A darting squirrel. That's how one person described the state of her mind when she lies awake in bed.
Sleep does not arrive quickly to a darting mind. Nor does it arrive when the mind is actively engaged in other activities such as worrying or problem solving. Sleep is easily overridden by heightened mental activity. This is an asset when we live in harm's way, have to solve pressing problems or find escape routes at night.
When we are safely tucked into bed, however, the last thing we need is to be kept awake by our thinking. The U.S.-based National Sleep Foundation this week released new guidelines for sleep duration for various age groups, reminding us that most adults need seven to nine hours, and those 65-plus need seven to eight hours.
So how do you calm that racing mind in order to sleep? Here are some techniques to help you deal with those intrusive thoughts.
Jot it down
First, notice the nature of your awake-in-bed thoughts. Are you reviewing your day, planning your next day or making a list? Are you worrying about family, work, health issues, finances, a relationship, the effects of not sleeping? Are your thoughts floating and flitting with no real focus?
If you are making lists and plans in your head, the simple solution is to write down your items or ideas on paper earlier in the evening. If new ones spring to mind while you're lying in bed, jot them down on a notepad you keep near the bed. Avoid using your smartphone – pencil and paper is ideal.
Clear your head
If you have worries, consider which ones are productive and which ones are non-productive. For example, being stressed about the looming deadline for a work project is a productive worry because I can brainstorm a plan for meeting the deadline or extending it. I can use problem-solving techniques to resolve it.
By contrast, worrying about the possibility that I will get cancer at some time in the future is a non-productive worry. No matter how much time I spend mulling it over tonight, I will not resolve it.
For productive worries, I recommend "clear-your-head time." This involves taking some time in the early evening, at least two hours before bed, to write down all the issues that are likely to come to mind when you are in bed later. This gets those thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Then, come up with a solution, at least a temporary one, for each issue.
For certain problems, you may not solve the whole situation – you will just decide on the next step, or how you will leave the issue for the night. Solutions can be things like: "I will call Beth about that tomorrow at noon," or "I will spend 30 minutes with pen and paper on Wednesday afternoon, thinking about this issue and how I can break it down into small, manageable steps."
This is a way of putting your issues to bed early so they don't disturb your sleep. If they do pop into your mind later while you're in bed, remind yourself that you have dealt with them for the night and there is nothing left to work on now. All is well.
Imagine it away
For non-productive worries and flitting miscellaneous thoughts, try using visual imagery. Think about your front door. Is there a knob or a latch? Which way do you turn the key to unlock it? If you can "see" your front door right now, in your mind's eye, you are using visual imagery. It involves taking our mind to a visual scene in our imagination and observing it. This serves to take our brain away from the active thinking and problem solving that impedes the onset of sleep.
Imagine putting all non-productive worries and random thoughts in a bubble, suitcase, trunk, box, cupboard or drawer for the night. I have sometimes placed an issue in a bubble that I have then blown far, far away. You will find your own favourite visual method to release or shelve your non-productive worries.
Do a reality check
Worries about not sleeping are very common among people who haven't slept well for a long time. What are your particular thoughts and fears? A common one goes like this: "If I don't get a good sleep, I won't be able to function tomorrow and it will be terrible."
Have a look at such thoughts in the light of day. You may see that they are tilted toward the negative in an all-or-nothing way. Consider the worry about not functioning the next day – research shows that people with insomnia usually function quite well, even after a particularly poor night's sleep. Work feels harder to do, and you may feel more irritable than usual, but other people are much less likely than you are to see changes in your functioning. The changes are more subtle than they feel.
A balanced thought would be: "If I don't get a good sleep, I may not feel the greatest, but I will still function and get through the day." This new thought is rather boring and less likely to keep you awake.
Get out of bed
You're in bed and the thoughts start again? If it's been more than about 10 minutes, get out of bed and occupy yourself with a quiet activity in another room. This prevents forming or strengthening an automatic association between your bed and mental over-activity. Return to bed when you feel sleepy, for example when your vision gets blurry, you lose track of what you're doing or you are yawning.
What to do with your mind once you're back in bed? Research shows that as we drift off to sleep, we have "hypnagogic mentation," which is often fleeting visual images. These images are moving and may include patterns of objects we have recently been watching. If you are in bed, why not shift your mind toward hypnagogic images by "seeing" your front door, or "seeing" the chair in your living room?
Even the darting squirrel can fall asleep.
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Dr. Judith R. Davidson is a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher. She works with the Kingston Family Health Team and Queen's University at Kingston. She is the author of Sink into Sleep: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia. You can follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at @JudithRDavidson