Sleep Problem: My Brain Won't Shut Off
When getting into bed cues that ticker in your head.
The Arianna Huffington + Furthermore Sleep Series knows that all good sleepers are alike; all bad sleepers are bad in their own way. When we asked you what your sleep issues were, you answered. Many of you said you couldn’t shut your minds off at night. The day behind you or the one ahead plays in your head; you recount conversations and write to-do lists. For the first in our four-part series, we asked Arianna Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution, and UCLA psychologist and Equinox Health Advisory Board member Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., for their take.
Waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts crowding your mind is less likely to happen if you create a transition to sleep. I provide a menu of techniques in the book, but here is my own ritual, which I treat as sacrosanct. Thirty minutes before bed, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. Then I take a hot bath with Epsom salts and a candle nearby—a bath I prolong if I’m feeling anxious or worried. I don’t sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains), but in pajamas. Sometimes I drink a cup of chamomile or lavender tea, and my nightstand holds things that help me unwind like flowers, an analog alarm clock, physical books (poetry, philosophy, novels) that have nothing to do with work, and a picture of my daughters. Each stage helps shed more stubborn daytime worries.
One thing keeping us up is worrying about our never-completed to-do lists. I have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson by my bed that begins: “Finish every day, and be done with it…” To do that, I think about advice given to me by Joey Hubbard, who directs our Thrive workshops. It’s the “mind dump.” Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night—your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning.
"I have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson by my bed that begins: 'Finish every day, and be done with it…'”
And when I’m really having trouble sleeping, or wake up with thoughts crowding my mind, I’ve found meditation to be a great remedy. Instead of stressing out about how I’m staying awake and fearing I’ll be tired the next day, I prop a few extra pillows under me and reframe what’s happening as a great opportunity to practice my meditation. If it’s the middle of the night, I remind myself that’s precisely when many avid meditation practitioners, like the Dalai Lama, wake up to get in two or three hours of meditation; this both takes the stress out of my wakefulness and adds an extra layer of gratitude to my practice. Just by reframing it from a problem to a blessing allows me to go deeper without a deadline or any distractions. I find that I both have some of my deepest meditation experiences and, inevitably, drift off to sleep at some point.
Jennifer Martin, M.D.
While many of us wish we could flip a switch and turn off our thoughts, our brain does not have an on/off switch. Social psychology experiments have shown that trying to “suppress” thoughts makes them harder to avoid. This is most certainly true for thoughts that intrude on a peaceful night’s sleep.
"Some people get 'conditioned' to worry, ruminate, plan, think
and engage their brains
during the night."
Moreover, some people get “conditioned” to worry, ruminate, plan, think and engage their brains during the night. This association is not intentionally formed. It’s the result of accidental learning. This is amplified if you try to avoid worries during the day by keeping yourself busy and distracted. After a while, lying in bed at night becomes the only time for major concerns to rise to the surface of awareness.
The following three strategies, when used consistently, can help to quiet the noise in your mind and help you get to sleep:
1. Disengage from the day long before bedtime. Create a “buffer zone” of at least 15 minutes between the active day and restful night. Put away your technology and work, and prepare for sleep. Most people spend an hour or more preparing for their day – at least a fraction of that should be devoted to preparing for sleep.
2. Allow time to deal with what’s on your mind before you get into bed at night. This is especially important during stressful periods of life. Also, avoid getting into the habit of doing serious thinking in bed. Otherwise, this will become a “conditioned response” that’s hard to change.
3. When your brain is too active for you to fall sleep, get up and do your thinking elsewhere. It’s not necessary to jump out of bed after a specific number of minutes (otherwise, you might start to worry how many minutes have passed). However, if your mind is too active to let you sleep, get up for a while and do your thinking elsewhere until you feel ready to fall asleep. At that point, go back to bed.
One final note: Some people with trouble shutting off their mind have a sleep disorder. People with insomnia disorder have persistent trouble with sleep (three nights a week for three months) that impacts their functioning during the day. If you think you might have insomnia disorder, get help. The American College of Physicians recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia as the best approach. More information about their recommendations can be found here.