As soon as your body hits the bed, it’s like a gun firing at the starting line. Your thoughts take off like a pack of horses, each thought racing faster than the first.
Did I do everything on my list? Did I pay the cable bill? What’s the due date on that project, again? Work has been so demoralizing lately. But I can’t quit. I’ll never find another job in this economy.
Oh, crap, I’m still awake. It’s already after midnight, which means I’ll be exhausted even before I start my daunting day.
It’s this kind of internal racket that hinders sleep for many people night after night. In their book Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts & Get a Good Night’s Sleep, authors and sleep specialists Colleen E. Carney, Ph.D, and Rachel Manber, Ph.D, delve into the many reasons our minds keep us from sleeping. They provide valuable tips and techniques that address these culprits.
Train Your Brain to Sleep
One reason your mind keeps you up is because you’ve unwittingly trained it to be alert, according to the authors. For instance, they note that if you spend many nights in bed tossing and turning or being upset that you can’t sleep, your bed has become a cue for tossing and turning and being upset.
The key, then, is to make your bed become a cue for sleepiness. The authors suggest readers:
- Avoid napping, because “…you need to associate sleep with only one location (your bed) and one time (your sleep window).” Have a plan for the times you’re most likely to want to nap. For instance, if you fall asleep watching TV, sit up straight or do some light activity like folding laundry.
- Avoid active activities in bed. Again, your bed needs to be associated with sleep only. So don’t text, talk on the phone, play games or watch TV in bed. Regarding sex, it depends on how you feel after. If you feel sleepy after sex, your bedroom is OK. If you feel alert, you could have sex earlier in the day or somewhere else in your home. “Or you may opt to make sex an exception to the rule anyway.”
- Go to bed only when you’re sleepy, which is different from feeling tired or sapped of energy.
- Get up at the same time every day. This can lead to poor sleep in the beginning, but this trains your body clock and eventually when you’re getting up at the same time seven days a week, you’ll start getting sleepy earlier, too.
- If you can’t sleep or you start worrying, get out of bed. Participate in an activity that doesn’t make you more awake, such as reading, knitting or listening to music.
“If you give yourself time earlier in the day to deal with unfinished business, your worries will be less likely to follow you to bed,” write Carney and Manber. They suggest carving out 20 to 30 minutes in the early evening for this exercise. Take a piece of paper, and divide it into two columns. For one column write “Worries or Concerns.” In the second column, write “Next Steps” or “Solutions.”
When you jot down a worry, think of the next steps you can take toward a solution. Then focus on one small step you can take. It’s especially helpful to break down your solutions into a series of small steps so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Another strategy the authors suggest is occupying your mind with something else. For instance, think about a story (just nothing that’s so exciting it keeps you awake). Focus on the details, such as what the characters are wearing and saying and what the surroundings look like. If a story doesn’t work for you, they also suggest thinking of a hobby, such as golfing or decorating a home (again, just make sure it doesn’t wake you up).
Stop Thinking Like a Poor Sleeper
If you can’t sleep, or you wake up in the middle of the night, instead of getting yourself worked up with negative thoughts like “I won’t be able to sleep all night, I’m screwed,” the authors suggest taking a matter-of-fact approach: “It seems as if my mind is too active to sleep right now. Trying to force sleep is counterproductive; I am going to go to the couch and watch a sitcom.”
Also helpful is to have realistic expectations and accurate beliefs about sleep. For instance, it’s a common belief that you need eight hours of sleep or more per night. Holding onto this belief only makes you feel more anxious when you don’t reach this number. But, in general, sleep quality is more important than quantity.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s also normal to spend up to 30 minutes trying to fall asleep or being awake in the middle of the night.
Worrying involves focusing on the future. That’s where mindfulness can be incredibly helpful: It helps us focus on the present. For instance, start with focusing your senses on your surroundings. What do you see? What do you hear? How does the temperature feel on your skin?
You also can use mindfulness to observe your thoughts, especially if your mind is always buzzing, and you feel trapped by their thoughts. Carney and Manber suggest the following exercise:
When a thought comes to mind, simply notice it and imagine the words of the thought being written on a leaf. Imagine placing the leaf on a stream and watching it float away until it disappears around a bend. Here comes another thought (leaf). Notice it. Notice the words on the leaf as it floats away. If you notice any negative emotion, accept that it is there; notice it without judgment; gently turn your attention to observing your thoughts once more. Do this as often as necessary; that is, whenever you notice yourself distracted, refocus your attention. If critical thoughts about how this exercise is unfolding arise, put those on leaves too and set them adrift.
Quieting your mind takes practice. The above tips can help.