By Michelle Drerup, PsyD, and Alex Bea, PsyD
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All is quiet. The lights are out, and your phone’s on sleep mode. You’d like to be in sleep mode, too, but your brain is relentlessly running through the list of things you have to get done tomorrow.
This happens to many people because, when we lay down in bed, environmental distractions are generally low, and we’re left alone with our thoughts.
We have the good fortune of existing in bodies with a strong mind-body connection. For most people who find themselves awake while lying in bed, their thoughts are not particularly positive in nature. So, when our thoughts are stressful, our bodies respond in a similar fashion, and our fight-or-flight system is activated.
Over time, this tendency to ruminate in bed gets reinforced, and our brains become conditioned to begin worrying when we lay down at night — the bed itself becomes associated with worry and anxiety.
Put the brakes on worrisome thoughts
Fortunately, if we’re able to calm our bodies, our thoughts often follow.
This can be achieved through slow breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques. Engaging in mindfulness-based techniques can also be beneficial in that observing thoughts and taking a curious stance – rather than buying into those negative thoughts – can reduce fight-or-flight arousal.
Similarly, learning to challenge thoughts or answering your own “what ifs” can serve to reduce anxious thinking.
Alternatives to late-night screen time
We encourage people to establish a buffer zone before going to bed that is free from screen time and other stimulating activities in order to wind down at night.
Having a 30- to 60-minute period dedicated to winding down serves as a cue to the brain that you will soon be going to bed and makes falling asleep easier.
During this time, it may be helpful to engage in breathing exercises, to read a book, to listen to music or to do some light stretching. Screen time tends to be overly stimulating to the brain, and the light that is emitted from screens delays the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles.
Some may find it helpful to keep a worry journal where you dedicate 15 minutes early in the evening to logging your worrisome thoughts. This serves as a tangible way to contain worry so that you aren’t bringing your concerns to bed with you.
You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal. Engaging in gratitude right before bedtime results in a calmer body and more positive presleep thoughts.
If nothing seems to work…
Humans experience roughly 50,000 thoughts per day. It is normal to have thoughts all day long and to experience situational anxiety, but for some people, they may feel as though they don’t have any control over their racing or worrisome thoughts at night, and this can impact their functioning.
When this is the case, these individuals may benefit from treatment with a sleep psychologist or another mental health provider.