What do you do when you can’t to shut off your mind at night? It’s incredibly frustrating to be stuck like this with our anxious monkey-mind. Especially when we need to get some sleep because we’ve already wasted precious time sitting in bed thinking. Over and over.

It’s like that annoying late-night friend that lingers in your living room just a tad too long after everyone else has already left the party and gone home. They just won’t take the hint to stop talking and go away. Our inability to sleep when our mind is racing is not that different. It’s an annoying companion that never leaves.

What I hate even worse is when you’re already asleep. You suddenly wake up, wide-eyed, at 3:18 AM for no particular reason whatsoever. You try to clear your mind and go back to sleep, but despite your best efforts you’re unable to. Instead, you just end up worrying. Obsessing. Over-thinking. And you simply can’t turn off your mind.

late night tv
It’s another late-night insomnia viewing of Perry Mason at 3 in the morning…

Imagine being able to control this. To win the battle over your mind and finally being able to let your body win. What would that look like?

  • You could stop these anxious, racing thoughts from waking you up even further
  • Your mind would relax and you could slow down, rather than amp-up
  • You could finally turn your brain off at night and actually get some damn sleep

Tactic #1: No Sudden Movements

Imagine you’re taking a leisurely walk in your neighborhood one fine summer evening and then, without warning, a segment of the sidewalk is abruptly broken and sticking up out of place. If you’re not paying attention, you’re likely to trip, swear loudly at the city about where your tax dollars aren’t going, and possibly need an ice pack for a pulled or twisted kneecap. What’s the problem here?

It’s simple:  There was no transition. 

shame guilt broken sidewalk
Ouch. This would probably hurt.

This concept is the same for when we sleep. Even if you’re the type of person who normally falls asleep instantly when your head hits the pillow, you’ll have more success against your mind racing if you transition into sleep, rather than jumping straight into bed. Just like the different stages of sleep, it’s not natural to suddenly move from one stage to the next. Instead, we should gradually transition out of one thing and into the next.

In order to sleep, we need to power down and gradually move from being awake to being asleep. If you find that you’re not able to get to sleep, the first tactic of good sleep hygiene states that you should start preparing for sleep at least 30 minutes earlier than you normally do. You’ll being to do more things that are congruent with slowing down, rather than revving up.

That means that during this transition phase, there are no bright computer screens, e-readers, or other shiny things to capture out attention. The lights should be dimmed. We should be thinking less about things, not more. This last one is a bit tricky, so on to the next tactic.

Tactic #2: Write it Down

It’s natural that when we stop living in the “now”, we start thinking about tomorrow. But this doesn’t work well for a smooth transition into sleep. We think about things we forgot to do today, things we need to absolutely make sure we don’t screw up tomorrow, and feel oddly productive about thinking about all of these things at the end of the day, sort of like a post-day autopsy.

In short: This is only half of the solution. If you start thinking, you’ll be doing two things:

  1. What you need or want to remember; and…
  2. Waking up your brain so that you don’t forget

Our minds can hold about seven pieces of information in our short-term memory before our abilities start to be challenged. But this requires more energy and focus (not less). In essence, we’re priming ourselves to wake up rather than slow down. Waking our brain up actually makes the situation worse.

notepad list
Yes, I make bird food

The solution is to write it down. Bypass the need to tax your mental resources during this transitory stage into sleep. For example, I tend to keep a notepad and pen by my nightstand. If something suddenly comes to mind, I write it down so that I won’t forget in the morning.

This also works for anxiety, too. If you’re worried, write it down on a list of “To Worry About Tomorrow”. That way, you won’t forget and you have a great excuse to let it go for now. You don’t have to invest any energy in being apprehensive about these thoughts because they are written down, to be dealt with tomorrow. If your mind starting thinking about something you’ve already written down, gently remind yourself that you’ve already written it down for tomorrow. It’s an effective way for managing worries, not just in preparing for sleep.

Tactic #3: The Worry Chair

All the tactics in the world won’t help in every scenario. Chances are that there may be times where neither of the previous two tactics make much of an impact. Especially if you’re not used to slowing down for the night; the first week or two may still be difficult. That’s why we need a failsafe.

First, ask yourself if you’ve actually done both of the first two tactics. If not, at least you now know what to write down on your list for what not to forget tomorrow (hint, hint). These steps work best when actually applied, so lather, rinse, repeat.

So, let’s say that you’ve successfully made the transition from busy daily life into the pre-sleep stage and and gathered your list of worries and things you don’t want to forget. But you still find that your mind is too active for sleep. What now?

Follow the magical rule of 15.

sleep bed awake
Ugh… tossing and turning without sleep

First, you allow yourself 15 minutes to try to let your mind slow down. This gives you an out without wasting hours. If, after 15 minutes you’re still unable to relax your mind, get up. Leave the bedroom. Go to a specific location outside of your bedroom that you’ve designated as the worry chair. This should be a place that you normally don’t sit in, preferably in an obscure corner of some room that is not in your bedroom.

Now, you evoke the magical number 15 again: For at least the next 15 minutes, sit and think and worry as much as you want, and write them all down. In this case, if you’re still thinking and worrying after 15 minutes, don’t leave the chair. Stay there and continue to think, until you run out of steam.

The primary principle at work here is to learn and implement a strategy to limit associating your bedroom with thinking. It’s not dissimilar to the evidence-based anxiety treatment of delaying worry until a designated “worry time”. It also avoids the whole tug-of-war with trying to convince yourself not to worry; instead, we’re letting go of the rope and saying, “go ahead, worry your heart out” (but write it down, still).

Once you’re run out of steam, you’re free to return to your bedroom and attempt to go to sleep. However, if your thoughts start up again, go back to the worry chair.

The first few times you do this, you may find that you visit your worry chair quite a bit; this is normal and to be expected. You’re retraining your mind and body, so it’s natural to get some resistance and “push-back” at first.

So Many Tactics

There are numerous more tactics for shutting off your mind for sleep than can (or should) be listed here. Everyone has their own unique take on how to get things off your mind so you can sleep. What I’ve found is that, with my patients, these three are the most popular and useful of the bunch. However, there are an abundant number of options out there. In this case, Dr. Google is your friend.

Regardless of which tactic(s) you use, the important part is to develop a structured method to approach and deal with the times that you can’t sleep. Something that isn’t too complicated, is simple to remember, and can easily be applied to your life.

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