We’ve all been there; tired—maybe even exhausted—after a long day, and bedtime can’t come soon enough. But even though you’re picturing every thread in your pillow while you brush your teeth, wash your face, and change your clothes, once you get under the covers, you mind suddenly starts racing, and you just can’t fall asleep. It’s a common problem in our day and age, but the good news is that there are plenty of ways that you can take control to slow down those nagging thoughts, and get the rest you need to face tomorrow energized and refreshed.
1. Go unplugged
There are a lot of benefits to having 24/7 access to television, Internet, and social media but unfortunately that constant stimulation can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle. If you’re preoccupied by the news cycle then your mind won’t shut off after hours of binge watching your favorite streaming program. So, consider limiting your technology use to specific times of day. For example, make it a personal policy to disconnect from the Internet after 8:00 PM. Whatever time you choose, make sure you stick with it, even if that means resisting the temptation to check your Insta account when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night.
2. Minimize blue light—or avoid it completely
Any artificial light has the potential to trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime but blue light, which emits from smartphones, computer screens, and the like, inhibits the release of melatonin, a hormone that plays a major role in your sleep-wake patterns. Basically, it’s like Kryptonite to even the healthiest of sleep patterns. If you’re sensitive to blue light, but you don’t want to miss your favorite late-night talk show, consider purchasing a filter for your computer or television screen, or wearing glasses designed to protect your eyes during your screen time. If you’d prefer to fight high tech with high tech, there are also a number of apps on the market that you can download that will cut the blue light from your device.
3. Reset your patterns
Whether or not there is an underlying physical or mental cause to your sleep woes, you can make an appointment with a behavioral sleep medicine specialist who can help you troubleshoot what’s working for you and what’s not when it comes to getting your shuteye. Maybe those sugary midnight snacks are giving your body a boost of energy when it should be winding down for the night—and without a physical release, your thoughts run wild and keep you awake.
4. Get moody
There’s a reason the warm glow of candles or understated lighting-schemes of fancy restaurants and lounges is often called mood lighting! Swapping out your bulbs for softer tones, or flipping the switch off entirely in favor of a night in front of the fireplace can create a sense of calm within. The more relaxed you are, the more likely it is that those constant thoughts will ease up, too. Just make sure to extinguish any open flames before you nod off for the night! And if you want to get colorful about it, try a red night light or sheer lampshade; according to some scientific studies, red can be a powerful color when it comes to quality sleep.
Meditation has been used in civilizations around the world for centuries to help increase focus, quiet the mind, and bring about a sense of enlightenment, along with a host of other reasons. But though it has ancient roots, scientific research has shown that it can provide innumerable benefits to modern people, including calming racing minds and improving sleep. There are practically unlimited ways to meditate, but if you’re new to the practice you may find apps such as such as Stop, Breathe, & Think, Calm, and The Mindfulness App helpful for getting started.
6. Just breathe
Even if meditation isn’t your thing, just focusing on breathing deeply and slowly will help relax your body and mind, and curb even the most persistent thoughts. One popular method involves a triangular breathing pattern of inhaling for seven counts, holding it for five, and exhaling for eight. Try that for 10-12 cycles and you might be amazed at just how much of a positive impact it makes on your stress levels. But the easiest way to use breathing to halt those racing thoughts is to simply concentrate on slowly breathing in and out for a couple of minute. From there you can progressively work your way up to longer periods (Harvard recommends 10 to 20 minute sessions to maximize benefits). You can practice deep breathing techniques at any time, including those times you find yourself awakened with restless thoughts in the middle of the night. There’s no cost or side effects associated with deep breathing, and it can be used by anyone, even children whose minds race at night time.
7. Increase your activity, but consider slowing down closer to bedtime
From increasing circulation to improving balance and muscle tone, there are many health benefits associated with exercise. Chief among them are stress release and better sleep quality. Just minutes of exercise each day have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and the racing minds that can sometimes accompany them. Plus, the more active you are, the more energy you exert, and the more energy you exert, the more tired you’ll be when your head meets your pillow—so even if your mind is racing, it’ll be more of a sprint than a marathon before you fall asleep. However, some people find that exercising too close to bedtime keeps them awake, so be mindful of how well you sleep on when you work out at different times of day, and adjust your schedule accordingly. If you enjoy being active at night, you can incorporate an outdoor stroll, or a short burst of yoga to induce better quality sleep.
8. Read a book
Put that overactive mind to good use, and dig into a new book. Whether you love romance, travel, history, poetry, or any other form of literature, reading books can engage the brain, stimulate the imagination, and at the very least, provide a temporary break from your worries. For those of you who don’t think you have enough time, a study conducted at the University of Sussex suggested that reading for as little as six minutes have reduce stress levels by more that two-thirds. If you prefer to rest your eyes while you “read,” audiobooks can serve a similar purpose as traditional books—remember falling asleep when your parents read stories to you as a kid? There are some parts of us all that never completely grow up.
9. Keep a journal
When you suffer from racing thoughts, sometimes it helps to change your focus, but other times getting them out is the best way to sort through your troubles and release some tension in the process. The best thing about a journal is that there’s no one right way to do it—whether you go long form, or make a pros and cons list, or even take the escapist’s route and brainstorm about your next vacation, it’s time well spent. Studies conducted at the University of Texas, Austin suggests that the relaxation and mental health benefits of journaling could in turn have positive effects on physical health, which is all the more reason to break out those pens to help unwind before bedtime.
10. Take a warm shower or bath
Dry, steamy, or wet, gentle heat has long been touted for its therapeutic effects on the body. So, if you struggle with intrusive thoughts when you’re trying to get some sleep, try a soothing shower (or sauna, if you have access) about an hour and a half before bed. Among the many benefits of showers and baths, science has shown they release dopamine into the system, which naturally makes people feel happier. Just make sure the water isn’t too hot; you want to make sure your body has plenty of time to cool down before you drift off to sleep.
Though some people are quick to dismiss aromatherapy as just another fad, there is some research that suggests that certain scents can have a significant impact on the brain. For example, one study conducted in Germany showed that jasmine could be as effective as some medications when it comes to relieving anxiety, which in turn may diminish negative thought patterns. Other natural fragrances that have been shown to have significant benefits on reducing stress include vanilla, lavender, lemongrass, grapefruit, and rose. Make sure to look for products without unnecessary chemicals or additives, and apply about an hour before heading off to sleep—or add them to a diffuser or in your bedroom.
12. Tune in, zone out
Any music lover can tell you that the artform can have powerful effects on the brain and body, so it should be no surprise that it can impact sleep patterns as well. In fact, there have even been songs specially composed by scientists to help relax people and induce sleepiness. If your mind is racing before bed, turn on some tunes to help release tension and flood your brain with dopamine. Though some recommend classical or new age music over high-energy dance tracks or growly death metal tunes when it comes to sleepytime playlists, practically any music that makes you feel more calm and peaceful will do.
13. Add a little noise
When music doesn’t help you drift off to sleep—or if you find yourself so engaged with each tune you’d rather get up and dance than relax—noise can be the perfect solution to calm your racing mind through the audio. Many popular forms of ambient noise involve recordings of nature, such as thunderstorms, waterfalls, ocean waves, or crickets. There’s also pure white noise to consider; random signals that have the same intensity at any frequency, such as fuzz or static. Though it might seem strange to opt for noise over relative silence, science shows that people’s brains still react to sounds while they are trying to fall asleep, and white noise masks those effects. Some people find that a basic electric fan works like a charm—and has the added benefit of increasing air circulation throughout the room.
14. Spend time with friends
Though it may sound counterintuitive, socializing can actually help you sleep better than simply winding down on your own. Engaging with family or friends can help relieve tension, improve happiness and sense of wellbeing, and provide a place where people can talk through their troubles, and ease their minds together. If you are too tired after work or school to meet up, or live too far away from your loved ones for regular visits, talking on the phone can help, too.
15. Tech support
As we’ve discussed above, using electronic devices the wrong way can increase alertness and racing thoughts, and make it harder to fall asleep. However, some technologies are actually designed for people to beat insomnia and attain higher-quality sleep in the process. The best part is that many can be found at low cost, or even free of charge, in your app store. Platforms such as Pzizz and Noisli aim to curb restless minds by lulling people into relaxation with ambient sounds or color schemes, so they can naturally fall asleep. Some apps go a step further; not only do they help you fall asleep, they chart your sleep and wake cycles so you can see your progress over time, and troubleshoot any factors that might be getting in the way of a decent night’s rest.
16. Talk to a medical professional
If you’ve tried the above suggestions and racing thoughts are still preventing you from getting a proper night’s sleep, consider speaking to your doctor, a psychologist, or other healthcare professional. They can help you determine whether a medical condition such as depression is the root cause of all those worries that keep you up for hours. They can also diagnose physical disorders such as sleep apnea that can cause people to wake up during the night and can create anxiety—and anxiety-riddled thought patterns—around bedtime. If a diagnosis is made, you and your healthcare provider can work together to create and implement an individualized treatment plan.
If you’re plagued by a racing mind when you’re supposed to be snoozing until morning, know that you’re not alone, and you have no shortage of options to calm your brain and help you achieve the best sleep of your life.