You may have experienced this before: a busy day feeling overwhelmed with things you have to do and things you still need to get done. You’re exhausted and just trying to make it through your day. You drag yourself to bed relieved that the day is done. You need a good night’s sleep to tackle everything tomorrow.
But, instead of falling blissfully into sleep, your head hits the pillow and your thoughts switch on. Your mind is churning through all the to-do’s and all the worries you have in your life. You might notice you start thinking about one thing and then quickly jump to another, only to return to the to-do’s to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything for tomorrow.
Now you are wide awake.
Suddenly you start thinking about sleep itself. You say things to yourself like “OK – if I fall asleep right now I can still get 5 hours of sleep”. Or “if I don’t get some sleep I will never get through tomorrow”. Now instead of calming down and getting ready for sleep, your heart rate increases and you might start to feel keyed up.
Aside from the thoughts and worries about life in general, you now have worry about sleep itself! In our overworked culture, this happens to most of us every now and then. And for some of us, this happens all too often. Fortunately, your body wants to sleep and once we stop getting in our own way, it will. So what do we do when the lights go off and our minds turn on?
Here are some helpful tips:
Get out a notepad and write down all the thoughts in your head.
One of the first things to do is get that to-do list in writing so you no longer have to keep those thoughts alive to avoid forgetting something. If needed, make a schedule for tomorrow so you know what you’ll tackle and when. That way, you won’t need to stay awake trying to figure it out. But it doesn’t stop there! Move on to writing down all the actual thoughts running through your mind – whatever they are.
Don’t worry about making sense or about your handwriting. This is for your eyes only and isn’t meant to be prose. Just raw unrefined thoughts like “I’m never going to get this all done”, or “I can’t believe my sister said that”. Whatever it is – it is not time to be thinking about it. Write it all down so you have it and can give yourself permission to be done. Aside from the fact you’ve relieved yourself of the need to hold onto it all – it also tires you out to lay there writing down your thoughts.
Remind yourself it is not time to think about these things.
Now that you’ve got your thoughts out of your head and down on paper – you don’t need to churn on them right now. They are there, you can’t forget. You know what they are. You can address them tomorrow. Remind yourself that bed time is never time to think. It is not time to plan. It is not time to worry. You can acknowledge that you have all these things to deal with – you’re not tricking yourself into believing you aren’t overwhelmed. Just structuring your time so that you are not confusing sleep time for thinking time.
Although it can seem very enticing since it is quiet and you feel like you have undisturbed time, it is a slippery slope that robs you of the very rest you so desperately want. Some of my clients use imagery here, and picture putting their thoughts in a time lock safe or somewhere out of their reach. Still there – but not accessible until tomorrow.
Calm your system back down.
If you feel keyed up from all the thoughts and worries, you need to calm your system back down. There are many ways to tackle this, and you can find which one works for you through trial and error. Some of my favorites are deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, meditation, and at times cooling yourself down.
If your body temperature rose and you are warm, find a way to cool it down. I’ve actually opened my door in the winter and stood there cooling off to make this happen. Your body is much more ready to sleep when it cools down.
Start the bedtime process over.
Now that you have written down all your thoughts and given yourself permission to put them away until tomorrow, you want to engage in something to unwind again and put yourself to sleep. There are many possibilities here – and they depend on what works best for you. Personally, I keep a novel that I’ve already read next to my bed just for this purpose. If I’m awake and need to put myself back to sleep (usually in the middle of the night), I grab this book and open it to any page and just start reading. Since I’ve read it before there is no chance I’ll keep reading just to see what happened.
It’s just the act of reading that helps me zone out and fall back to sleep. You might also try reading an instruction manual – or picking up a book you find incredibly boring or difficult. Whatever you choose, the point is not to engage with the material, but keep your brain busy with something while you fall back to sleep.
Don’t put pressure on sleep.
Remember that aside from the to-do lists and things you were thinking about, worrying about sleep is a problem in itself. I always encourage my clients to talk to themselves and coach themselves. Remind yourself that if you don’t sleep well tonight you’ll still be fine tomorrow. You might be uncomfortable, but it’s not the end of the world. Take the pressure off!
If you get your core sleep (about 5.5 hours) you won’t even have a drop in performance. If you get less you can still function in most jobs – but it won’t feel so great. That’s ok. And the next day if you find your mind is full, start the process earlier. Give yourself worry time to get the to-do list down and write down the worries in your life. Address them long before you turn off your lights and lay your head down to rest.