10 ways to help a racing mind when you’re lying in bed
I think I can safely say that everyone has laid awake at night with their thoughts racing all over the place. Perhaps the night before a job interview you played the interview out in your mind like you were actually there, rehearsing how you would respond to the questions they might ask you, worrying about what they will think of you and whether you’ll get the job or not. Or maybe the night before the holiday of a lifetime you were so excited about all the things you are going to see, eat, drink and do, running through whether you have packed everything and doing some last minute planning on how you are getting to the airport. Or maybe you had an argument with a friend earlier in the day and you replayed the conversation in your mind, thinking about the things you wished you hadn’t said and the things that you didn’t because they only popped into your mind afterwards.
Whilst this can be frustrating especially as it disrupts your sleep, generally, once the job interview is over, you’re on your holiday, or you’ve made up with your friend, your mind stops racing and you are able to drift off to sleep.
However, when people have anxiety, racing thoughts at night are more prevalent. Allowing your mind to race will lead to even more stress and anxiety, neither of which are conducive to a good night’s sleep. As you’d expect, having racing thoughts when you get into bed will hinder your ability to fall asleep. Some people find they are kept awake by their thoughts for hours which affects their overall quality of sleep and insomnia can become a problem.
So what kind of thoughts keep you awake at night? Thoughts tend to fall into the following categories:
Replaying, rehearsing and planning thoughts. I briefly touched on these kinds of thoughts in my opening paragraph. We tend to go over stuff that has happened and think about all the eventualities of something to come. You might think about things that have happened in your past, either recent things or those that happened way back when. You might run through what happened during your day. You might think about the things you have to do tomorrow or about some event that you have coming up in the future.
Thinking about life’s circumstances/problems. If you have something going on in your life that is demanding your attention or you have changed some part of your life recently, you might find yourself thinking about it. This doesn’t necessarily have to be something negative either. You might think about your work or responsibilities, your health, or your personal life, for example.
Problem-solving thoughts. Naturally, when we have a problem, we want to fix it and so your thoughts can turn to trying to find a solution to what is going on for you. You might think about the reasons you have anxiety and how you can get rid of it. Or if sleep has become an issue for you perhaps you’re thinking of all the ways to help you get to sleep.
Focusing on your body. When you’re in bed and the lights are off, your senses can become heightened. If you’re lying awake you might start thinking about how tired and sleepy you feel or how mentally awake you are. You might be very aware of your heartbeat or your breathing which reminds you of how stressed and anxious you are.
Thinking about emotions. Inevitably, if you’re thinking about things that stress you out, you’re going to start feeling some emotions. These emotions can then become a focus. You might start thinking about how nervous or anxious you feel, or how frustrated or annoyed you are, for example.
Thinking about thinking. These kinds of thoughts tend to come when you’ve been awake for a while. You might start thinking about the thoughts you’re having, what they might mean. You’re aware that thinking isn’t helping you but you just can’t stop your mind from racing.
When people regularly get poor sleep because their thoughts are keeping them awake, they then have something else to think about - sleep and the implications of not getting enough. You might check the time on your alarm clock regularly and then panic that you’ve only got 3 hours until you have to get up. If you don’t clock watch, you might be thinking about how long you’ve been awake and whether you’re going to get any sleep at all. You might think about how you’ll function tomorrow on very little sleep.
Phew! Just writing that list of thoughts made me feel a bit stressed. Yet we go over and over these things in bed and expect to still be able to go to sleep!
I am sure you have tried to block the thoughts out or said to yourself “stop thinking about that”. But as you’ve probably found out, this doesn’t work. If I were to say to you to not think of a blue elephant, you’ll find that your mind keeps wandering back to it and the harder you try, the more the blue elephant remains in focus.
So instead, when you notice that you’re going over things in your mind, consciously choose what to think about. You can’t stop your brain from thinking but you can think about something that is neutral, that has no worry or emotion attached to it, will give you some respite, help you to relax, and hopefully allow you to drift off to sleep
Here are ten ways that you can help your racing mind:
Putting the day to bed. It’s a great way to get all those thoughts out of your head about the past and future. The idea is that you’re giving time to your thoughts ahead of bedtime so that you don’t lie awake thinking them when you get in bed. This is best done a couple hours before you go to bed. Think about what your day has been like, what you did, and how you feel about the day overall. Then write down a few of the main points. Write down what has been good about your day as well as anything that has troubled you. I often get my clients to write down three positive things about their day so this would be a good time to do that too. Write down anything that is leftover from the day that you need to do and put it on a ‘to do’ list if you have one. You could leave it at that but I like to think about what tomorrow has in store and anything else I have coming up in the not too distant future. Write down a few of the main points. Plan your day and what you want to get done, that way you know where you’re at. Write down anything you are unsure of so that you can look into it further the next day. Feel free to write anything else down if you feel it would help get it out of your head. Be sure to write all this down rather than just think it as the act of writing can be very therapeutic but also you have everything stored somewhere so that you can refer back to it should you need to. When you’re in bed, if any of these thoughts crop up, remind yourself that you have already dealt with them earlier. Occasionally, other thoughts will come up that you haven’t worked through so you might want to write them down on a piece of paper to deal with the next day.
The 5 senses techniques. Opening up your awareness of your surroundings and what is actually happening rather than getting stuck in the past or future in your head can be very beneficial. A great way to do that is by focusing on your senses. Watch me explain this technique more fully here.
A to Z lists. Did you ever play those memory games as a kid where you had to find an animal for each letter of the alphabet and with each addition, you had to recall the whole list from A through to the point you’re at? Usually, they are played with other people but they work well by yourself too. You don’t have to limit yourself to animals either, you might choose countries, plants, vegetables, or even positive qualities about yourself. It’s a great distraction from your worrisome thoughts.
Saying ‘the’. The word ‘the’ is as neutral as they come. It holds no association or emotion. Saying ‘the’ every couple of seconds in your head can help keep out those other thoughts.
Counting backwards. Start counting backwards from 100 or 1000. To make it a little trickier, you could count in 5s or 3s for example.
Recognise that you are just thinking. When we replay or rehearse past or future events, we can feel like it’s actually happening especially if we have a vivid imagination or a good memory. As a result, emotions can surface and we can feel more anxious and stressed. It’s ok to think these things but just remind yourself that you’re only thinking. Those thoughts are not the past or the future. They are just thoughts. This can help to reduce the emotion that comes up when you think about those things.
Distance yourself from the thoughts. This builds on the previous recognition that you are just thinking. Say to yourself “I notice that I’m having the thought that…” as it helps to distance you from the thoughts and they become just thoughts rather than facts. Find out more about this technique here.
Slowing the thought movie down. Often racing thoughts are accompanied by images, almost like a movie playing out in your mind. Or it might just be the soundtrack. Imagine your thoughts projected on a screen or playing on a radio. Then imagine it slowing down. Keep slowing it down and enjoy the control that you have. You could take it a stage further if it is a movie by imagining the screen moving further away from you or draining the colour out of it in order to distance yourself from it even more.
Paced breathing. 7-11 breathing and 6-2-6-2 breathing are my preferred ratios when I carry out paced breathing. Counting and focusing on your breath acts as a distraction from your thoughts. It also triggers a relaxation response to reduce anxiety which in turn helps reduce some of the thoughts. Find out more about the breathing techniques I recommend to clients here.
Shutting your mind’s eye. Imagine that you have a mind’s eye that is responsible for imagining and thinking about things. Just like your actual eyes, your mind’s eye has an eyelid. An eyelid that can grow heavy and close. Imagine the eyelid closing and shutting out any stray thoughts, worries and doubts.
With all of these, your mind might wander back to the negative, but don’t give up, keep going. Just keep bringing your thoughts back to the technique. All of these techniques, except the first one, can be done when you’re in bed when you’re mind is racing.
There are other things you might think about doing (or not doing as the case may be) in order to help your racing mind at night. I recommend you avoid caffeine as it is a stimulant and can keep you awake making way for those troublesome thoughts to manifest. Caffeine can make you feel jittery and doesn’t help when you’re already feeling stressed and anxious - it will just increase the likelihood of negative thoughts and rumination. Spend 30 minutes to an hour winding down before bed. Do things that you find relaxing. And finally, avoid being overloaded by information. If you can avoid using social media, texting, checking emails, reading the news, and watching tv, before bed, you’ll have less stuff to preoccupy your mind.