In a dark room a woman is asleep under a duvet and a guitar is leaning against the wall

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What to do when racing thoughts keep you up at night

Photo by Dmytro Betsenko/Getty

by Matt Huston + BIO





Any attempts to escape your mind or make yourself sleep are likely to backfire. Try these expert tips instead

It’s time for bed. You lay down, pull up the cover, close your eyes, and then… the thoughts come rushing in. Maybe you’re replaying a conversation from earlier in the day, chewing on a piece of unhappy news, or thinking ahead to tomorrow’s to-do list. Perhaps you start worrying about sleep itself and whether you’ll get enough of it. With the lights out and nothing else to do, it suddenly seems impossible not to focus on these thoughts. So you lie there and wait anxiously for sleep to come.

If this feels familiar, know that it’s a very common experience, according to the psychologist and sleep expert Natalie Solomon at Stanford University School of Medicine. ‘Although, when it’s happening to us, we tend to feel quite alone, right? It feels like the rest of the world is asleep.’

Some people who struggle with preoccupying thoughts at bedtime – or who wake up in the middle of the night with such thoughts – will qualify as having a sleep disorder such as insomnia, if their sleep problems are frequent and prolonged. For many others, though, this experience can come and go, and won’t reach the clinical threshold. Either way, when it happens, it can be frustrating and distressing.

If this is something you’ve been struggling with, sleep experts say there are things you can do to help yourself out. But you might have to shift your perspective. Anxious thoughts are often like quicksand: the more you try to wriggle free, the deeper they pull you in.

Attempts to ‘make’ yourself sleep can also backfire. ‘We have a term for when you’re trying to force sleep … that term is sleep effort,’ Solomon says. ‘As we put in more and more effort, we actually get into a pretty sleep-incompatible state. It’s so effortful, we’re actually growing kind of frustrated, maybe desperate or worried,’ triggering increased vigilance.

Why do you care so much? Are you concerned that you’re spread too thin?

Trying to somehow shut down your racing thoughts and force yourself to sleep, then, is probably not going to work. Here are some steps experts recommend trying instead.

Reflect on why certain thoughts are keeping you up

Rather than try to escape these thoughts, you can begin by trying to understand them differently, which could change how you react to them. ‘We have a saying that if you really want to get to know somebody quickly, and on a deeper level, ask them what keeps them up at night,’ says Colleen Ehrnstrom, a clinical psychologist and co-author of End the Insomnia Struggle (2016). Have you ever paused to wonder why certain thoughts tend to grab your attention when you’re in bed? The reasons might seem obvious on the surface (eg, ‘Work is important, so I worry about work’), but Ehrnstrom suggests it can be helpful to give this some deeper consideration. You can do that while you’re having the thoughts at night, or during the day.

A simple way to get started is to ask yourself: Why do I care? Say you’re lying awake thinking about what’s happening in politics or in the wider world. You might say that you care about these issues because you’re troubled by harm, disorder, unreasonableness and so on.

Or, say you’re lying there thinking about work – or about not getting enough sleep ahead of your workday. Why do you care so much? Are you concerned that you’re spread too thin? Are you worried that others will think you’re not ‘good enough’ if you get something wrong?

Whatever the context, you can use your reflections to point you toward the personal values that are driving your concerns. In the case of worrisome thoughts about politics, ‘We would flip around and say, so, the opposite of harm would be harmony, collaborative process … more sense of community, more sense of inclusion,’ Ehrnstrom says. In other words, these are the things you really care about and that matter to you in life.

Similarly, in the case of the worries about work, you might realise that they’re driven by how much you care about having a sense of control over your life, or about being competent at what you do.

Night thoughts tend to take on a more catastrophic quality than during the day

Why does it help to think of the values driving your nocturnal thoughts? ‘It’s normalising [the thoughts], and it’s increasing distress tolerance – like, I am having this racing thought because I care, not because there’s something wrong with me,’ says Ehrnstrom. And, she says, it allows you to ask yourself: ‘Can I choose to be caring about this … even though that means that I’m going to have some racing thoughts? And that really does, in a paradoxical way, mitigate the racing thoughts. Because choice is calming – it’s creating a sense of safety in a pretty uncomfortable situation.’

Dance with your thoughts, don’t try to control them

Whether your thoughts emerge at bedtime or upon waking at 3am, there are some additional ways you might respond more helpfully in the moment, without counterproductively trying to force yourself to sleep.

For many people, thoughts at night ‘sometimes tend to take on a more catastrophic quality than they do during the day’, Solomon says. Perhaps the shadows of deadlines, payments due, health concerns or social faux pas seem larger and more menacing. Your brain might be telling you you’ve made a big mistake, you’re falling impossibly behind, or that no one likes you. A helpful response, she says, is to recognise this risk of exaggerated, worst-case-scenario thinking at night, and to have a mantra at the ready – such as: ‘Not likely.’

Another approach is to use visualisation to give you a sense of space from your thoughts. A classic example is to imagine a stream running by, carrying along some leaves – and then to mentally ‘place’ each thought on a leaf and watch it drift downstream. ‘The thoughts are still there, but you’re relating to them a little bit differently,’ Solomon says.

Set aside some ‘worry time’ during the day

Another exercise that can take some pressure off at night is something you can do long before bedtime. It’s called ‘scheduled worry time’ or ‘designated worry time’, and it needn’t take more than a moment.

The idea is to spend a small window of time during the day – it could be five or 10 minutes, but even a couple of minutes is fine – thinking about what’s been running through your mind in bed, to give it an outlet. The goal is not to make uncomfortable thoughts and feelings disappear, ‘but to feel control over when you feel bad’, Ehrnstrom says.

To prepare, you could jot down some notes at night representing the thoughts you’re having, and then return to that list during your worry time the next day. Or, when you initiate worry time during the day, you can identify some of the things you tend to worry about at night. Once you’ve identified the worries, you might want to write down the gist of each thought – and, potentially, things such as whether there is an identifiable fear underneath, or which aspects of the worry are within or outside of your control. At the end of worry time, ‘nothing’s resolved’, Solomon points out – ‘you’ve just given some of your thought to it.’

Maybe your wind-down routine involves a warm bath, or sitting on the couch with a book

Making a habit of worry time during the day can make it easier to loosen your grip on worrisome thoughts at night, when you are likely not in your clearest or most effective state of mind anyway. ‘The intention is to send a message to the brain at bedtime: I know you care about this stuff, and I’m going to honour it,’ Ehrnstrom says. ‘But we aren’t doing that now, we’re doing that then.’

Prepare yourself to feel sleepier

One more thing you can do prior to bedtime that will help you quiet your thoughts at night is to take steps to increase your ‘sleep appetite’ – essentially, your body’s internal drive to fall asleep.

‘It can really help to take some time and transition from a busy day to a more restful night,’ Solomon says. ‘You can think of it as a wind-down time. And the days we’re tempted to skip it, the days we’ve been really busy, are probably the days we need it the most.’ Maybe your wind-down routine involves a warm bath, or sitting on the couch with a book – something that relaxes you. And it’s advised to avoid most stimulating activities, such as watching TV, in bed.

It could also be helpful to wait until you actually feel sleepy to go to bed. If you tend not to feel sleepy before you’re actually lying in bed, you might want to aim for a regular target bedtime and then head to your darkened bedroom at that time to see if the sleepy feeling arises.

If, after you’ve been in bed for a while, it feels like roughly half an hour or so has passed (by your own estimate; don’t keep checking the clock), and you’re still lying awake with your thoughts, ‘it’s not a bad idea to go ahead and get up, or at the very least sit up, and do something relaxing,’ Solomon says. Keep the lighting low as you spend some time on a calming, or even boring, activity. This break may or may not make you feel sleepy (and it could be counterproductive if you do something that’s likely to make you feel more awake) but you can give it a chance and then return to bed after some time has passed or you start to feel the pull of sleepiness.

What’s important to remember about all of these tips, Solomon says, is not that we should expect them to help us sleep right away, ‘but rather that they help how we relate to our thoughts. And they can also help quiet the mind, which is our whole goal.’

The next time you’re lying awake at night, remember you are far from the only one whose mind is whirring – even if it seems that way. If we can change how we relate to these pesky nocturnal thoughts, we might all find it easier to ride them out.





24 April 2024