My high school history teacher would often tell us that humans need time to “spin out”. I never understood the concept at the time as my fourteen-year-old brain had not yet accumulated many stressors or worries. But I get it now. If you are not conditioned to taking time to be alone with your thoughts at any other time than when you are trying to sleep, they will be your master and not the other way around.
Most modern humans wake up and go directly to their phones, followed by getting ready for the day, commuting, working, then going back home where they likely watch TV or use electronics in bed. We are often not alone with our thoughts for much longer than a shower, and over time our thoughts can become uncomfortable.
I often thought that during acupuncture, I was becoming one with the energy of Qi and all of the exciting ideas and thoughts flooding my brain were my treatment. Then I realized that it was one of the only times that I completely unplugged from my life for an hour and was alone with my thoughts.
Prep your brain for sleep
If your brain plagues you with regrets, or plans hypothetical conversations just when you are trying to sleep...here is your jump start to reclaiming your “head space”.
- Watch your consumption of caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar. All of the data is in. Yes, we know coffee is life, but it comes at a cost. If you have coffee in the afternoon or more than 3 cups a day, cut it down.
- Alcohol is a depressant and works for a sleep aid, but the half-life of ethanol in your body naturally disrupts your sleep cycle giving you less REM or restful sleep. Limit alcohol if you have sleep problems.
- Sugar is also related to sleep problems. Check with your doctor or a nutritionist to determine your limit of grams of sugar per day and try to stick with that number for a few weeks. The detox may feel uncomfortable, but your sleep quality will improve.
- Use the blue light filter on your phone at least 3 hours before you go to bed, and try to not watch TV at least 1.5 hours before bed.
You might try:
- Write or organize paperwork
- Listen to a book
- Take a bath or a shower
- Play chess
- Do artwork or crafts
- Talk to someone on the phone
- Clean your room
This list is by no means extensive, nor is it meant to be dismissive of your particular situation. We have become unusually conditioned to rely on electronic habits that feel comfortable but that are ultimately ruining our good relationship with sleep.
More tips for getting shut eye
When you actually try to get to sleep, start with a few of these processes. Try to structure your routine into something you can replicate every night. For example, wash your face, take a shower, and brush your teeth, all in the same order. Eventually, this will become a cue to your brain that you are shutting down and that it is time to go to sleep.
A few things to try in bed are guided meditation or progressive relaxation.
Make sure your bed room is comfortable, but not too warm. If you have a TV in the bedroom, get it out or try not to use it. Adult bedrooms are for sleep and for sex.
If you have tried to sleep and it’s not happening after 15-20 minutes, get up and get out of bed. Retire to the living room and involve yourself in a light activity like reading (no phones). In about 15 minutes, try to sleep again. This is a little bit like sleep training a baby. Keep getting up and out of bed if you are not adequately drowsy or going to bed. On the first few nights of doing this you might be a little more tired, but with this sleep retraining, eventually your body will start taking to the cues of your routine (the order of your wind down activities), your meditation or your patience with sleeping.
The CBTI app is great to use in conjunction with your sleep treatment, and is a validated and tested tool to improve your sleep and work to recondition insomnia.
One of the methods to employee while you are drifting off is to identify your thoughts, emotions and sensations as just that. When a thought arises, imagine putting it on a leaf in a stream and watching it drift away. Or hang a thought on a cloud and let it move out of your mindsight as you refocus on your breath. Let your thoughts be neutral and not things you have to engage in or tell yourself a story about. This is an essential part of CBT training, and for more information check out these sites:
Guided Meditation by Tara Brach: Vipassana Instructions
Insomnia - Overview and Facts
Jon Kabot Zinn MBSR