You’re exhausted, the bedroom is dark and cool, you’ve shut off all screens and turned in early, with plenty of time to get a respectable eight hours of sleep. But even with all the right physical conditions, you can’t seem to get your mind to shut off long enough to drift into dreamland.|
Did you remember to respond to your boss’ last email?
Should you make a doctor’s appointment for that pain in your foot?
Is there enough money left in the checking account to cover the mortgage?
What was that movie from the 80s starring that actor whose name you can’t remember right now?
These types of racing thoughts are one of the main causes of insomnia. And even during the day, a mind that won’t shut off can make it difficult to focus on work, relationships and daily tasks. A busy brain can also lead to heightened stress and anxiety.
So when you can’t seem to stanch the steady stream of thoughts, worries, concerns and questions keeping sleep or work at bay, what should you do?
Schedule "constructive thinking" during the day.
If you find that your mind begins racing with thoughts and worries as soon as you get into bed, insomnia coach Martin Reed, MEd, CHES®, CCSH recommends scheduling 20 minutes or so during the day for what he calls "constructive thinking."
"Write down any worries or thoughts that are on your mind, and particularly those that tend to occur during the night," Reed suggests. "Alongside each thought or worry, write down a possible solution. If there isn’t a solution, then write that there is no apparent solution just yet."
Don’t fight the racing thoughts when they come.
After starting your constructive thinking sessions, when you get into bed at night, if you notice these thoughts appearing again, Reed says it’s best to not try to fight them. Instead, recognize that you have already processed these thoughts and worries at a time during the day when you were better able to address them. And if a new thought crops up, make a mental note of it and tell yourself that you will examine that thought in more detail during tomorrow’s scheduled constructive thinking time.
"This technique can be helpful because it doesn’t involve trying to suppress or drive away thoughts and worries that occur at night—which isn’t constructive, since it requires mental effort and activates the brain, making sleep more difficult," Reed notes. "Also, examining and evaluating thoughts and worries during the day is a better strategy, since we are more rational and better able to cognitively process problems during the day rather than at night. As a result, these thoughts and worries can have less of a negative effect."
Breathe. When you feel unable to control your busy brain, Kendra Davies, a positive psychology coach, suggests focusing on deep breathing. Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds, as audibly as is appropriate for wherever you happen to be at the moment. You can do this exercise anywhere, and you need nothing but the willingness to pause and do it.
"When our brains are hijacked by racing thoughts, anxiousness and stress, this exercise acts as a calming force for the nervous system, and can break you out of the fight-or-flight response mode," Davies says.
Take it to court.
If we had to guess, most of your racing thoughts are probably of the unpleasant variety. As humans, we tend to have a negativity bias, Davies explains, which means we tend to focus on what is (or could go) wrong—but in most instances, those thoughts stem from fear rather than reality.
Davies suggests "taking it to court" by asking yourself more questions when a racing thought tries to take your mind hostage. For instance, do you know the thought is true and valid? What is within your control? What do you need in order to take action? What would you do differently if it were impossible to think the thought? What information are you missing that might change the way you think?
"While we cannot control our thoughts, we can think a different thought," Davies says. "When our brains get hijacked, the way to counter those racing thoughts is not to resist them, but to challenge them," Davies says. "You have two brains: the primitive brain with fight or flight, and the prefrontal cortex, which allows you to rationally process and understand. This part of the brain can be strengthened like a muscle—the more you use it to take these thoughts to court, the more you learn to reframe negative or non-useful thoughts into more realistic, actionable thoughts."
Focus on the present, not the future.
According to clinical social worker Karen R. Koenig, racing thoughts are the mind’s way of frantically trying to control what cannot be controlled—other people, what will happen down the road, consequences of past actions. She recommends doing your best to stop trying to control the future.
"Change your focus to now," Koenig says. "Stay in the moment and you’ll often notice that most of the time, everything is fine."
Create a self-soothing bedtime routine.
If your racing thoughts are keeping you from falling or staying asleep, clinical counselor Lisa Bahar stresses the importance of having a healthy bedtime routine. Turn off all electronics and television a couple of hours before turning in. She also suggests finding a few self-soothing skills that enhance the senses in a calming way. That might mean using essential oils, putting on soft and cozy pajamas, drinking hot tea or using dim lighting. "The goal is to create a multi-sensory bedtime environment," Bahar says.
Also avoid doing work-related tasks in bed, which should be place for sleep, not problem solving, she adds.
If you’ve tried these strategies but are still experiencing racing thoughts that are detracting from your quality of life, contact your doctor or medical professional, who can help determine whether further treatment is needed.