Sometimes our minds just won’t turn off when it's time for bed. Here are five ways to work with, instead of against, your busy brain and get some sleep.
How did you sleep last night? This question seems to be on everyone’s mind. When we ask ourselves about sleep, it’s almost as if we’re taking stock of our overall state of mind: How do I feel? Am I 100 percent here?
And no wonder! It can be frustrating and frazzling when all we want is the soothing balm of sleep to heal the stress from our day, but infuriatingly, when we lie down to sleep, we can’t turn off our brains. Paradoxically, sometimes the more stressful our days are, the harder it is to quiet the brain for sleep at night.
Insomnia is “in fashion” these days
Even if you’re one of the lucky people who usually have no problem with falling or staying asleep, I bet there are nights when you toss and turn, unable to turn your brain off while it nags at you with to-do lists, worries, fantasies, plans, doubts, replays of embarrassing moments, and replays of songs that make you want to bang your head against a wall.
Your brain is always busy
Struggling to turn your brain off is actually very normal. Your brain is a busy bee! That’s because it is designed to be buzzing all the time to help you remember, anticipate, analyze, plan, problem-solve, and do all the things that make you human. So we can’t blame the brain for being active even when we’d really like for it to be quiet—it’s just doing what brains do!
Your brain is also very persistent. It takes its job of helping you to stay safe and perform well very seriously, so if it thinks something is important, it won’t simply say, “Oh, it looks like you’d rather not be disturbed right now. I’ll come back later with this urgent stack of tasks to be completed and decisions to be made.” If only that were the case!
We can’t blame the brain for being active even when we’d really like for it to be quiet—it’s just doing what brains do!
Instead of fighting against your brain’s well-intentioned and persistent effort, what if you work with your busy brain to protect your sleep? I’ll share my 5 favorite tips for quieting the mind so you can snooze.
Chronic insomnia requires a different approach
But before we review those, I have a special disclaimer for those of you among the 10% of people who have chronic insomnia disorder. That means:
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep at least a few times per week
- It's been persistently happening for over a month
- It’s significantly getting in the way of your functioning or causing you distress
If this sounds like you, feel free to try the techniques I list below but know that they are not going to be enough to solve your insomnia problem.
In fact, I bet you’ve already unsuccessfully tried to get rid of your chronic insomnia by doing things like following sleep hygiene guidelines, meditating, and using lavender oil. We’ll dedicate another whole episode to why these approaches don’t cure insomnia soon. But for now, don’t use today’s tips as a hammer to work even harder at your sleep. Instead, ask your doctor about a referral to a behavioral sleep medicine specialist—someone who is trained to treat insomnia with evidence-based methods.
For the rest of us who sometimes have trouble shutting down our minds for sleep, let's try these techniques tonight to welcome sleep with open arms.
Tip #1: Give yourself a “worry window” during the day
This tip is going to sound counter-intuitive. Who wants to program worrying into their day? But bear with me.
Set aside a 15-30 minute window during the day—not at bed time!—specifically for worrying. During this window, you will do nothing but worry. You are not even allowed to do chores or multitask in any other way. Instead, concentrate 100 percent on worrying about things that you cannot control.
Set aside a 15-30 minute window during the day—not at bed time!—specifically for worrying.
Outside of this worry window, if you find your mind creeping into worry territory, starting to turn over again things that you can’t do anything about, simply you tell yourself, “I’ve already addressed this during today’s worry window,” or “Thank you, brain! Let’s put a pin in this and address it during tomorrow’s worry window.”
The point of doing this is to build a home for your worries to live in. Give them their own place to be instead of running amok all through the day and night.
You already know how hard it is to simply turn off worries—it’s like telling your brain, “No matter what, do not think of a pink elephant!” What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?
So, instead of telling your mind not to worry, give it a chance to get worries out of its system during this dedicated worry window. And outside of this time, you can always defer any lingering worries to the next worry window.
Tip #2: Download your lingering thoughts from your brain to a piece of paper
What if the Worry Window is not quite enough? Or perhaps you have a particularly stressful day and a particularly busy brain when you lie down to sleep? Your brain is juggling these thoughts and working hard to keep them spinning because—goodness forbid—you might forget to worry about something important. In this case, “downloading” your buzzing thoughts might be helpful.
Put your thoughts down so your brain is reassured you will not forget.
I like to use this technique right before bedtime to catch everything that’s still nagging at my mind. Sometimes, if there are well-formed thoughts worth exploring, I write them down in my journal. But you don’t have to have a journal, or even to write in full paragraphs or sentences. You don’t have to be profound, poetic, or even grammatically correct. Even fragments of thoughts scrawled on a napkin would work. The point is to put your thoughts down so your brain is reassured you will not forget. You can tell yourself, “Don’t worry, brain! I’ve written it down, so I can address this tomorrow when I’m in a better place to problem-solve.”
Tip #3: Walk yourself through a scene
Have you ever noticed how fast your thoughts can spin and gather momentum? That’s because our brains are language machines, designed to be very good at telling stories using words. And all of our thoughts really are just stories that our brains tell in order to help us make sense of the world. If we let them, our brains can race through these stories at 100 miles per hour, making it very difficult to get off any story train.
The good news is that there is another type of thought that goes much slower than your brain’s default story-telling mode—imagery. When you walk through a scene in your mind, it’s much easier to control the pace.
You can take your time to walk from room to room in an imagined house, or from tree to tree through a memory of your favorite forest trail. Try to immerse yourself fully in the scene, using all five senses. What does the forest look like? What’s the temperature? Is there a cool breeze, or is it very warm? What do you smell? Take a look at just one leaf on a tree—what color is it? How does it feel between your fingers?
There is another type of thought that goes much slower than your brain’s default story-telling mode—imagery.
While you’re doing this, you’re taking up room in your mind that your brain would otherwise dedicate to racing thoughts. Sometimes, even while you’re strolling through an imagined scene, your mind will try to distract you with nagging thoughts. That’s okay! Don’t try to fight the thoughts or push them out of your mind—you won’t win a wrestling match with that pink elephant. Instead, just notice the thought, thank your brain for offering it, and gently turn your attention back to the leaf you were examining.
Tip #4: Get out of your mind and into your body
Doing a body scan is similar to using imagery. It takes your mind out of the vortex of linguistic racing thoughts and into a grounded space that is more about the five senses. Here, instead of walking your mind through an imagined scene, you’ll walk it through your body instead.
Start with noticing your breath. No need to change it in any way or judge it as good or bad. All you need to do is ride along and notice what it feels like. Use this rhythmic breath as your anchor throughout the body scan. Any time you get distracted by thoughts, just gently bring yourself back to the breath to get anchored here.
In fact, you can spend the whole body scan just on your breath if you’d like. Whenever you’re ready, you can bring your attention to your toes. Again, nothing to change or judge—just notice what your toes feel like. Are they warm? Cool? Tight? Loose? Wiggle them around to see what that feels like. Take your time.
When you’re done with your toes, move your attention to the rest of your feet. Spend some time there, and then move up to your ankles, calves and shins, knees, and the rest of your legs. Gently move your attention like this upwards, through each part of your body, taking as much time as you’d like.
Tip #5: Listening to an audiobook or podcast
Sometimes, you may feel so frazzled, or your buzzing thoughts are so persistent, that it’s hard to get into a body scan or imagery mindset. That’s okay! If your brain is insisting on telling stories right now, you can indulge it and distract yourself from the pestering thoughts by telling it a different story.
Audiobooks and podcasts can be very helpful for this. Pick something that’s overall pretty even-keeled, without too many intense sound effects, aggressive voices, or fast-paced music. You can use a sleep timer on your Audible, podcast, or NPR app, for somewhere around 30 minutes.
On the very worst of nights, perhaps none of these techniques will be enough to tame your mind and summon sleep. That's okay.
Wondering what you should listen to? National Public Radio is excellent—it’s free, there’s always something on, and the hosts tend to have soothing voices.
But don’t worry too much about choosing the “perfect” thing to listen to. I’m currently listening to a spy thriller novel, and it works fine. What you choose to listen to doesn’t have to be boring or even calming. The point is for it to be interesting enough that your brain would rather listen to it than to your own pestering thoughts.
On the very worst of nights, perhaps none of these techniques will be enough to tame your mind and summon sleep. That's okay. This happens sometimes to all of us. It does not mean that you’ll be doomed to chronic insomnia, or that you’ll suffer consequences the next day.
At this point, I would recommend letting go of your goal-oriented approach to sleep altogether for the night. Just get up and do something else. Catch up on your favorite show, read a book, email a friend, or listen to a podcast. Congratulations! You get some extra me-time tonight.
Eventually, your body's sleepiness will override your busy brain, and when your eyelids start to feel heavy. That's when you'll go back to bed and enjoy your sweet dreams.