We all know the feeling—you're exhausted from the day, and you can't wait to go to sleep. As the sleepiness starts to set in, you finish up whatever you're doing and head toward bed. But then, as soon as you start winding down for the night, your mind starts ramping up. You lie in bed with your mind mulling over everything on your to-do list. You're replaying the events of the day and stressing over things to come tomorrow. What you really need and want to do is shut your brain off and fall asleep…but how?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that as many as 35% of Americans suffer from insomnia. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you're not alone. Here are seven simple principles to get a better sleep when your mind is working overtime.
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1. Validate Your Stressed-Out Mind
Remember that eager student in class who wanted to answer every single question? If she got ignored and wasn't called on, what did she do? She raised her hand higher, wiggling it and bouncing in her seat or blurting it out. Ignoring her made her fight harder to be heard. The best way for the teacher to manage the situation was to gently acknowledge and redirect her by saying something like, "Molly, you're on the ball today! I'm going to give someone else a chance to chime in, though."
Your stressed-out mind is just like Molly. The more we try to shut off our anxiety, the harder it fights to be heard. In a roundabout way, those stress thoughts are actually trying to help us be better—to remember important things and replay or foreshadow situations so we can act the best way possible. As crazy as it sounds, if you acknowledge your stressed mind with gratitude and redirect it, you have a better chance of the stress actually quieting down. Thank that part of your mind for trying so hard to help and invite it to have a seat and relax. Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., pioneered this approach of acknowledging opposing parts of ourselves in his therapy practice, and it can work wonders for stress.
2. Keep a Notepad on Your Nightstand
If a nagging thought just doesn't leave you alone, jot it down so you can address it tomorrow. Don't turn on the lights or fully sit up to write, either. Give that stress-thought the bare minimum amount of attention. It's fine if the notepad is messy with crooked writing. The objective is to satiate the anxiety and get back to the business of falling asleep.
3. Schedule a Time Later to Stress Out
The logical part of our brain goes offline late at night. Therefore, it's totally useless to mull over stressful thoughts at night when we don't have full use of our brainpower to strategize and problem-solve. Instead, schedule a time later to stress. Tell yourself you'll welcome those thoughts tomorrow morning when you can be more productive with them. "Now is the time to sleep, and tomorrow at 8 a.m. on my commute to work, I will think about all of this."
4. Offer Something Else for Your Mind to Think About
Just like saying "Don't think about a purple elephant" makes you think about just that, telling yourself not to stress about work/life at bedtime is just as counterproductive. Instead, offer something else to captivate your attention. The important thing is to make sure it captivates your attention enough to keep your mind from wandering, but make it not so thought-provoking that it keeps you awake. I recommend doing a body scan, a favorite practice I picked up from a yoga class years ago. Start at your toes and work your way through your body, sensing each body part completely and sending gratitude and relaxation right to it. It helps to imagine a warm light traveling through your body. Kids love this practice too!
5. Don't Work in Bed
Although it's tempting to get some work done in the comfort of your cozy bed, don't, when we do things in bed other than sleeping, it starts to create an association that the bed is a place where our minds are working rather than the bed being a place that we shut off and relax.
6. Get Out of Bed if You're Not Sleeping
Don't watch the clock, but if you aren't falling asleep after about 15 to 30 minutes or you get the sense that you're wide awake, get back out of bed. Yes, you will be more tired tomorrow, but in the long run, you'll get way better sleep. Why? Because when you stay in bed when you're not sleeping, your mind will start to associate the bed with wakefulness. You may tell yourself that at least you're resting, but rest is the junk food version of sleep. It feels like it's better than nothing, but if you fuel yourself on junk, you're going to run into problems. Sleep expert Michael Perlis, Ph.D., argues that when we abstain from lying in bed "resting," our bodies learn to get higher quality sleep.
7. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
You already know the basics of good sleep hygiene but probably don't practice them because you've tried and they haven't worked. Sleep hygiene alone without the above measures won't work, but it's still a critical component of good sleep health. Cut the caffeine after 2 p.m., create a bedtime routine, keep your bedroom temperature comfortable and cool, keep your sleep environment free from light and noise, and stay off your phone and laptop for at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep.
Although nearly every adult will struggle with sleepless nights at one point or another, implementing these simple tips can quickly and effectively get your sleep habits back on track and prevent chronic insomnia from developing.
Christine Lawler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and sleep specialist practicing in Las Vegas. Learn more at her website, The Peaceful Sleeper.