Most people can remember a time when they have struggled to sleep because of a racing mind. This classic symptom of insomnia, referred to as hyperarousal, is common during times of stress. It may even be accompanied by the frustrating experience of feeling tired before going to bed but then feeling wired when your head hits the pillow.
A racing mind can be due to stress or anxiety but it is more likely to occur if you have not prepared well for sleep. You may need to make some changes to your usual bedtime routine to calm your mind as well as manage any stress you may be holding.
Scheduling worry time teaches your brain to deal with your stressors during your waking hours so you are less likely to ruminate about them in bed. Set aside 10-20 minutes in the early evening (not close to bedtime) to go through your worries. Write a list of issues then what you can do about these problems and when you will deal with them. Think about the day you have had and anything you are left worrying about. Think about what is coming up tomorrow and anything you need to add to your to do list. For big problems, break these down into manageable steps and schedule a time to deal with the next step.
Have a notebook by your bed, to capture any additional worries you think of when heading to bed. If you notice you are worrying in bed, remind yourself these thoughts are not helpful for sleep and you have a set time to go through any problems tomorrow then distract yourself with some relaxation techniques (see below).
Light has the ability to suppress melatonin, the hormone that helps you to know when to go to sleep. Dimming the lights an hour before bed should be part of your bedtime routine as bright light at night can keep you alert. Use lamps instead of overhead lights and avoid light-emitting devices in this time.
Not only are light-emitting devices problematic because of the effect of light on the sleep systems, what you do on these devices tends to be mentally stimulating and can contribute to a racing mind. Sleep is not like turning off a light switch. You need to take time to relax before sleep. If you work up until bedtime or are racing around doing tasks, you are setting yourself up for a racing mind when you try to sleep. Reading the news, can also set off worries while social media and browsing information on your phone can keep your brain alert. Aim to finish work at a reasonable time to allow yourself to relax in the evening and have a set time, an hour before sleep, when you turn off electronics. Then stick to non-stimulating activities like reading, listening to something, meditation or a jigsaw.
As well as helping to relax the body, relaxation exercises can help with a racing mind. Deep or diaphragmatic breathing involves a slow, regular breath from the belly. Progressive muscle relaxation is a sequence of tensing then relaxing different muscle groups around the body while working with your breath. Visit our previous post, ‘relaxation techniques to help you sleep‘ for more information on these techniques.
Sometimes people may experience a racing mind because they are not ready to go to sleep. The timing of sleep is controlled in the body by two biological systems, the circadian rhythm which is your internal body clock, and the sleep homeostat which balances wakefulness with sleep. If you go to bed too early, these systems may not allow you to sleep. By going to bed when you feel sleepy -tired (eyes feel heavy and you feel you might nod off), you are less likely to have a racing mind and are more likely to get to sleep. This may be later than your usual time so continue to wind down in dim lights.
It’s tempting to check the time when you can’t sleep but this can enhance the racing mind. Clock watching leads to thoughts about how long you have been awake, how many hours you have left to sleep and how you must get to sleep soon. These thoughts can cause anxiety and frustration, emotions that don’t pair well with sleep. If you really can’t keep the phone out of the bedroom, at least keep it out of reach so you can’t check the time. Position clocks so you can’t see them in bed or remove them from the bedroom completely.
Caffeine is a stimulant; it suppresses sleepiness and keeps you alert. It has a long half-life so it takes a while for it to be broken down in the body. If you are experiencing a racing mind at night, try cutting out caffeine ten hours before bedtime.
If you do lots of things in bed like browsing on the phone, checking emails, watching TV, drinking cups of tea, the purpose of the bed becomes confused in your brain. You want to keep the bed for sleep (sex is the only exception) so these things become associated together.
For this reason, it’s also a good idea to get out of bed if you are struggling to sleep for more than an estimated 20 minutes (remember no clock watching). Do something relaxing, in dim lights until you feel sleepy then head back to bed.
Christabel Majendie November 2022.
Christabel is a Bristol based sleep therapist and consultant, specialising in helping individuals experiencing a wide range of sleep problems. For more information on her work you can visit her website.
Christabel Majendie is not a brand ambassador and does not endorse any product of Sleep Well Drinks Limited.