Does your mind start chattering loudly as soon as you get into bed? Thoughts of what happened in the day, what you need to get done tomorrow, that comment you made that might have been misconstrued, or worries over money, time, migraine… Whatever your personal mental chatter sounds like, it can be hard to quiet your mind and get to sleep.
Here are some strategies I use. Some techniques work better at times than others, though I can’t predict which one will help on any given night. Many nights I use ALL of them.
1. Sleep-Inducing Recordings: Whether you prefer hypnosis, guided meditation, progressive relaxation or soothing nature sounds, you can find an app or recording to help you sleep. I downloaded a bunch and tried them out over time, eventually settling on Dormio as my favorite. Some podcasts are good to fall asleep to, too. A friend swears by Planet Money at bedtime, but economics podcasts get me too keyed up to relax.
2. Recite Something… Anything!: Mentally recite a song, poem, prayer, mantra or a monologue you memorized in school 20 years ago. The goal is to occupy your mind with something non-taxing, so don’t stress about remembering the item exactly. I prefer songs for this reason… as soon as I forget a line, I can move onto another song. A recent medley included songs from my favorite rock band as well as “Love is a Magic Penny,” “99 Bottles of Beer,” “The Ants Go Marching” and “Make New Friends But Keep the Old.” Not exactly a captivating concert, but it worked.
3. Put Your Thoughts Away: No matter how much you obsess about your thoughts at night, they’ll almost certainly still be there in the morning. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself of this, other times it only gets you more worked up. An indirect approach can be more effective. I imagine putting my thoughts away in a closet outside the bedroom and shutting the door. I can always get them out of the closet when I need them again. In the meantime, they don’t have to lie around nagging at me. Another useful technique is to tell myself, “My thoughts don’t need me right now.” This is again a reminder that the thoughts will still be there when I’m able to attend to them.
4. Write Down Your To-Dos: If something is nagging at you, writing it down gets it out of your mind so you can return to the next day. This recommendation graces many lists of sleep advice. Normally, I find it ineffective because writing in the dark renders the note illegible. On a recent turbulent night, I got out of bed and made a list at the dining table. The topic was weighty enough that I needed to know I’d be able to read it in the morning. I fell right to sleep upon returning to bed.
5. Alphabet Relaxation: Reciting each letter of the alphabet three times keeps your mind occupied, but doesn’t require so much concentration that it keeps you awake. The idea is to slow down your mind, so you don’t want to rush through like a kid who has just mastered the alphabet. I recite each letter as if it were echoing and in the same cadence as a bell tower going gong-gong-gong. This idea came from a hypnotherapist and, while it felt silly the first few times I did it, it is really effective. When I forget what letter comes next in the alphabet, I know I’m getting closer to sleep. I don’t think to hard on remembering it, I just go to the next letter that comes to mind alphabet. The same goes for when my mind wanders; I bring my attention back to the alphabet and restart with whatever letter comes to mind. Sometimes I move from L to W, other times I miss Y altogether. It really doesn’t matter as long as my mind is occupied.
6. Progressive Relaxation: A variety of techniques are used for progressive relaxation, but the basic idea is always the same. Start with your head or your feet and slowly work through all the muscles in your body, tensing groups of muscles, then releasing them. I like Carolyn McManus’ CDs, but YouTube also has plenty of progressive relaxations to choose from. Psychologist and migraine researcher Dr. Dawn Buse also has a guided relaxation on her website, www.dawnbuse.com.
7. Meditation: Meditation instructors are quick to point out that meditation isn’t intended to induce sleep. But when you can’t sleep because your mind is too loud, quieting your mind through meditation can be exactly what you need to nod off. Focusing on something specific, like the rising and falling of your chest as you breathe or the sensation of air moving through your nostrils, can busy your mind enough to crowd out the thoughts.
8. Imagine Your Thoughts as Clouds in the Sky: Think of your mind as a wide open blue sky. Your thoughts are clouds that float through that sky. The sky remains steady, but the thoughts are fleeting. If you get stuck on a thought, imagine it floating on by.
9. (Gently) Remind Yourself Your Thinking isn’t at its Best: The thoughts that occupy our minds at night rarely lead to breakthroughs – we’re too tired for that to happen. Instead, we’re ruminating and thinking ourselves in circles. Sleep is when our minds synthesize everything we’ve learned and considered in a day. That step is often necessary to lead to more productive ideas. (Perhaps that’s why so many good ideas come in the shower!) Gently remind yourself that your thoughts will be more helpful if you rest on them first. This shouldn’t be a judgmental, stressful sort of thought that increases the pressure to get to sleep. Instead, it is an encouragement to release the thought until tomorrow, perhaps by putting it away in the closet or seeing it as a cloud floating through the sky.
10. Savor Drifting Off: Noticing that you’re close to sleep, but not there yet can prompt thoughts of, “Come on, get to sleep already” or “Why am I not asleep yet.” These thoughts take me right out of relaxation and even further from sleep. I’ve come to appreciate those sorts of “twilight” moments by focusing on how good it feels to be so relaxed and almost asleep. I also remind myself that almost asleep is far more restorative for my body and mind than having my thoughts racing. Sure, sleep would be ideal, but being close to it is still pretty good.
Whatever strategy you use, it’s important to go easy on yourself. Getting frustrated that you’re not relaxing the “right” way or fretting over remembering the exact lines of a poem defeat the purpose of trying to relax. If your mind wanders or you forget a sentence, try to let it go and move on. This is not a test and perfection is unnecessary.