3 Ways to Quiet Racing Thoughts so You Can Sleep
Listen on the Positive EQ Perspective Podcast:
Have you ever been so tired and you just want to go to sleep, but you just can’t because your mind is racing?
Or maybe you fall asleep okay, but you wake up in the middle of the night and you just can’t get back to sleep.
You’re desperately trying to still your mind so you can relax and drift away to dreamland, but you can’t stop thinking about all the things you have to do tomorrow, or worrying about something that might happen, or playing over an incident that made you mad.
A busy mind is one of the biggest obstacles to sleep. And unfortunately, it just seems to go downhill from there, right?
When you haven’t slept well, it seems so much easier to get stressed out during the day or to make silly mistakes you probably wouldn’t make if you'd slept a full 7 - 8 hours.
Insomnia can be incredibly frustrating.
Finding ways that we can help ourselves to sleep better not only feels good, but it’s also good for our mental health. There is now research that indicates that most episodes of mood disorders like depression and anxiety are preceded by at least several weeks of poor sleep - so getting enough sleep can be preventative.
In today’s episode, we’ll talk about 3 techniques that you can use to improve your ability to fall and stay asleep.
All of them will help you to calm a racing mind and relieve any stress that’s getting in the way of your sleep, because it’s almost impossible to sleep in the context of these things. All of them are ones I personally use on a regular basis.
Read until the end, because while all 3 of these have been helpful to me, one of these, in particular, has just been an absolute game-changer for my sleep.
Step #1: Establish a pre-sleep routine
You know how children need a bedtime routine? Well, it turns out that we never really stop needing that.
In fact, I’d argue that the more busy and stressful our lives become, the more we need to give our minds the chance to wind down.
If you’re going straight from a busy working day into bed, or taking care of different tasks and responsibilities, whether they’re to do with work or parenting or general admin, you’re likely going to struggle to switch off.
After all, when we’re trying to get things done, we need to be alert and focused. We need to plan and analyse and make decisions... but sleep requires your mind to lay these abilities aside in favour of rest.
That means that we need to give ourselves some time to transition from one space into another.
A general rule of thumb is to allow at least 90 minutes to wind down before bed. However, this is going to be different for all of us and it can change depending on our stress level at any given time. Personally, if my days are particularly busy or my stress level is higher, I'll find I need longer than that.
Having a pre-sleep routine works for a number of reasons.
One, it can help us to establish more consistent patterns of sleep. When your sleep patterns are predictable, you’ll notice that it’ll become easier for your mind to switch off and drift off to sleep.
This is because your brain will know when to start producing the hormone melatonin, which helps you to fall asleep.
Part of my pre-sleep routine is that I like to read a few pages of a good book before I go to sleep. I’ve tried to leave this out, and I just don’t sleep as well. That act of reading a few pages has become a trigger for my brain, a signal that "it’s time to go to bed now".
Secondly, you can be really intentional about using the time before you go to sleep to relax. When your mind is busy, you’re essentially in what we call a "high-activation" emotional state.
Maybe you’re anxious, or angry, or even excited about something.
What you need is to shift into a low-activation emotional state, which will then mean you’re less likely to have a busy mind when you get into bed.
Doing things that help you to shift your focus to the present moment and elicit a feeling of calm within you will help you to get there.
Maybe it’s taking a bath, or having a nice cup of tea, listening to some relaxing music, or reading a book like I do.
We typically want to stay away from exposing ourselves to too much light or using screens at this time. Creating a calm, dark environment is going to set the stage for sleep.
Step #2: Make Peace with a Lack of Sleep
Let’s imagine that you are either lying in your bed trying to go to sleep, or you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep. In addition to whatever busy-ness in your mind is keeping you awake, do you start to have thoughts about your lack of sleep?
Maybe you find yourself thinking things like, “I just can’t sleep” or “I have so much to do tomorrow and now I’m going to be exhausted!”
Not only do you have any worries or stressors that were keeping you from falling asleep in the first place, but there is often also this additional stress about the fact that we can’t sleep and the impact that’s going to have the next day.
This one was so true for me. I would think things like, “I never sleep when it’s most important to." "I hate not sleeping." or "I cope terribly without sleep.”
Another thing I would do is link any negative experiences I had the next day back to my lack of sleep. If things weren’t going as smoothly as I’d like, or I just wasn’t feeling great, I’d find myself concluding, “This is because I didn’t sleep last night. It would’ve been better if I’d slept.”
The issue is that this attitude significantly holds us back.
As we begin to think these thoughts, we become more stressed, and we put more pressure on ourselves to sleep.
It’s this cycle of stress that prevents us from sleeping.
Instead, try to replace these thoughts with ones that are grounding and trust in your ability to cope with a lack of sleep.
Some things I started saying to myself were, “I’ve dealt with lack of sleep before and I managed fine” or “It’s not the end of the world, I’ve gotten through a lack of sleep before and I’ll do it again.”
I also tried to pay more attention to how I still managed to do things even when I hadn’t had much sleep. I’d point out to myself that I’d still managed to get my work done, or that I’d still had a good time with a friend the following night. Lack of sleep hadn’t actually derailed my entire day (which is sometimes what it felt like when I was so frustrated that I couldn’t sleep!).
I learned this one just a few months ago, and I have to say that it has completely changed my sleep patterns.
Staying calm about a lack of sleep helps me to step out of that spiral where I was getting more and more stressed about not sleeping.
When we avoid getting more stressed, we’re obviously more relaxed, and therefore more likely be able to fall asleep.
And if we don’t fall asleep? At least we don’t carry that extra stress and negativity with us.
Step #3: Switch to a Relaxation Technique
Finally, if your mind is racing, it can be tempting to lie in bed and just try and switch off those thoughts.
I used to think that if I got up, surely I’d be reinforcing my wakefulness, and I wanted to force myself to learn that this is time for sleep.
However, if your mind is full of thoughts, continuing with them just gets you more and more tangled up in whatever is keeping you awake.
What we learned in the last section, regarding changing our perspective about lack of sleep, sometimes may be enough to help you fall asleep, but at other times, we need a little more.
It’s a good idea to actively shift away from focusing on the thoughts, and turn our attention elsewhere. Instead, focus your attention on the present moment through the use of a relaxation technique.
You could try taking some slow, deep breaths to soothe the brain’s stress system. 20 - 30 breaths will usually be really effective in helping you wind down.
Or you could try a specific guided technique. I absolutely love some of the relaxation techniques that the Calm app has.
You can listen to a sleep story, such as Stephen Fry's Blue Gold: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mGifCwig8I&list=PLgdxvG3Ulbiez-dGupy23jh1lITkDxy7i&index=1
Or try a relaxing body scan for sleep: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccvL_gdXbKM
If you bring these 3 techniques together, winding down with a pre-sleep routine, trusting that you can cope with a lack of sleep, and using relaxation techniques, you’ll soon find that your mind is quieter and you’ll sleep more soundly.