How did you sleep last night? We seem to ask ourselves this question daily, and when we do, it’s almost as if we’re taking note of our overall state of mind: How do I feel? Am I all there today?
And no wonder! It can be discouraging and frazzling when all we want is the soothing balm of sleep to heal the stress from our day, but infuriatingly, when we lie down to sleep, our brains just won’t shut off. Paradoxically, sometimes the more stressful our days are, the harder it is to quiet the brain for sleep at night.
Even if you’re one of the chosen ones who can usually fall asleep pretty painlessly, I bet there are nights when you toss and turn, unable to turn your brain off while it nags at you with to-do lists, worries, fantasies, plans, doubts, replays of embarrassing moments from 10th grade, and lyrics of pop songs that make you want to bang your head against a wall.
Your brain is always busy.
Struggling to shut your brain down for the night is actually very normal. Your brain is a busy bee! That’s because it is designed to be buzzing all the time to help you remember, anticipate, analyze, plan, problem-solve, and do all the things that make you human. So we can’t blame the brain for being active even when we’d really like for it to be quiet—it’s just our brains doing what they’re meant to do!
Instead of fighting against your brain’s well-intentioned and persistent effort, what if you work with your busy brain to protect your sleep? Below are 5 helpful tips for quieting the mind so you can snooze.
Chronic insomnia requires a different approach.
But before we get into the tips, I have a special disclaimer for those of you among the 10% of people who have chronic insomnia disorder. That means:
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep at least a few times per week.
- It's been persistently happening for over a month.
- It’s significantly getting in the way of your functioning or causing you distress.
If this sounds like you, you can of course try the techniques below, but know that they are not going to be enough to solve your insomnia problem.
Chances are you’ve already unsuccessfully tried to get rid of your chronic insomnia by doing things like following sleep hygiene guidelines, meditating, and using lavender oil. The following tips shouldn’t be used as a hammer to work even harder at your sleep—instead, talk to your doctor about a referral to a behavioral sleep medicine specialist—someone who is trained to treat insomnia with evidence-based methods.
For the rest of us who occasionally have trouble shutting down our minds at the end of the day, let's try these techniques tonight to welcome sleep with open arms.
Tip #1: Give yourself a “worry window” during the day.
This tip is going to sound counterintuitive because it means you’re programming worrying into your day. But hear me out.
During this window, you will do nothing but worry. Not even chores or some other multitasking. Instead, concentrate 100 percent on worrying about things that you cannot control.
Set aside a 15-30 minute window during the day—not at bedtime!—specifically for worrying.
Outside of this worry window, if you find your mind creeping into all of the things that concern you and all of the things you can’t do anything about, simply tell yourself, “I’ve already addressed this during today’s worry window,” or “Thank you, brain! Let’s put a pin in this and address it during tomorrow’s worry window.”
The whole point of this special window is to build a home for your worries to live in. Give them their own place to be instead of running loose all through the day and night.
You no doubt know it’s not always easy to turn off your worries—it’s like telling your brain, “No matter what, do not think of a pink elephant!” What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?
So, instead of telling your mind not to worry, give it a chance to get worries out of its system during this dedicated worry window. And outside of this time, you can always defer any lingering worries to the next dedicated period of worry time.
Tip #2: Transfer your lingering thoughts from your brain to paper.
If the worry window isn’t quite enough or you had a particularly stressful or busy day, “downloading” your buzzing thoughts might be helpful.
Your brain is juggling these thoughts and working hard to keep them spinning because—goodness forbid—you might forget to worry about something important.
I like to use the download technique right before bedtime to catch everything that’s still nagging at my mind. Sometimes, if there are well-formed thoughts worth exploring, I write them down in my journal. But you don’t need to have a dedicated journal or write in full sentences. You don’t have to be profound, poetic, or grammatically correct. Even fragments of thoughts scrawled on a napkin would work. The point is to jot your thoughts down so your brain is reassured you will not forget. You can tell yourself, “Don’t worry, brain! I’ve written it down, so I can address this tomorrow when I’m in the right state to problem-solve.”
Tip #3: Walk yourself through a scene.
Have you ever noticed how fast your thoughts can gather? Our brains are language machines, designed to be very good at telling stories using words. And all of our thoughts are just stories that our brains tell in order to help us make sense of the world. If we let them, our brains can race through these stories at 100 miles per hour, making it very difficult to get off any story train.
The good news is that there is another type of thought that goes much slower than your brain’s default story-telling mode—imagery. When you talk yourself through a scene in your mind, it’s much easier to slow down and control the pace.
You can take your time to walk from room to room in an imagined house, or from tree to tree through a memory of your favorite park. Try to fully get into the scene and use all five senses. What do the leaves on the trees look like? Is it a windy day or a still and sunny one? What do you smell? Do you hear children playing or birds chirping? Take a look at the flowers on the ground—what color are they? How do they feel between your fingers?
By doing this, you’re taking up room in your mind that your brain would otherwise dedicate to racing thoughts. Sometimes, even while you’re strolling through an imagined scene, your mind will try to distract you with nagging thoughts. That’s OK! Don’t try to fight the thoughts or push them out of your mind—you won’t win a wrestling match with that pink elephant. Instead, just acknowledge the thought, thank your brain for offering it, and gently turn your attention back to the leaf you were examining.
Tip #4: Get out of your mind and into your body.
Doing a body scan is similar to using imagery in that it takes your mind out of your racing thoughts and into a grounded space that connects with the five senses. Here, instead of walking your mind through an imagined scene, you’ll walk it through your body instead.
Start with noticing your breath. No need to change it in any way or judge it as good or bad. All you need to do is ride along and notice what it feels like. Use this rhythmic breath as your anchor throughout the body scan. Whenever you get distracted by thoughts, gently bring yourself back to the breath to get anchored here.
In fact, you can spend the whole body scan just on your breath if you’d like. Whenever you’re ready, you can bring your attention to your toes. Again, nothing to change or judge—just notice what your toes feel like. Are they warm? Cool? Tight? Loose? Wiggle them around to see what that feels like. Take your time.
Now, move your attention to the rest of your feet. Spend some time there, and then move up to your ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and the rest of your legs. Gently move your attention like this upwards, through each part of your body, taking as much time as you’d like.
Tip #5: Listen to an audiobook or podcast.
Sometimes, you may feel so frayed, or your buzzing thoughts are so persistent, that it’s hard to get into a body scan or imagery mindset. If your brain is insisting on telling stories right this minute, you can indulge it and distract yourself from the pestering thoughts by telling it a different story.
Audiobooks and podcasts can be very helpful for this. Pick something that’s overall pretty even-keeled, without too many intense sound effects, aggressive voices, or fast-paced songs. Set a sleep timer on your Audible or podcast app for around 30 minutes.
Not sure what you should tune into? National Public Radio is excellent—it’s free, there’s always something on, and the hosts tend to have soothing voices.
But don’t worry too much about choosing the “perfect” thing to listen to. What you choose to listen to doesn’t have to be boring or even calming. The point is for it to be interesting enough that your brain would rather listen to it than to your own pestering thoughts.
On the very worst nights, perhaps none of these techniques will be enough to tame your mind and summon sleep. That's OK. This happens to all of us from time to time and it doesn’t mean that you’ll be doomed to chronic insomnia, or that you’ll suffer the consequences the next day.
At this point, it might be more beneficial to just let go of your goal-oriented approach to sleep for the night. Just get up and do something else. Binge your favorite show, read a few chapters of your book, call a friend (if they’re up, too), or listen to some music. Congratulations! You get some extra me-time tonight.
Eventually, your body's sleepiness will override your busy brain and your eyelids will start to droop. That's when you'll go back to bed and enjoy your sweet dreams.
A version of this piece also appears on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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