Do you ever have those nights where you can’t fall asleep because thoughts are flying at you at a hundred miles a minute, bombarding you one after the other in a never-ending stream of worries? It can be nearly impossible to fall asleep during one of these assaults.
When you’re worrying or feeling angst over these thoughts, you’re putting your body on alert. Your sympathetic, or stress pathway is activated, getting you ready to “run from the tiger.” Of course the last thing your body wants to do is fall asleep and allow you to become easy prey. It stimulates you, keeps you alert and awake for as long as those thoughts attack you.
I have experienced this a few times, and have found a couple things to be particularly helpful. While there are a number of things you can do before bed to physically calm yourself down and put you into relaxation mode (parasympathetic dominance), I will focus here on some things that have helped me personally relax my mind.
Keep a notebook by your bed
You’re lying in bed with eyes closed desperately trying to drift off, and just when you think you might be close that stupid meeting you have tomorrow smacks you right between the eyes. You nearly bolt upright with the thought that you have to remember to be there on time, but also to pick up the dry cleaning and extra groceries for that party you wish you said no to, and to make sure you leave enough time to put gas in the car because the signal was on when you got home, etc, etc. If this sounds familiar, you need to keep a notebook and pen by your bed.
There’s nothing like nagging thoughts to guarantee a fitful night sleep. The remedy for this is that before you get into bed each night, write down in your notebook all the things that you want to remember to do the next day, or any thoughts that you think might come up and bite you as you hit the pillow.
Keep that notebook within reach, preferably a light also, so that when you inevitably forget to write something down, you can simply turn on the light, grab the book and jot it down. No need for it to nag you anymore. You don’t have to worry about forgetting, it’s written in the book!
Sometimes the thoughts that violate a good night’s sleep aren’t things on your to-do list. They can be worries, fears, anticipations, memories, even just random things that happened that week. These likely won’t leave you in peace by simply writing them down.
Years ago I came up with a visual that worked for me. I closed my eyes and tried to picture each of the thoughts that were circling around as a distinct image, almost like a movie scene. I would go through all the things I was thinking and bring them around me. It looked like watching several movie screens at once of all the thoughts that kept popping up. I would scan through my mind to see what else, what other scenes were there, and keep bringing each one into my imaginary theater.
Once I was satisfied that all the “scenes” were there, and they were outside of me so that I could watch them, I then imagined a gigantic vacuum cleaner. I turned that sucker on (pun intended) and aimed it at each of my thought movie scenes. I watched each scene get sucked into the giant vacuum one by one. Sometimes a scene left a tough stain or escaped and came back, so I just kept going over it with the vacuum until it left a blank space.
Once the scenes felt efficiently cleared away, I then had to fill that void with something, or the same thoughts would just crowd back in. So when the vacuum was gone, I pictured spraying that space with a golden mist. A showering light of peace and relaxation, and imagined that light pouring over my mind and body. I breathed in this light as I inhaled, and blew out any disruptive thoughts as I exhaled.
By this point I started to relax and feel calm, and often this would be enough to lull me to sleep. This may or may not work for you, but experiment with some imagery of your own to see how if feels.
Don’t force it
Trying to stop thoughts crowding your mind is kind of like trying to stop the wind blowing. It’s futile and only leads to wasted energy. Instead of stopping the wind blowing, try taking some shelter to protect yourself from the effects of the wind. Instead of battling your thoughts and trying not to think about something, instead change your perspective.
Often when thoughts are overwhelming you, it’s easy to get caught up in the middle of them. You feel like you are the thoughts. You’re being blown around in a windstorm, feeling powerless to stop them and the emotions they cause. Try thinking of yourself as separate from the thoughts. Distance yourself like an outside observer. You’re in a safe weather-proof building looking out at the storm of thoughts coming in.
The perspective of outside observer is a meditation technique that allows you to take a step back, disconnect from your thoughts, and simply let them pass through. You don’t try and stop the thoughts, you don’t judge the thoughts, you simply watch them come, acknowledge them, and watch as they pass through.
Often what happens instead is that you engage with the thoughts. You judge them, you feel connected with them, and often you struggle with them, and don’t actually allow them to leave. By calmly observing the thoughts without attaching to them, they peacefully come and peacefully go. You can choose not to engage them, simply notice them.
If becoming an outside observer of your thoughts seems difficult, that’s because for many people it is! That’s why meditation is a practice, so if you try this technique, be gentle and patient with yourself.
I would love to hear any techniques you all do that help relax your mind. Share in the comments 🙂