Do you have trouble turning your brain off at night and winding down? Do you review the day and think about all the things you wish you had said and done differently when it is bedtime? Or maybe you go back deep into your memory and think about a past event that causes you distress. A busy brain can make it hard to fall asleep and sleepless nights can lead to insomnia.
Insomnia is a common disorder and over 30 percent of adults in the US claim to have bouts of insomnia. And rates of insomnia seem to be increasing as the pandemic drags on.
Struggling to quiet your mind at night is normal. Our brains are built to protect us and help us plan, worry, and anticipate danger. If this happens to you, you are not alone. This is one of the most common complaints people with trouble sleeping report. Here are some tips to help you sleep better and calm your busy mind.
Schedule Worry Time Earlier in the Day
Find a time earlier in the day and schedule this consistently as your “worry/planning time.” Make sure this time is far enough away from bedtime so that you can have some wind-down time before bed. Use this time to read or watch the news, take care of any planning needed, and write down any worries or anxious thoughts. It helps to put a scheduled time on your calendar and stick to it daily.
At first, your brain will want to worry at bedtime, as it is used to doing. Our brains like routine and habit. By doing this, we are creating a new pattern for our brains to follow. The idea is that if you are giving yourself more time during the day to worry and plan, your brain will want to do this less at night. And if you find yourself continuing to ruminate at night, write down what you are concerned about and save it for your scheduled time. Try to keep your worry time contained in this period and be consistent with it.
Stop Trying to Sleep
If you are having trouble sleeping at night and you find that your mind is racing, it is important to stop trying to sleep. This may sound counterintuitive but thinking about sleep and putting pressure on it to happen will only strengthen insomnia. If you can get comfortable with the idea of staying awake, it will be a lot easier to fall asleep.
Research shows that “paradoxical intention,” when it comes to sleep, can make it much easier to fall asleep. This means that if you are feeling anxious at night, instead of trying to sleep, try to keep yourself awake. By trying to stay awake, you can reduce your nighttime anxiety. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine even endorses paradoxical intention as an “effective and recommended therapy” for treating insomnia.
If You Can’t Sleep, Get Out of Bed
If you are lying in bed trying to sleep, you will also be reinforcing an association between the bed and worry. Think about Pavlov and conditioning here. We want to develop a strong association between the bed and sleep, as opposed to the bed being paired with worry. For some people, getting in bed automatically triggers negative and worrying thoughts.
If you are worrying at night, get out of bed. Find a quiet activity to do and only get back in bed when you are feeling very sleepy. If you get less sleep that night, that is ok. By doing this, you will reduce worrying at night and the next night it will be easier to fall asleep.
Restrict Your Sleep Window
If you are having trouble sleeping or your mind is frequently racing at night, do not try to go to sleep early. Instead, only stay in bed only for the average amount of time you are currently sleeping. At DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, we calculate this by having clients keep a sleep diary for at least 2 weeks. We then restrict their sleep window to the amount of sleep they average over two weeks.
For instance, if you typically sleep 7 hours, for example, try restricting yourself to a 7-hour window every night. That means you cannot go to bed early or sleep late, even if you have a bad night of sleep. This helps people with problems sleeping fall asleep quicker once they are in bed, by building sleep drive and consolidating sleep. And if your brain is active at night, eventually, your sleepiness will help override your brain’s business.
Wake up at the same time every day
Another strategy that can help sleep is to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what time you go to sleep. We often think we can catch up on sleep over the weekend or if we have a bad night of sleep. But in fact, that can make insomnia and anxiety about sleep worse by creating what is called “social jetlag.” It is important to keep your wake time consistent and understand that you may be tired in the short term, but this will build up sleep drive and eventually allow you to fall asleep faster at night. Being tired at night will reduce an active mind at night.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia
These strategies are a part of CBT for insomnia (CBT-i). CBT-i is an evidence-based treatment for insomnia that is shown to be more effective than sleep medication in the long-term. CBT-i helps to address the underlying causes of your trouble sleeping and will give you tools that you can use to get back to sleeping well.
If you are struggling with sleep, at DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, we can help. Please contact us for a free consultation.
Annie Miller is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in the Washington DC area. Annie specializes in working with insomnia (CBT-i), trauma (EMDR), teen mental health, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain. Interested in learning more about Insomnia Treatment? Check out DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy’s Insomnia Treatment Page.