentionally focus on cues of safety, this can help the mind and body settle.

Here are three things to try when you find yourself stuck in a worry rut while you’re in bed. Try them individually, or do all three sequentially.

1. Widen the container.

There is an adaptation of a Buddhist teaching that is commonly shared: While a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water would be undrinkable, that same teaspoon of salt in a lake would hardly be noticed. Our worries can be like that salt. When we get caught in the narrative about our worries, and make that the focus, it can feel very distressing. When we can widen our container, and hold our worries against a more expansive backdrop, they take less hold. One of the ways we can learn to “widen the container” is through the practice of mindfulnessMindfulness has been shown to lessen anxiety in people who experience generalized anxiety. 

Try this: Imagine a beautiful blue sky and sense into the vastness of the sky that holds all of the passing clouds. As worries arise, name “worry thoughts” and imagine them like clouds passing by in the sky. You don’t have to stop the clouds. They will come and go. You don’t have to get pulled into the story of the worry. Just focus on the vast, expansive sky and every time a worry arises, see it like a cloud passing by in the vast sky. 

Alternatively, you could imagine your worries like waves that come and go in the ocean, and let your mind rest on the image of the vast ocean that holds the waves. Let the worries come and go like those waves, noticing their temporary nature as they return again and again into the vast ocean that holds it all. 

Notice and name “worries” each time they arise and then watch the wave or cloud fade as you focus on the vast container of sky or ocean. If you can imagine a benevolent or compassionate quality to the ocean or sky this adds an element of care that can be helpful for many people (see number 3 below).

2. Change the radio station.

Elisha Goldstein teaches that when we are engaging our mind in something in the present moment, this is incompatible with worry. I think of this as like changing the radio station. Instead of dialing into Worry 100 FM, we change the station to Present Moment 101, focusing on something in the present moment that involves our senses. Some of the best ways we can do this in the middle of the night are by focusing on sensations in our body or on the rhythm of our breath. To get a sense of this, you might check out Christopher Germer’s “Affectionate Breathing” or “Compassionate Body Scan” meditations.

Try this: To activate a different part of your brain than that worry loop, find sensations in the present moment to focus on. You might notice the warmth of the covers and the softness of the pillow and keep bringing your attention back to those sensations again and again, and the feeling of safety that accompanies this. You might notice the sensation of your body being supported by the bed and bring awareness to the places where your body is making contact with the support underneath you and keep returning your attention to the sensations of being supported (e.g., the softness of the pillow at the back of my head, firmness and warmth of the mattress under my back, etc.). You might notice the rhythm of your breath and imagine the breath like rhythmical waves at the ocean that soothe and wash away tension. You might also use your imagination to call up sensations, such as picturing yourself in a favorite vacation spot, using as much detail as possible, bringing all five senses into this experience.

3. Turn on your caring circuits. 

The worry loop is an old evolutionary response that is part of our survival brain. We also have circuits in our brain and body that help us feel safe and connected (our ventral vagal pathway). When we can activate these circuits they can help us to feel more calm.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, I find it helpful to treat my worry brain like a small, frightened child. I thank it for trying to protect me, but then remind myself that I have other ways that are actually more effective to help me feel safe.

Try this: Put a hand over your heart (which helps to calm the nervous system) and call up a feeling of being cared for. You might imagine a person or people in your life who care about you, as if they are with you, offering support and care through their presence. You might imagine a compassionate being such as a beloved mentor, spiritual teacher, or imagined being, offering you care and comfort. You might imagine offering this care and support to yourself in the way a loving parent might be with a small child. You might imagine being comforted in a beautiful place in nature. Use any imagery that is helpful to feel this sense of care, and imagine that it could surround you; that you could breathe it in, and it could fill you up with each breath.

Here is a final tip: Try not to focus on “trying” to sleep. Instead, focus on finding that “sweet spot” where your body and mind feel safe and supported in the comfort of your bed. Once you find that sweet spot, your body will know what to do to find its way back to sleep. And even if you are not sleeping, you’ll be creating a more soothing environment in which to rest and reset.