It's like clockwork: Every night, your head hits the pillow, and your brain starts spinning. Whether you're wide awake worrying about work, finances, family or something else, this bedtime ruminating routine can ruin your sleep.
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And you're not alone. A whopping 45 percent of Americans report that stewing in stress sabotages their shut-eye, according to the 2017 Stress in America survey by the American Psychological Association.
We spoke with Jodie Skillicorn, DO, a holistic psychiatrist and author of Healing Depression Without Medication: A Psychiatrist's Guide to Balancing Mind, Body, and Soul, to learn why anxious thoughts amplify at night and how we can combat them for sounder sleep.
What Causes Racing Thoughts at Night?
"Anxious, racing thoughts appear at night because it is often the only time during the day that we are not busy or distracting ourselves," Dr. Skillicorn says.
In other words, the silence and stillness of bedtime can bring all your worries, fears and concerns about the past and future to the forefront of your mind.
"All the emotions we left unacknowledged and unaddressed during the day can no longer be pushed below the surface," she says.
How to Stop Your Mind From Racing at Bedtime
Creating relaxing rituals is the key to beating back bedtime anxiety. Experiment with these strategies — recommended by Dr. Skillicorn — to quiet anxious thoughts before bed.
1. Schedule a Check-In During the Day
Sometimes our brains spin at night because we haven't addressed our daytime anxiety.
"Taking time during the day to pause and mindfully check in with our thoughts, body and emotions allows us to clear space so it does not accumulate and bombard us at night," Dr. Skillicorn says.
2. Give Yourself Time to Unwind
"The nervous system needs cues to let the body know it is time for sleep," Dr. Skillicorn says. "If we go from working on a project or watching some adrenaline-pumping show (like the nightly news) to jumping into bed, we can't really expect the body to just tune out the day's stressors and relax."
Before you can drift off to dreamland, your body needs downtime to decompress. Dr. Skillicorn recommends turning off your electronic devices and setting aside at least 30 minutes for relaxing activities before bed (think: meditation, reading or a warm bath or shower).
Try These Tactics
3. Keep a Notebook Beside Your Bed
Write down your anxious thoughts so you can release them.
"I know that if there is something I need to remember, my brain will go over that list again and again so that I do not forget it, but if I just quickly jot it down, my brain can relax," Dr. Skillicorn says.
4. Start a Gratitude Journal
"Focusing on those things we appreciate about the day shifts our focus away from worries and concerns and drops us into our heart instead of our head," Dr. Skillicorn says.
As a matter of fact, people who practiced gratitude writing demonstrated better scores on mental health compared with those who simply wrote about their daily thoughts and feelings, according to a March 2016 study in Psychotherapy Research.
Try this five-minute gratitude exercise to help ease stress.
5. Try Essential Oils
"A whiff of organic lavender oil or a drop on your pillow can shorten time to sleep onset and increase sleep quality and duration," Dr. Skillicorn says.
That's because lavender is known for its sedative and hypnotic properties. Indeed, a July 2015 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study found that incorporating lavender at bedtime improved sleep quality for college students with self-reported sleep issues.
6. Practice Deep Breathing and Mindfulness
Slow, deep belly breaths send a message of safety to the limbic system, Dr. Skillicorn says. Here's why: Deep breathing turns off the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the body to rest, digest and sleep, she explains.
While breathing, notice the belly fill and expand like a balloon as you inhale and contract and deflate as you exhale.
"As you do this, your mind will likely wander — that's what minds do — but simply acknowledge the thinking and return to the breath again," Dr. Skillicorn says.
It may be helpful to give the mind another focal point, Dr. Skillicorn adds. You can do this by counting the breaths or just saying to yourself "breathing in" as you inhale and "breathing out" as you exhale, she says.
Similarly, "whispering qigong healing sounds as you exhale like 'haaaaa' and 'heeeee' can also aid the body in letting go of emotional residue from the day," Dr. Skillicorn says.
Experiment and see what combination of breathing and sounds works best for you.
Try these six types of breathing exercises that can help reduce stress.
7. Reframe Your Ruminating Thoughts
When your mind races before bed, your first instinct might be to make it stop ASAP. But pushing away your worries or trying to control your concerns may not be the answer.
"Being curious about your thoughts, emotions and body sensations — rather than judging and seeing them as problems to be solved — helps shift us out of a state of hypervigilance," Dr. Skillicorn says.
Is This an Emergency?
- Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial”
- American Psychological Association: “By the numbers: Our stressed-out nation.”
- Psychotherapy Research: “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial”