Can’t switch off your brain when you want to sleep?
This is THE No.1 problem when it comes to sleep.
It’s the situation my clients tell me about every time we have that first conversation about their lack of quality sleep. This is how one client described her difficulty to me –
I’ve done all the right things – exercised, stopped the coffee early,
avoided that extra glass of wine with my dinner.
I even did some yoga for goodness sake!
Yet still I can’t sleep! My mind just won’t stop spinning.
What on earth’s wrong with me?
However many times I hear a story like this, I still fully connect with the distress and frustration that this situation brings. The frustration you feel when you can’t sleep yet every bone in your body aches for it… the frustration builds and builds until sleep seems an impossibility.
And at that point, it is.
Sleep and charged emotional states such as frustration, anger and anxiety are not good bed-fellows. They drive sleep away.
The strategies my client above put into place earlier in the day are good ones. I really recommend them. Often however something more is needed.
The brain is an incredibly powerful machine and at times it can be hard to power it down. After a busy day you need to take an extra step or two to enter the restful state that favours good sleep. Going to bed sleepy-tired rather than wired-tired makes all the difference to both the quality and quantity of your Zzzs.
One of my favourite techniques to wind-down the brain is actually something you do well ahead of bed time. The best time is late afternoon or early evening. You can use the technique both to close off the working day and to deal with any lurking anxieties. This way you clear your mind for good sleep.
I call this exercise Thinking Time. This is how you do it:
- Schedule 30 minutes every day, either late afternoon or early evening (no later than 3 hours before you want to sleep)
- Set a timer for 30 minutes. Take a notepad and pen and write down every concern or worry that is occupying you at the moment. I mean everything, from your to-do list through to all of your worries, anxieties, fears – the important, the trivial, the weird, the irrational, the paranoid, the worst-case scenarios…
- Don’t censor yourself. Nobody is going to see this but you. Get everything fully out of your head and onto paper. Write it all down in as much detail as feels helpful. Add drawings, scribbles, captions, diagrams, if that’s your thing
- When the timer rings, stop. Put your writing away, out of sight. Stand up and go and do something completely different
- If at any time later that night you start thinking instead of relaxing and sleeping, firmly tell yourself ‘Now is not the time to be thinking of these things. It can wait until my Thinking Time tomorrow.’
Be firm with yourself!
It’s just the same if you’ve had kids or babysat for a friend. If the toddler demands a toy or story when they should be asleep, you don’t give into them do you (do you?!). No, you tell them firmly that it’s time for sleep and they must wait until tomorrow. It’s the same for you 🙂
The science behind Thinking Time:
Writing and journaling are forms of expressive writing. There’s something highly effective about expressing your feelings and thoughts in this way. Many research studies have examined the ways in which it helps people deal with stress and trauma.
There are a number of theories: writing helps you to organise what may often feel like chaotic, uncontrollable thoughts (especially those thoughts that surface late at night). In doing so, you gain perspective and engage in more rational thinking.
Facing up to fears can also be liberating and help you to manage difficult emotions.
Practised consistently, the Thinking Time exercise will break the cycle of circular rumination that can so often keep you awake at night.
Remember that, if you’ve had a sleeping difficulty for some time now, it will take a bit of perseverance to bring improvements. Why not schedule your Thinking Time for the whole of the coming week?
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