Does your mind get a second wind as soon as you turn out the lights at night? Perhaps you’re plagued by worries, or perhaps it’s just a string of random musings, song lyrics, to-do lists, philosophical questions, embarrassing memories, and one-way conversations with unrelenting insomnia. It feels like there is a gaggle of excited puppies that won’t leave you alone, and the harder you try to calm them down, the faster they go bouncing around the room of your mind.
This “busy brain” syndrome is the most common complaint that patients bring to my sleep clinic. Understandably, they’re perplexed and frustrated, feeling betrayed by their own mind.
Don’t worry, “busy brain” is very treat-able. If you’ve had a lot of trouble falling or staying asleep, and it’s gone on long enough to have impacted your life, I recommend that you ask your doctor for a referral to a behavioral sleep specialist—they can rule out other sleep disorders and tailor treatment to your case in ways that even the most nuanced blogs cannot. Meanwhile, here are some universally helpful tips for calming your overactive mind at night:
Things to do during the day
1. Schedule a “Worry Time.”
Nope, this is not a typo. I mean it. Schedule a 30-minute block in your day (not at bed time!) with no distractions. During this block, you are not allowed to do anything other than worry. Let your hair down and let the worries run wild! Even better—write them down. For the problems you can solve, write down possible solutions. For the problems you cannot solve, acknowledge that they are out of your control for now and table them. When worries arise at night, you can rest assured that you’ll get to them at the next Worry Time, allowing you to gently defer them.
2. Be active, get lots of sunlight.
Build up your sleep drive (i.e., your “appetite” for sleep) during the day by being upright and active. The more sleep drive you build during the day, the more sleep drive you get to cash in at bedtime for restful sleep. Sunlight (and artificial bright light) during the day helps your body clock tell time, and this helps it to wind down at night.
Things to do in the evening
2. Create a “Buffer Zone” of at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
Sometimes, exciting activities in the evening obscures the natural sleepy cues that our bodies try to give us. Allow your body to wind down by protecting at least 30 minutes before bedtime for low-key activities. You might go through your personal hygiene routine, put on relaxing music, enjoy intimacy with your partner, or read a book. This Buffer Zone should not include activities that require intense mental activity or cause intense emotions (e.g., paying taxes).
4. write down any lingering worries/concerns.
...and make a commitment to deal with them during tomorrow’s Worry Time. Don’t mentally plan your to-do list for tomorrow. If those items are nagging at your mind, jot them down on paper and put the paper away.
Things to do in bed, if your mind is still active after lights-out
5. get out of bed.
Worrying in bed may have several causes. Perhaps it’s your first opportunity to process the day’s events or to plan for tomorrow’s tasks. Perhaps your brain has learned that bed is the place where you struggle with frustration every night, and now it’s worried about worrying. Whatever the reason, worrying in bed can become a habit. Break the habit by moving your busy brain to a different place, so that your bed can become a relaxing sanctuary again. Do a low-key activity in a different room until your busy brain winds down.
6. Occupy your mind by telling yourself a story or imagining a scene.
Telling yourself to not worry is like telling yourself to not think of a pink elephant. There it is! Instead of telling your mind what not to think about, give that excited puppy a different bone to gnaw on. Use your imagination. Create a scene as vividly as possible, with details for all five senses. Enjoy the story you create. If you can’t think of a story, mentally decorate your dream house room by room on an unlimited budget. This will decrease your physiological arousal and help you to fall asleep.
Things to do if it’s the middle of the night and your mind is still racing…and you’re getting desperate
7. hold up. Why are you desperate?
Ask yourself: What’s so bad about having an extra couple of hours to myself? Go ahead and enjoy your extra “me” time. Stop putting pressure on yourself to sleep—that’s like trying to help someone’s stage fright by shining a spotlight on them. Let yourself enjoy a low-key activity like reading a book, watching TV, journaling, doing crafts, listening to podcasts, or fantasizing about a dream vacation.
8. recall a good memory of a time when you were awake in the middle of the night.
Perhaps it was a fun New Year’s party, a date, a sleepover with a childhood friend, or a camping trip. If you can’t think of such a memory, imagine a circumstance in which it would be pleasant to be awake in the night. Take your time with this memory or fantasy, recalling it or imagining it as vividly as possible. If anxious or irritable thoughts about sleeplessness creep in during this exercise, simply acknowledge them and gently return to your pleasant memory or imagination.
At the end of the day, it boils down to: Don't fight against your mind. Work with it. Show it some compassion, and instead of berating it for being overactive at night, give it some more constructive outlets...and watch that puppy curl up and drift off with you.
"Goodnight mind: Turn off your noisy thoughts and get a good night's sleep" by Rachel Manber, PhD, and Colleen Carney, PhD