Racing thoughts make horrible sleep partners.
There are numerous things that can keep us from a good night’s sleep. When our minds refuse to shut down, it can make for a long and restless night. There are a variety of websites on how to prepare for sleep and what to do once we are in bed. A web search under “sleep hygiene” or “sleep techniques” will lead you to a lot of good information. There is a surprising amount of agreement on what helps – though there is some controversy on napping and warm baths!
The two pieces of information I will repeat here are 1) use what works for you, and 2) if sleep issues are chronic, see your doctor to check if a medical condition is the cause. However, since I like to do things my own way, I want to share my twist to what you might find elsewhere online.
Deep breathing is a valuable technique to slow down the body when you are trying to get to sleep. Focusing all your attention on your breathing can also help force out unwanted thoughts. I listen to the air and try to feel it as it passes in and out when inhaling and exhaling. I count my breaths – 1, 2, 1, 2, – instead of trying to count to 10 or backwards from 100 (as is often suggested) because I never seem to get passed five before my thoughts wander off.
When focusing on my breathing isn’t doing the trick, I take it to the next level. Guided imagery and meditation recordings annoy me with their soft voices and ocean waves, so I simplify these methods. With my eyes closed, I do not give up on the idea of sight. I look at the inside of my eyelids – first noticing the round reflection of my irises. Then, different lines and shapes – usually formless – appear floating around at a rapid pace.
Simply watching these shapes often gets rid of the racing thoughts. But if not, my thoughts come pouring in to race around with the shapes that are flying all over. There is so much going on at once that I am not able to focus on anything, and, though perhaps counter-intuitively, I am able to relax in the confusion. The downside to this technique is that it can feel uncomfortable in and around the eyes and create some tension in the rest of my body. You may not want to use this idea if it doesn’t feel comfortable.
When my thoughts are too strong and begin to take hold, I ask of the thought, “Why now?” Not angrily, but simply and wonderingly. “Why are you here now when I am trying to fall asleep?” I plaster the thoughts as they appear with “Why now?” stickers and let them drift off with the shapes floating inside my closed eyelids.
Finally, when nothing else works, I try to put the racing thoughts to use. I slow them down, focus on one at a time, and try to put myself in the center of my thoughts. When “Why now?” isn’t working, I ask “Where am I (in this thought)?” Much of our stress and tension – when trying to fall asleep and during the day – comes from playing imaginary conversations and scenarios in our heads, rehashing the day’s events and worrying about what others are thinking. So, when my thoughts race around like this, I get selfish and ask, “What do I think? What do I like? What do I want? Where am I?”
Getting back to what I think, “Where am I?” lets me get rid of all the other “stuff” associated with the thought. Thoughts become clearer when I focus only on me. Yes, the next day when interactions with others come into play, I will need and want to give up this selfishness, but at least I know now where I am. And when I’m trying to fall asleep, this thought leads me to a calmer, resting state.
Good luck on your next night’s sleep. If you give some of the ideas above a try, let me know how it goes. I’d also be interested to know what has worked for you? What helps you deal with your racing thoughts?
BTW – as for napping and warm baths… do what works for you. But, naps should be less than 30 minutes and warm baths taken an hour before going to bed!
Reggie E, MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.