Can’t put that racing mind to bed? Whether it’s stopping you from quickly falling asleep or staying asleep, there’s no question an unsettled mind can be a major obstacle to having a good sleep. 

“It’s one of the most common problems we hear in our sleep clinic, especially among people struggling with insomnia,” says Lawrence Chan, DO, a professor of sleep medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

The problem is more than just annoying. Racing thoughts at bedtime – even if they aren’t anxious or worried thoughts – might contribute to sleep problems in people who have insomnia, according to one study. The researchers noted that this is different from rumination, which is defined as obsessive, repetitive thinking that tends to focus on negative content.

There’s a reason many people can’t stop thinking about things before going to bed. Whether you’re exploring a new city or simply plugging away at your routine to-do list, your brain is collecting new information all day long, explains Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan Beach, California, who specialises in sleep disorders. He is also the author of The Power of When, a book on understanding your body clock and circadian rhythms.

“Often its not until you climb into bed that you have any quiet time, and all of that information, including your worries, comes flying through the door,” he says.

Anxious thoughts and rumination can also keep you awake of course. If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night and a racing mind won’t let you get back to sleep, it may mean that something is bothering you more than you’d care to otherwise admit or address, Dr. Breus says. “It’s generally a sign that something stressful is going on in your life.”

Whether you’re stressed, excited, or simply replaying your day, use these tips to help quiet your racing mind,before thinking too much at bedtime becomes a habit that’s too intense to stop on your own.

What to Do When You Can’t Fall Asleep

1. Ditch the Devices

Sleep doctors have been telling you for years to stop using smartphones, laptops, and tablets right before bed for good reason. Not only does the light from electronic screens mess with your melatonin production, which makes sleep physiologically harder to achieve, smart devices can also heighten anxiety and worry if you’re reading stressful news. This habit makes the cycle of ruminating about bothersome or unpleasant news that much worse, Dr. Chan says.

Plus, the apps, websites, and news you’re reading on such devices are meant (in large part) to keep you engaged, he adds. “The internet is designed to capture your attention so that you spend more eye time on screens, which can be a detriment to sleep,” says Chan.

To protect your shut-eye, switch off your devices one to two hours before bed, ideally, or at least 30 minutes if you can’t swing that.

2. Schedule Some ‘Worry Time’

Just as you schedule time to see friends or get a massage, do the same with your worries. Schedule 15 to 30 minutes a day, at least one to two hours before bed, to write down those worries. In addition, create at least one action item you can do to help deal with the issue. Thinking through those potential stressors earlier in the day should help ease how much you worry about them when your head hits the pillow, Chan says. “Ideal sleep depends on creating routines and schedules, and this is no different,” he says.

3. Create a Routine to Power Down Your Brain

Most people assume that sleep is like breathing: Your body will just do it. Not true. Modern-day living has created so much stimulation during the day that brains now operate at warp speed, and if you don’t give yours time to rest, it’ll continue going at that speed at bedtime, says David Brodner, MD, founder of and principal physician at the Center for Sinus, Allergy, and Sleep Wellness in Boynton Beach, Florida.

At least 30 minutes before you go to bed, start your preparations and then do something relaxing like listening to music or reading. If you keep it consistent, you’ll train your body to expect sleep after that relaxation period.

4. Keep a Gratitude List

Now that you’ve got a plan on how to deal with your worries, replace the void where those negative thoughts resided with positive ones by starting a gratitude journal, Breus suggests. The impact of those positive thoughts is greater when you write them down. So try spending a few minutes each night listing three to five things you’re grateful for.

5. Practice 4-7-8 Breathing

You’ve heard how deep breathing can help combat stress, but it can also help you fall asleep. In order to sleep, your heart rate needs to slow down, Breus says, and breathing techniques are one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal.

One of Breus’s favorites is 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold for seven, and then blow out for eight. Do this at least five to seven times to slow your heart rate.

You could also try mindfulness meditation, which helps you let go of negative and racing thoughts so you go to sleep or get back to sleep, according to the Sleep Foundation. Apps like Calm and Headspace may also help.

6. Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation

As you lie in bed, tense and relax all of your muscles one by one, starting at your toes and ending at your head. Not only is this incredibly relaxing, it also forces you to think about the physical parts of your body, directing your attention away from whatever thoughts or stressors you’re fixating on, Breus says.

7. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day is one of the pillars of sleep hygiene. It helps the mind, too. “If you try to go to bed too early, when your brain’s not ready to sleep, it will focus on other things,” Breus says, which keeps the brain excited and awake.



What to Do if You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night

1. Get Out of Bed

As counterintuitive as it may seem, climbing out of bed after about 20 minutes of worrying is the tried-and-true advice sleep doctors tell everyone they help and one of the hallmark steps of therapy for insomnia.

If you spend time in bed worrying, your brain will begin to associate the two and not be able to sleep, Chan says. You’ll create a vicious cycle for yourself, whereby your bed increasingly becomes a space where it is difficult for you to sleep.

Instead, get out of bed and do something calming, such as reading a book, doing light chores, or journalling. As soon as you start getting sleepy, head back to bed. “The goal is to increase your sleep efficiency, meaning that when you’re in bed, you’re sleeping,” Chan says.

2. Slow That Heart Rate

You may have used the 4-7-8 breathing technique or deep muscle relaxation before bed. Now try them again, as your goal is to not only lower that heart rate but also take your mind away from your thoughts, Breus says.

3. Write Down Your Worries

Keep a notepad and pen by your bed to scribble down worries that are at the front of your mind, Dr. Brodner says. This isn’t the same as pre-bed structured worry time, since you’re not creating solutions; you’re just getting your worries out of your head so your mind can rest.

4. Turn On the TV (and Half-Close Your Eyes)

This tip may be controversial, but a much-loved movie or TV show can take your mind off whatever is bothering you and potentially help you relax, says Breus.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: Yes, TVs emit blue light, which can mess with your melatonin production and make it harder to nod off. But unlike smartphones and tablets, which you hold close to your face, TVs are usually positioned “so far away that you’re not getting as much blue light as you think,” says Breus. Plus, some people aren’t actually watching TV as much as listening to it with their eyes closed, and blue light can’t penetrate closed eyelids.

Note though, that most sleep guidelines recommend against TV in bed, including some experts from the Sleep Foundation, so if listening to the TV isn’t helping you sleep, don’t do it.

It’s also worth stating that everyone has trouble sleeping from time-to-time. But if restless nights become the norm, rather than an occasional occurrence, tell your doctor. If you’re experiencing symptoms of insomnia, there are ways your doctor or a sleep specialist can help.

SOURCE: Everyday Health