Even when you’ve reduced your hyperarousal and optimized your sleep environment and routine, there will still be moments at night when you find you cannot fall asleep or cannot get back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.
As you have learned, our brains and bodies have an internal clock (our “circadian rhythm”) which causes them to function differently during the day and night. One consequence of this rhythm is that during the night, our brain has a tendency to be less rational than during the day. This tendency towards irrational thought can be useful at times, allowing us to come up with creative ideas that we were unable to produce during the day when we were thinking more rationally. It can lead to us suddenly understanding a concept we had been struggling with during the day. On the other hand, sometimes this tendency towards irrational thought results in us fixating on unproductive thoughts, feeling increasingly anxious. We may also get into arguments with friends or family late at night, repeating the same point over and over again, unable to understand why the other person “doesn’t get it”. In the light of day, the following morning, we are often struck by the irrationality of our thought pattern the previous night. The nighttime brain is more prone to anxiety and rumination, so even if we are feeling relatively calm during the day, underlying anxieties may pop into our brain at night.
Another phenomenon which can occur at night is an intrusive, highly repetitive, irrational thought pattern which is sometimes called an “articulatory loop”. When this happens, we might become fixated on a song lyric or musical sequence which plays over and over again in the brain. Alternatively we may think the same sequence of thoughts over and over again, looking for a solution but always ending up back at the beginning. When this type of looping phenomenon occurs, it is actually usually a sign that a bit of sleep has intruded into wakefulness causing our brain to function even less rationally. Another sign that sleep has intruded is when you realize you are having very bizarre thoughts which feel a bit like dreams (because they ARE dreams).
How to Manage an Active Mind
When you experience increased anxiety and rumination at night, or find yourself stuck in an articulatory loop, the first step is to recognize what is happening. Remind yourself that these are common nighttime phenomena and simply a byproduct of your brain functioning differently at night. Unfortunately, simply telling yourself to “stop” thinking a particular thought is rarely effective, but there are other effective techniques to reduce unwanted thought patterns when they occur.
Apart from the “get out of bed” technique, the concept behind the other techniques below is to “change the channel” on your brain away from the unwanted thought pattern to more desirable thought pattern. Do not think of these as techniques to put you to sleep, rather as a way to reduce nighttime hyperarousal and distract your brain from anxiety-provoking thoughts. When your brain is in a more relaxed, distracted state, it will often end up eventually falling asleep. Practice each technique once or twice during the day or just before bed so you are ready to use it when the moment arises. It usually takes a bit of practice to make a given technique work for you, so don’t necessarily abandon it if it doesn’t work immediately. With any of these techniques, you will find that you eventually lose focus and fall back into the initial or a new unproductive thought pattern. This is NORMAL and expected and not a sign of failure. In fact, it may mean that your mind drifted back to sleep for a moment and got stuck in the same loop as before. Simply redirect your thoughts to whatever technique you were using and try again. Eventually you will wake up realizing that you did, indeed, fall back to sleep.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to addressing the active mind at night, so we will present a variety of techniques for you to try and you can experiment to figure out which ones work the best for you.
- GET OUT OF BED. This is the most commonly recommended method to stop unwanted thoughts in their tracks. Go to another room and do something distracting for 30-60 minutes such as reading a good book, writing in a journal, planning a grocery list or meals for the week, taking care of monotonous chores (such as laundry or dishes). Either when you start to feel sleepy again or in 60 minutes, whichever comes first, return to the bed. Sometimes if you wake up stressed about a particular task you need to accomplish, you can even try getting up and doing that task, going back to sleep when you are done. Interestingly, some people sleep in 2 stretches, separated by 60-120 minutes during which they are fully awake and productive. This pattern is called “biphasic” sleep and is how europeans slept in medieval times.
- RE-LIVE AN ENJOYABLE MOMENT FROM YOUR DAY. Remember and relive a happy moment from your day. Go back to that moment and re-imagine it in as vivid detail as possible, paying attention in particular to the positive emotion you felt during the experience. Some examples: the moment you took a bite of a delicious meal or dessert; the moment your significant other arrived home after work; the moment when you were petting your dog on the couch. Take yourself back to that moment and relish it.
- COGNITIVE SWITCHING. Think intensely about unrelated things in fairly rapid sequence for 2-30 seconds, causing your brain to constantly shift what it is doing and distracting it from your unwanted thought pattern and allowing it to relax. There are many different methods to accomplish cognitive switching. Each involves focusing on a particular item for 2-30 seconds, imagining it during that time period in as vivid detail as possible, then switching to the next item. Try going through the alphabet from A to Z, thinking about an object that starts with each letter (such as a juicy red apple, a bumble bee, a car, etc.); try thinking of places you have visited in the past; pretend you are walking through an imaginary zoo, visiting each type of animal. There is also a smartphone app called MySleepButton which can teach you this technique.
- STAY AWAKE: Keep your eyes wide open and tell yourself “I’m going to stay awake. Do not sleep”. Some people find it helpful to force themselves to smile when using this method.
- LOCK UP YOUR WORRIES. In your mind, imagine a large, old fashioned trunk or treasure chest with a lock. Unlock the trunk, open the top and put your worries inside. Some people name their worries, while others simply imagine a glowing red ball or other image which represents their worries. Shut the trunk, lock it and tell yourself that tomorrow you will reopen the trunk to look inside and address the worries. You can pair this method with the “constructive worry” exercise.
- GET CREATIVE. Take the characters from a book, movie or TV show you recently watched and create additional stories for them. You can also try planning your dream vacation, “building” your dream house, creating musical tunes, paintings or any other creative project you find it enjoyable to think about. An alternative version of this technique is to visualize yourself doing something you would like to do in the future, such as running a half-marathon, becoming a manager at work, etc.
- EXPLORE. Visualize in vivid detail a happy place from your past such as a beach, a hotel or campsite, an old house you lived in, a friend’s house, a park. Revisit that location in as vivid detail as you can. For instance, for a beach scene, you would feel your feet in the sand, hear the ocean waves and seagulls, feel the breeze on your skin, smell and taste the salty sea air. Try to use all 5 senses when exploring. An alternate version of this technique uses an imaginary space that you have not been to such as a generic beach or forest scene. There are “guided meditation” scripts you can find online which can help you create a virtual scene to explore. You can also create your own “happy space” which includes positive places, people and things from your past and revisit it in your mind as needed.
- VISUALIZE YOURSELF SLEEPING. This time the thing you visualize is yourself, in your bed, deeply asleep. Perhaps you have recently even seen what this looks like in your Knit app. Watch your breathing and how regular it is, and try to match your own breathing to that of the person sleeping. Look at your position in the bed and how comfortable it appears. Go back to focusing on matching your breathing to the regular, deep breathing of the person you are watching.
- DEEP BREATHING. Spend some time practicing the deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
- MEDITATE: Meditation is a fantastic thing to do when you are awake at night, particularly when you realize you have awoken close to your habitual wake-up time but do not yet feel ready to get out of bed. While it may not be quite as good as sleeping, meditation has clear health benefits and is likely the next best thing to sleep from a restorative perspective. As a bonus, you may find that you have actually drifted off to sleep by the end of the meditation session.
- REPEAT A SOUND: Sometimes saying a sound over and over again, really trying to focus on how it sounds, can help your brain to relax. Try saying “ohm, ohm”, or “the, the”.
- LISTEN: Try listening to music, an audiobook, guided meditation exercises or other distracting and relaxing audio content. The app Calm has a variety of options you can explore.
- WRITE IT DOWN: If a “to-do” for the following day (or another thought you want to remember) pops into your mind at night, it can be helpful to write it down so you don’t keep yourself awake trying to remember it. In an ideal world, you would have made a “to-do” list BEFORE going to bed to avoid this phenomenon, but it is ok to occasionally add to the list if needed in the middle of the night.
- GIVE IT TIME: Reassure yourself that it is normal to take up to 30 minutes to fall asleep and fall back to sleep at night. Let your mind wander and enjoy having the time to think about things you are not able to think about during the day when you are busy doing other things.