When it comes to falling asleep, are you Team Over-Thinker or Team Doze-Off-As-Soon-As-Your-Head-Hits-The-Pillow? If it’s the latter, we really envy you.
Bedtime should be the moment to switch off, cosy up and drift into the land of nod. But for many of us, it’s actually when our thoughts start running amuck until we chase away any chance of getting that delicious sleep we crave.
Not only do we start reflecting on the stresses of the day, we often find ourselves thinking the most random things ever – like how many films Reese Witherspoon has starred in, or the name of that comedian whose show you once saw, or exactly what you wore on your birthday last year. Just me?
Why does this overthinking happen and how can we control it? For the most part, says Carley Symes from the Counselling Directory, it’s just our thoughts catching up with us at the end of another day.
“Our days are filled with things to do and process and think about right from the get go. The only time we really start to switch off from those things is when we are laid in bed, getting ready to go to sleep,” she says. “So it makes sense that all those things we haven’t had space for throughout the day take hold.”
But why the random thought generator? According to Symes, it’s because our subconscious and conscious are beginning to overlap.
“When we get tired at night, our mind wants to open up to process all our ‘stuff’ as we dream. As we start to drift into our sleep these barriers drop,” she says.
“We have lots of free space at this time and our brain is trying to fill it by processing what’s needed and what’s not needed from the day (and from our history).
“It’s trying to learn from mistakes, keep us safe by connecting dots to feelings we have felt before to see if there is a pattern, and file what needs filing.”
During this sifting process, our brain fixates on particular things and then our reactions to those things fuels further fixation. “It’s a real overlap of our subconscious and conscious that can make things feel beyond our control,” she says.
According to Eve Menezes Cunningham, a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy member, the key to fighting this brain overwhelm at night could be more mindfulness throughout the day.
“By allowing ourselves breaks during each day – maybe mini mindfulness meditations, maybe simple pausing over a hot drink or going for a walk – the rumination at bedtime will be less intense,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Could it be that you’re sleepless for a reason, she asks. If so, try getting those preoccupying thoughts out before attempting to sleep – in a journal, writing them down on a piece of paper, or even tapping them out on your phone.
Symes echoes this advice. “Proper sleep hygiene and creating more space in your day for your thoughts to be processed can be really helpful,” she says, whether that’s by journalling or seeing a therapist or counsellor.
She also recommends creating a calmer environment at bedtime with “anchors” within close reach of where you sleep.
“Anchors are sensory triggers that allow you to tap into a feeling of the present and calm your nervous system,” she explains. “Having something in view with the year it is on it grounds us away from the past and to where we are now.
“A soft toy we can touch and that smells like lavender grounds our senses in the present and helps take us out of our own head. Just their presence around our bed can help us ground or reach out when we need them.”
Taking your brain from 100 miles an hour to a state of perfect rest is unrealistic, says Cunningham, but looking after your mind and body during the daytime can ensure a more recuperative night’s sleep.
“A tired (in a good way) body helps the mind relax,” she says. “Find ways to fit more movement into your daily life whether that’s kickboxing or yoga, swimming, cycling or running or something completely different.”
This focus on movement, connecting with your breath, noticing your body getting stronger, fitter and more flexible will help you feel more empowered when it comes to having the courage to face potentially scary or disruptive thoughts. And you’ll be burning off excess stress hormones. too.
“Anything we can do to help our nervous systems move into rest and digest mode before bed will help, from calming deeper breaths with a longer exhalation to a wind down bedtime routine like you’d offer a toddler,” says Cunningham.
“You might support this with essential oils that help you feel relaxed, maybe some nice music – experiment with whatever works for you.”
And if all else fails, you can always try this two-minute TikTok sleep hack.