As a therapist, I often hear that bedtime is one of the most anxious experiences of the day. The distractions are all gone, your day is over, and its time for rest. Yet sleep can remain elusive because you are alone with your thoughts, and usually, they are not the pleasant ones. Instead of sleep, you replay moments of your day, worries begin to rise up, and this negative thinking keeps you awake.
There is actually such thing as the “National Sleep Association,” and they have many tips for sleeping well. They emphasize avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed. They also suggest a dark, orderly sleeping space, between 63 – 67 degrees. In addition to these helpful ideas for a better night sleep I recommend intervening at the moment when you lay your head on the pillow and intrusive thoughts take over. My hope is to suggest a plan to think less and think different in order that you stay calm, in control of your thinking, and can more easily get the sleep you need.
If you are like me, bedtime is a quiet moment when the brain can rally thoughts and concerns for me to consider. If we take the bait, these concerns turn into worries. When this happens, the brain initiates an anxious response. The adrenaline system is activated and we become more ready to fight or flight than to fall peacefully asleep.
A plan for successful sleep means we must be in control of our thinking. At bedtime, we need to think less and think different. The following are practices to help:
Thinking less involves you slowing down your thinking and beginning to relax.
- Calm: Bedtime is not the time to process current events. Your space to sleep needs to be a calm space free of triggers.
- Breathe: Start will slow deep breathing at a rhythm of 6 or 7 breathes per minute.
- Relax: Sometimes it is helpful to systematically relax parts of your body starting at your toes working up to your shoulders and neck and head. If you need help you can google relaxation exercise.
- Focus: If your thoughts begin to wander, some find it helpful to recite a memorized prayer or passage.
The second part of a successful plan is to thinking different. This is a practice of putting in peaceful non-anxious thoughts so there is not a space for intrusive thoughts.
- Mediation / Guided imagery or Prayer: There are several apps that have a wealth of mediation and calming activities. Check out Insight Timer, or the podcast Mediation Oasis
- Distract: Mindfulness experts will direct you to ground yourself through your senses. To breakthrough intrusive thoughts consider what you are feeling. Clean sheets matter! Also, what can I hear?
- Listen: Using a radio can be a distraction to move you away from your racing thoughts. Listen to other pleasant sounds. There are apps with libraries of sounds, everything from white noise to thunder storms.
It is our hope that these suggestions are helpful to you as you seek to develop a more healthy pattern for sleeping well. If there are persistent thoughts that continue to haunt you at bedtime, perhaps that is a good time to talk to a counselor.