Have you ever laid in bed and your mind is racing, thinking about everything from that spreadsheet at work to a comprehensive list of your deepest regrets? Sleep deprivation affects your memory, mood, eating habits and your ability to function effectively. If you struggle to fall asleep or you wake up in the middle of the night and start planning and worrying, it can seem like nothing will get you to the sleep state you crave. And we all know that worrying about not being able to sleep is exactly what makes is impossible to fall asleep. Welcome to the sleep conundrum.
I am not a therapist, but a busy bee like you with a lot of practice tossing and turning at night. But because I struggle, I also want to share a compilation of methods I’ve tried that work for better sleep. I call it a lullaby for grown-ups.
For better sleep, change habits first
Don’t eat or drink alcohol close to bedtime. Have your last meal a few hours before bed.
Put away your phone or devices while in bed. Electronics are making your mind overactive.
Avoid caffeine and stimulants after a certain point in the day. For coffee drinkers, the cut-off for your last cup will depend on your sensitivity to caffeine. But if you struggle to fall asleep, consider finishing your last cup by 4pm, brewing it a bit weaker, or replacing it with herbal tea.
Create a bedtime ritual. You don’t need to devote much time to it to feel the positive effects. Set aside 30 minutes for yourself before bed to decompress. Tuck the kids and put aside obligations, chores, and screens. Meditate, stretch, relax with tea or a hot toddy, listen to soothing music or all of the above!
Being mindful of your surroundings at night can go a long way. At bedtime, you get to reward yourself with rest for getting through a hard day, and you want to feel good. Have you ever asked yourself if you’re actually comfortable? Before bed, eliminate any physical obstacles that you have control over:
Body aches can keep us awake. Do what helps your body to reduce the pain - a cold or hot compress, or pain reducers if your body/doctor allows for that.
If you’re too hot or too cold, itchy or scratchy, adjust blankets and sleepwear accordingly.
Change your physical surroundings in ways that make you feel restful. If white noise is soothing to you, turn on a fan. If that sliver of light through the window bothers you, put up a light-blocking curtain.
Instead of counting sheep, count your inhales and exhales
Perhaps you’re lying in bed as alert as ever and considering just getting up and starting your day at 1 AM. Before you give up, try some of these tips.
Bring your attention to each body part touching the bed. Notice how your stomach rises and falls. How each arm makes contact with the bed. Notice how your neck feels on the pillow, considering the weight of your head. As you notice each joint, muscle and bone, you might feel the sensation that you’re sinking into the bed. Your body might let go more..
When thoughts start invading your mind and keeping you awake, redirect them and say “thanks mind.” Replace your thoughts with 5 second counts for each inhale and exhale. Breathe deeply, counting each breath in and out for a few minutes.
Thoughts will continue to come back, because the job of the mind is to generate thoughts. When that happens, “thank” your mind for doing its job and re-focus on your breathing and your body.
The wheels of our mind don’t always know when to quit. If your thoughts keeps creeping up on you, it’s time to reason with it.
Using logic to reason with your brain
Did you know the amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for emotional processing? In our hunting and gathering days, this region of our brain alerted us to predators and dangers. When our ancestors saw a mountain lion, they became hyper-alert, their heart would race, and breathing would speed up.
Today the amygdala continues to alert us to dangers that may not be real threats. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between the sight of a mountain lion and the deadline at work. The fear response is a residual protective mechanism to prepare you for fight or flight.
That said, here’s how to reason with your brain:
Thank your brain for its service, and remember that the anxiety you feel because of your thoughts present no real danger: you will survive that presentation, family function, or interview. If guilt or past pain are the culprits of your emotional state of mind, remember they serve no purpose right now. Forgive yourself and others, even if just in this moment.
Ask yourself, “does thinking about this now solve any problems?” If not, your mind will find a way to deal with your source of worry during the day. Life will be there tomorrow. Thinking in terms of the best approach to solve problems, you can acknowledge that losing sleep won’t help anything. That said, don’t be too hard on yourself for having all these thoughts. Remember, they are natural. Your brain is just doing its job.
If you absolutely must think about something at night that you don’t want to forget by the morning then keep a notepad by your bed and write it down. Don’t go looking for the Notes app on your phone; pen and paper work best here.
Once you’ve leveled with your brain, get back to breathing
Continue deep breathing and awareness of the sensations in your body. Breathing with intention is a no-brainer solution to any stress, but it’s amazing how often we forget to do it (or sometimes how to do it). Focus on breathing deeply, and on how your physical body feels. When you feel heavier physically and a little groggier mentally, then you’re closer to being in a sleepier state.
If sleeplessness is a recurring problem for you, consider talking to your doctor and addressing potential insomnia or other health concerns that can affect sleep. Melatonin can be helpful as an option before turning to pharmaceutical drugs.
We’re all on this journey to make the most out of life but that requires giving our brains and bodies good rest. Wishing you sweet dreams. You can use some peace and a good night’s rest.
Running a small business is non-stop work, which means Ada’s blog sometimes gets pushed to the back burner. As the Executive Assistant here at People Bloom, I mentioned that I like to write, and Ada kindly offered for me to contribute blogs during busy times. I was thrilled! Now you know I like writing, but I also love to garden, cook, hike with my fiancé, and play on the pottery wheel.
I’m an office admin whiz - not a therapist. I write blog posts as a human navigating this world, a client sitting across from a therapist, much like you. Thank you for letting me share a part of myself. Maybe my journey will resonate with you, and we’ll get through this messy life together.
- Karen Lenz