So many factors can interfere with the restorative sleep we need, like light, noise, caffeine, alcohol and hormonal changes. But one of the most common complaints I hear (and deal with myself) is racing thoughts. Our busy minds resist surrendering to sleep, or they chatter energetically when we awaken during the night. 😑
Fortunately, I have found five ways that really work for me and others to calm racing thoughts, not only when we need to sleep, but also when we want to focus deeply, or be more present and enjoy an activity (in my case, Zumba class, a hike or a massage). All of these five techniques take some time and effort, but they will surely pay off over and above what we invest, in more daily serenity and better sleep (energy! productivity! relaxation! happiness!).
The five techniques also work with the brain, not against it. I’ve (finally 😁) learned that fighting, suppressing or resisting our thoughts just produces more struggle, agitation and negativity, which works against serenity and sleep.
Technique #1: During the day, turn kind attention to our minds and listen.
I tend to rush from task to task all day, with little space for reflection, brainstorming or daydreaming. If I do have open time, my first impulse is to fill it with interesting input, like a podcast (even during a walk, driving or a shower) or a good book. It’s no wonder that my mind often saves things up to tell me at night when I’m finally quiet. So it’s a great idea to leave some open space or brainstorming time for my mind to talk to me during the day. Sometimes it feels a bit scary to be alone with my thoughts, so I take it in small doses. 😬
But I know it’s helpful to take some daytime moments to listen to the typical concerns my mind tends to bring up at night, in a spirit of kind attention and non-judgmental curiosity. Am I worried about a current crisis, or an upcoming challenge? Am I trying to solve specific problems? And if so, are these problems I can actually solve, or am I banging my head against things I can’t do much about? Am I mulling over regrets and missed opportunities from the past, so I need to absorb the lesson and move on? Or am I just restless, with my “monkey mind” jumping from idea to idea?
Simply taking time when I’m calm to recognize and acknowledge these thoughts – instead of telling them to shut up, or resisting them with annoyance and fear of insomnia, as I might during the night – can have a powerful effect. If I’m not driving 😆 I use a notebook to write down whatever is coming up, from to-do lists to regrets. I can feel this paying off later; I think my mind feels reassured that I’ve been listening, so it doesn’t have to keep reminding me of worries and backlogged tasks (well, not as often 😅). And sometimes I look at my notebook and clearly see obvious next steps for issues I’ve been avoiding (my top saboteur is “Avoider”).
This “listening period” is very different from a meditation practice. For a long time, I confused the two and thought I was meditating when I was just allowing my mind to wander. In meditation, as I’ve now learned, we focus on the breath, or a mantra, and as thoughts come up, we gently observe and release them (instead of following them down their rabbit holes), letting them pass by like clouds and returning to the breath or the mantra. In even just five minutes a day, we can gradually learn and practice this skill. I’m still making progress, but it’s becoming easier for me to let go of repeating worries or distracting thoughts and return to a calm, centered state, both during the day and at night.
Technique #2: Take our brains to the dog park!
My brain often resembles an excited dog. It’s eager to race around from idea to idea. It makes noise and jumps up when I want it to be still. And it loves to chew on things long past the point of usefulness. 🐶
Taking my mind to the “dog park” once a day or so can help it release some of this energy so it can be calmer during the night or when I want to focus. This can be done anytime during the day when I can be alone and set a timer. Ten minutes is great, but even three or five minutes works fine. I might sit or lie down quietly, or take a walk. I may pick one topic that has been bothering me, or just leave the agenda open, and I invite my brain to let everything out. Bring it on! Tell me all the things! I’m listening!
This is also called a “thought download,” and free-form journaling (also known as scribbled notes 😄) during or after the session lets me evaluate the thoughts later and see what actions I might want to take.
This strategy has three great benefits. My brain doesn’t have to keep bothering me as much, like a child tugging at my sleeve, because I’m listening. My notes from the session can give me insights into where I need “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” or “the courage to change the things I can” as the Serenity Prayer reminds us. And finally, when my mind starts barking at night, I have a response: “Let’s put that away for now, but I’d love to hear about it in our next dog park session.”
Technique #3: Allow ourselves a transition period, and put the day away.
When we think about it, it’s not surprising that we can’t just “switch off” after watching an exciting movie, staring at a glowing screen, being bombarded with social media content, exercising or other wakefulness-promoting activities. Also, problematic emails, disturbing news reports or violent TV before bedtime certainly affect our stress levels during the night. I even know that my sleep can be impaired if I have reminders of stressful things, like tax forms or half-unpacked moving boxes, in the room where I sleep.
So before sleep, it makes sense to transition to activities that promote our transition to a calm, relaxed, gentle, floaty, dreamy nighttime state. And not, as I have to remind myself, beat ourselves up about what didn’t get done during the day.😖 We can give our eyes a rest from blue light, spend some alone time, listen to music, do a puzzle, light a candle, take a bath, read a real book or a Kindle Paperwhite, listen to an audiobook, or do some stretching or restorative yoga. It’s like an evening spa in preparation for our nightly meditation retreat! 🥰
Another powerful practice to preempt nighttime racing thoughts is to put the concerns of the day away by writing down plans or lists of issues to deal with tomorrow, or journaling about the worries that might come up. Then we can even physically put these notes away in a drawer, or a lovely cloth bag as a client recently suggested. I also keep a notebook by the bed; sometimes my night-active mind really does come up with a new solution or important idea that I can capture (with gentle light from a flashlight), so my brain doesn’t have to keep reminding me.
After I write everything down, when my mind wants to bring up these topics again, I can gently tell it (as I would speak to a sweet child) that now isn’t the time, but I promise to deal with its concerns tomorrow. Gratitude for these reminders (my brain is just trying to be helpful) and kindness toward myself helps carry me toward the calm sleep state I want, while getting frustrated with my mind takes me more into a fight-or-flight direction that works against sleep.
Technique #4: Turn toward the body and surrender to the present moment.
Racing thoughts are generally about the past (like regrets) or the future (plans, fears). But as we’re going to sleep, (hopefully) nothing bad is happening right now, and there is nothing else we need to do but rest. Ideally, we can let everything else go for the next 7 or 8 hours and surrender to peace, darkness and our cozy bed.
The body, the breath and the senses are powerful tools for releasing our thoughts, becoming calm and centered, and anchoring ourselves in the present moment, both at nighttime and during the day. For example, we can pay attention to the sensations of the breath, feeling our rib cage expand and our diaphragm muscle drift up and down, and also maybe count our breaths. This is a nice “boring” activity that keeps us focused on the body, puts us in a state of calm, and can easily help us drift off to sleep. We can intentionally slow down the breath, especially the exhale, which brings our body more into a state of calm (in spite of our anxious thoughts, if we are breathing slowly, our body knows we can’t possibly be in mortal danger, like needing to run from a tiger 🐯). And we can focus on opening up the lungs and breathing deeply. For years, I had a habit of breathing shallowly due to stress and hunched posture, and working on truly expanding my breath has been good for my health as well as a great tool for reducing stress.
“Box breathing” means counting the inhale, the hold, the exhale, and the hold at the bottom. For instance we might inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2, exhale for 6, and hold for 2, then keep going. We can vary the numbers as desired, but a slow exhale is especially beneficial for stress reduction, so the exhale should be equal to or longer than the inhale. When learning this technique, I often simply had to burst out and breathe! But once learned, it is extremely useful for calming and focusing ourselves. A friend recently mentioned using it in the dentist’s chair! 🦷
The body scan is another powerful method that I use often to anchor myself in the present moment and release thoughts. I scan through my body, even each individual toe, and notice any sensations there, with an attitude of caring attention and curiosity. I might also send it gratitude, or imagine touching it with a point of healing light. I sometimes use “let go” as a mantra in the body scan, thinking of each body part and repeating “let go” in my mind. I never make it through the whole body without falling asleep! It’s nice to have a guided meditation talking us through this; look for “body scan” or “yoga nidra.”
When I’m especially stressed or wide-awake, I often turn to progressive relaxation (tense/relax), which is simple but powerful. Studies show that besides promoting sleep, it can reduce anxiety and even pain. I go through various body parts (each foot, each leg, the hips, etc.), tensing them for about 5 seconds and then allowing them to relax. I may not realize how much tension I’m holding until I exaggerate it by tensing up. And moving through the body is another “boring” physical activity that helps me let go of thoughts and fall asleep. The hands and face are especially powerful areas of focus, because they take up a lot of the sensory cortex in the brain, compared to other body parts. A recent workshop participant mentioned gently grasping each finger, one by one, as a great practice for falling back to sleep. 😍
Another important principle for nighttime awakening is to avoid our natural tendency to jump into worries about getting back to sleep, or to start troubleshooting or problem-solving about the quality of our sleep. All this just pushes us further into wakeful consciousness.
Instead I avoid anything potentially stressful (including checking email on my phone; why would I do that?🧐) and remind myself that I can still get a good night’s sleep even with a few awakenings, or in the worst case, I can sleep better tomorrow night. And resting in the dark is also restorative, even if we are not fully asleep.
Then with these reassurances, my next step is to transition back into “sleep thinking” – drowsy, calm, compassionate, creative (as in dreams). (I learned about this and much more from Jennifer Piercy in her fabulous course, “Your Guide to Deeper Sleep,” on Insight Timer Plus.) I can list people and animals in my mind and send them goodwill (another calming and “boring” activity). I can imagine myself in a beautiful place and use all my senses to set the scene. I can make up a calm story or play a word game with myself, like going through the alphabet and thinking of words that rhyme with “frog.”🐸 I can reach out to my Higher Power, my deeper self, or the universe, with gratitude or for guidance. Jennifer Piercy notes that sleep is not unconsciousness; it is a different kind of consciousness, and we can benefit from its insights.
Technique #5: Use audiobooks, guided meditations, music or sounds to soothe the mind.
I learned this technique from my husband when we were posted in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with its warm-hearted people, delicious food, and distressing violence. I wear wired earbuds, and yes, they can be a bit uncomfortable (I make a little hollow in my pillow for them), and yes, it means that I sleep with my phone. But if you sleep alone you could use a speaker or just your phone’s audio (with the screen turned off).
I love the guided meditations and sleep music from Insight Timer. And I listen to audiobooks from Audible (my husband likes Scribd even better). I choose an audiobook with predictable, non-disturbing content (my favorite so far has been Salt: A World History 🧂😂) and a narrator with a pleasant voice. I set the speed on .7 or .8 so the voice is extra slow and soothing. And I set the sleep timer to 30 minutes.
There are several powerful principles at play here:
- It seems clear that during most of human evolution, people lived in small groups or tribes, and it’s likely when they went to sleep, they could hear others talking around the fire or in the common hut. The calm voice of another person reassures our brain that there is no emergency, we are safe, and we are not alone.
- The content of the audiobook or meditation, gentle music or even sleep sounds like crickets or ocean waves, gives our mind something to chew on and helps us avoid following our thoughts everywhere they want to go.
- If I reach the end of the sleep timer and realize that I was still awake for that 30 minutes, at least I learned something or practiced a meditation technique.
- Finally, I can choose content or meditations that help me cultivate a quality I want, such as acceptance, gratitude or self-compassion.
Are these techniques enough? What if they don’t help?
If you’re regularly getting less than six hours of sleep a night; if you have any indicators of sleep apnea; if you’re regularly sleepy or can easily fall asleep during a PowerPoint presentation 😆; or if you’re simply concerned about your sleep, please don’t hesitate to talk to a medical professional. A sleep tracker, like my Apple Watch, can give us clues to our patterns and disturbances, but of course the gold standard is a medically monitored sleep study.
Sleep apnea is often under-diagnosed, especially in women. Its incidence rises in post-menopausal women, and it is not often obvious. Your partner may not report snoring, and you may not have classic warning signs like waking up gasping. Instead, many women with sleep apnea simply notice “poor energy levels and fatigue.” Breathing issues at night can easily be treated, with aids including silicone nasal openers, dental devices, and of course CPAP machines (which continue to become more sophisticated and less intrusive). Treating nighttime breathing disorders can turn our health and well-being around and even lengthen our lives!
Fortunately, it’s also very possible that we can be worried about our sleep but find that we are actually OK. For instance, it’s very common to wake up once during the night to urinate, especially as we age (good to have a very dim or red night light to guide us, to avoid further stimulation). Regularly getting up more than once to pee calls for checking with your doctor, because it can have many causes, some harmless and some needing attention.
It’s also common to awaken a few times. According to sleep expert Dr. David Cunnington, women at age 50 awaken an average of 3.7 times a night! We have sleep cycles of roughly 90 minutes each, and dreaming tends to happen toward the end of the cycle. So we might wake up out of a dream with a stressed or alert feeling, especially after our later sleep stages (after 6 hours in bed is a notorious time). A good practice here is to calmly recognize that this is normal, and honor the dream process as part of the way that we process memories and emotions. I either restart my audiobook sleep timer, or try to stay in “dream thinking,” reflecting gently on the dream, realize that I am safe, feel some gratitude for that, and move into a physical practice like slow breathing.
Of course, frequent and disturbing nightmares can be a sign of PTSD, which can come from many kinds of trauma, not only war service. The good news is that PTSD is very treatable with therapy and other non-drug methods, like EMDR .
I hope these five techniques help you release racing thoughts and get a better night’s sleep. Please let me know what strategies (these or others) work best for you, either in the comments or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. 😘
And if you’d like support in exploring these and other self-care measures to improve your sleep, I’d love to talk to you on a discovery call! I’m passionate about helping others find unique ways to improve their well-being that feel great and bring more fun, energy and joy to their lives. Improving sleep can do that for sure!
Just schedule your completely free one-on-one appointment with me here. If you like, you can follow that up with a very affordable weekly Zoom health coaching program with me, or maybe you’ll attend one of my future workshops. To keep up with my fun and fierce activities, many of them free, please join my twice-monthly “Jetpack” email list here. Thanks very much for reading, and wishing you restful and restorative sleep! 😴