How To Get To Sleep When Your Mind Won’t Stop Racing

There are two major components to a good night’s sleep: being able to actually fall asleep, and sleep quality. If you don’t have both, you’re boned, and the detrimental effects can be surprisingly wide-ranging. Did you know that your sleep quality and quantity affect your smarts, your mood, and your weight?

It kind of sucks, because shitty sleep is its own special kind of torture. Tossing and turning, struggling to sleep, waking up with your heart racing… that’s just the worst. It’s a little cruel that it affects everything else about your life while it’s at it.

It will probably come as no surprise that stress plays a large part in sleep quality and duration. With sleep-deprivation causing stress and stress causing sleep-deprivation, it can sometimes seem difficult to make headway in either area. It’s a GD conspiracy.

Hopefully you’ve been trying some stress-reducing techniques lately, but forget about that for now. We’re going to attack sleep directly, stress or no stress, and get that shit under control. We’ll talk about sleep quality later, but for now, we’ll get you to sleep if it kills me.

The Racing Mind

I know this guy. The mind that won’t stop flitting from subject to subject, often choosing the most fascinating or distressing things to ponder. In psychology this is called rumination, and it’s a common feature of both depression and anxiety. Much as a cow barfs up its food and chews and re-chews it, our brains have the amazing ability to think and rethink the same annoying/worrisome thoughts until you feel like taking a sock full of quarters to your skull.

I remember back at the height of my battle with OCD (more on that later), I could rehash the same little worries for an hour before my brain, tired and flaccid, finally collapsed into sleep. I tried getting angry at myself, but that just made it harder to sleep. I tried trying really hard not to think, but that just made it harder to sleep. I struggled and I shushed, but no amount of effort would shut my brain off.

If you follow my blog, you may know where I’m going with this.

Allowing Sleep

Yeah, I want you to take a meditative approach to this. I want you to tune your brain to “allowing” rather than “forcing.”

You see, sleep is a funny thing, neurologically speaking. It’s not something that you can conjure like a memory, or solve like a math problem. It’s a trick that your brain does independent of your wants and needs. It’s a complete change in how the grand electrochemical ballet in your head is performed.

This is why it can seem so elusive, like grasping at an object and watching it puff into smoke. You can mess with your conscious mind all you want, but letting go of wakefulness is completely up to the vast network of neurons that supports your consciousness. If they don’t want you to go, you won’t.

That said, it’s not a battle. It’s not you against your brain, with one side insidiously withholding sleep until you’re so tired you want to die. Like I said, sleep is a trick your brain does, like an automatic transmission shifting gears when the right RPM is reached. Your brain is waiting for certain cues, and it’s not going to let you go unconscious until it sees them:

  1. It’s been a while since your last sleep episode.
  2. Your body is relaxed and in an expected sleep posture.
  3. Your eyes are closed.
  4. You’re done actively processing information.
  5. You haven’t completely sabotaged yourself with chemicals or light.

Think of these as the “Are You Sure?” box that pops up when you are about to do something major on your computer. Windows doesn’t want you doing something boneheaded with your operating system, and neither does your brain. If your brain falls asleep without waiting for those cues, you’ve got a medical disorder, and you might accidentally fall into a wheat thresher. Your brain doesn’t want that for you, and neither do I.

Sleep as a Habit

So sleep is a trick that your brain only does in the right circumstances. What do you do about it? First, control what you can.

If you’ve got tense muscles, that’s a cue to your brain that says “consciousness is still needed, please do not knock me out.” Progressive muscle relaxation can help.

If you’re drinking caffeine after 3, you’re boning your ability to fall asleep. Same thing with booze: If you’re using it to fall asleep, it’s screwing you out of REM sleep, and probably making it harder to sleep through the night. If you’re staring at a glowing object (say, a monitor or phone) for the hour preceding sleep, your brain thinks you’re staring at the Sun. More on this later.

If you’re trying to sleep with your eyes open, everyone is worried about you.

They follow you around the room...
Source: Malloreigh via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Finally, the racing mind thing. It turns out that you can deal with that and the tense muscles at the same time. Give the following a try, and let me know how it goes:

Lay in your normal sleep posture, and allow your eyes to close. The purpose of this isn’t sleep, but rather falling into a state of mental and physical rest. Sleep will follow.

It’s time to do a body scan. First, mentally check in to your abdomen. If it’s tense, allow it to become soft enough for each breath to gently cause it to poke out a bit. Continue breathing in this manner for the rest of the meditation. If you find that you tense back up, simply think of making those muscles soft once again.

Starting at your scalp, slowly mentally check in to your body. Check in on how tense the muscles are, and see if you can allow them to become soft, warm, and heavy. This is a process of sinking in to the surface beneath you, trusting it to support you completely. Go to your neck and shoulders, then to your back and abs. If you find any tension, let it melt, allowing the muscles to become warm and heavy. Proceed downward to your hips, allowing them to sink into the bed, softening any tension that might be keeping your legs locked, or your low back bent. Go down into the legs, checking in to your thighs, low legs, and feet.

Once you have gone from top to bottom, consider the body as a whole. Imagine your whole body becoming warm, soft, and heavy. Breath easily, and allow your attention to rest on the gentle rise and fall of your abdomen. Any time that you notice your attention going elsewhere, redirect it back to that rise and fall.

That’s the general idea. Once I’ve gotten my body into a state of restfulness, and once I’ve stopped thinking anything important, my brain tends to get the hint and shift gears. If it doesn’t, I’ll allow my mind to drift for a while, directing it toward dreamlike ideas.

The good news: If this works for you, you won’t need to do the formal meditation for long. You’ll get into your resting posture, your brain will do the rest, knowing what’s coming next. That’s a nice place to get to, and it’s achievable if you can find the pre-sleep habits that work for you.

The bad news: If this doesn’t work, you need to get up. Laying in bed without sleeping is creating an association between your bed and distress (thanks a lot, Pavlov), and we don’t want that. Go read by a soft light for a while and try again later.

If this particular trick doesn’t work for you, try the guided meditation that I’ll be posting later [update: posted!]. I’ve personally had great success going to sleep with a guided meditation, which created a similar habitual response (the guy’s voice would come on, and I’d conk out).

Let me know what you think, or if you have any ideas of your own that you’d like to share!

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