How To Shut Off Your Brain When You Just Can't Sleep

How To Shut Off Your Brain When You Just Can't Sleep

By Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D. for

As our societal demands get even greater with each passing year, we find that we are "on" 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This results in greater rates of insomnia, with more and more people reporting that they just can't turn off their brains at night.

Mental over-activity is a big problem for many people, but there are some helpful techniques that might aid in quieting things down at night.

1. Give yourself some mental and physical wind-down time. We are so busy nowadays that there's just not enough time in the day to get everything done. As a result, many people are working (housework, schoolwork, job tasks, managing finances) up until bedtime. The problem with this is that sleep isn't simply an on/off switch. We need to unwind and dim our mind in order to set the stage for sleep. Allow for at least an hour before bedtime to be protected, relaxing, wind-down time. This can help create closure for the day and allow your brain to begin the process of shutting off. Wind-down should take place somewhere outside of your bedroom. Keep the lights dim and avoid using anything with a screen (tablets, phones, computers, TV), as this can make your brain think it's still daytime. Reading, light stretching, journaling and meditating are all great options. Find what works best for you and make it a nightly routine.

2. Don't worry in bed. Lying in bed with an overactive mind only serves to teach the body that the bed is a place to continue to be awake and think. Leave the bed if your mind is active and you're unable to sleep. Don't wait longer than 20 minutes to do this -- try to ballpark the time since it's best not to look at a clock during the night. When it's obvious your mind is active and you can't sleep, get up, go into a different room and sit in dim light, doing something quiet, calm and relaxing, such as repeating something you did during the initial wind-down. The act of just getting up and out of bed -- regardless of what time at night it is -- can be really helpful to stop those racing thoughts.

3. Focus on mental imagery. Believe it or not, there's something to be said for counting sheep. When we get in bed and our minds are overactive, it's hard to focus on anything else. Plus, the more you try not to think about all of the things on your mind, the more you actually think about it! Try finding something to imagine that takes a little effort to focus on. For example, outline the map of the United States in your mind or count backward by threes from 100. There's even been research looking at people who say the word "the" over and over again and notice how the letters and sounds morph with time as you focus on it: "the the the the the." This type of repetition can help keep constant mental chatter at bay.

4. Separate productive worry from unproductive worry. Worry is meant, ideally, to motivate us to complete certain tasks and get things done. Productive worry is adaptive -- when we feel anxious about something and worry about it, we take the necessary steps to solve the issue. Unproductive worry, though, is just that... unproductive. Lying in bed at night and worrying about all of the same things you stress about during the day likely doesn't help you come to any solutions. To-do lists can be really helpful in getting these things off your mind.

Shortly before wind-down time begins, which is set for at least an hour before your bedtime, take out a piece of paper. Fold the paper in half. On the top of the left column, write "Tasks/Worries" and on the top of the right column, write "Next Step Solution." Jot down all of the things that you have to do or concerns you might have on the left side and prioritize them, with one being the most important and so on. Then on the left side, think about what the next step solution might be. It is highly unlikely to be the final solution for many concerns, but it is at least the next step. For example, if you are currently unemployed and need to find a job for financial reasons, the next step solution can simply be, "Look through the help wanted ads online," or, "Send out my resume to five people." Breaking it down into smaller, more achievable goals can help keep unproductive worry from taking hold.

If it is something such as a "take out the garbage" task, write that in the next step solution: "Take out the garbage tomorrow morning." If there's no identifiable next step solution to the problem, then writing just that can help bring some acceptance to the issue: "There's nothing I can do about this, so continuing to worry about it is only serving to make me more anxious and less able to fall asleep."

Keep the paper next to your bed at nighttime, and if you begin to have an overactive mind again, remind yourself that you've written it all down and there's nothing else that can be done at night to take care of the problem. It takes practice, but this technique can be very helpful.

When To See A Specialist
If you find that you have tried some of the above techniques and they just aren't helping, consider seeing a specialist in behavioral sleep medicine (BSM). BSM specialists are specifically trained in these issues and may be able to help you sleep better on a regular basis. You can find a BSM specialist here.

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