For most of us, lying awake at night is the only time out of our 24-hour day when we’re truly alone with our thoughts.
We’re not distracted by working, playing, reading, watching TV, or having a conversation. And annoyingly, those thoughts can come bursting to the surface, like a beach ball held under water. When this happens frequently, the brain can actually become conditioned (trained) to do its worst-case scenario thinking at the worst possible time: the middle of the night. It’s as though it has become an automatic habit. If you find your overactive mind is sabotaging your ability to get fall asleep or get back to sleep, you’re not alone.
Sometimes those middle-of-the-night thoughts can be stress-related. But it’s often also the case that it’s just the mind doing what human minds do: keeping busy! also known as the busy “monkey mind”. Our brains tend to constantly chatter, jumping from random thought to random thought, one after another. The monkey mind tends to get most active when we’d much rather be sleeping. Just shut up and let me sleep already! Sound familiar?
Tips to help quiet your mind before bedtime
One simple and helpful trick is to spend time during the day or evening to consciously process the thoughts that might be percolating in the back of your mind. By deliberately setting aside at least 10 minutes (20 – 30 is even better) at a more suitable, helpful time, it can reduce the likelihood of that busy monkey mind interfering with sleep in the night.
Known as "brain dump", the idea is to just get any random thoughts from your mind – onto paper. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. Just sit and write. You can do it journal-style if you like. Or download the free worksheet below to jot down anything that pops into your head. Try to pre-empt the busy monkey mind by anticipating what thoughts might be on your mind when you wake up in the night – and write about them beforehand. You can then remind yourself in the night that you’ve already thought about it. And you’re going to do it again tomorrow. No need to give it more thought during the night.
Any time you can fit this exercise into your daily routine is a good time to do it. But the best time for many people is usually early evening, perhaps after dinner – when you’ve got a full day behind you – and not too close to bedtime, in case it stirs up too much thinking at the wrong time. However, some people do, in fact, find it most helpful to do this thought-processing exercise shortly before bed. Experiment to see what time works best for you.
Not sure what to write about? Almost anything goes, but here are some ideas:
What was the best part of my day today?
What was the worst part of my day today?
What is the biggest stressor in my life right now?
Is there some small (or large) action I want to take this week towards changing it?
What parts of my life am I grateful for?
What am I going to have for dinner tomorrow?
Can’t think of anything? Make a to do list.
What happened in my life today:
How would I like my day to go tomorrow?
in the morning
in the afternoon
in the evening
What am I feeling good about?
What am I feeling unsettled about?
What am I noticing in my body? What emotions and physical sensations am I experiencing right now?
What random thoughts are popping into my head?
What do I need to be kind to myself right now? What do I need to be kind to myself tomorrow?
What do I need to be especially kind to myself tomorrow if I don’t have a great sleep tonight?
Pause and visualize. What might be on my mind tonight when I wake up in the middle of the night? What would I like to be on my mind when I wake up in the night?
For health benefits, researcher Dr. James Pennebaker, at the University of Texas, suggests writing for at least 15 minutes a day for a minimum of 3 days in a row. To feel fully comfortable with processing your thoughts, be sure to write for your eyes only.
Remember, as a tool for better sleep, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. But to help break the habit of that middle of the night over-thinking, it can sometimes be important to develop a routine of doing it at the same time and place every day for the first month – preferably not in your bedroom (the scene of the crime!) This can help re-train your brain to do its thought processing at a more useful time and place. After the first month, just sit and write whenever it seems like it might be helpful for your sleep.
Stay tuned for upcoming tips on other Writing for Sleep strategies, as well as why we all tend to do our darkest thinking in the middle of the night. Spoiler alert: we’re hard-wired to think negatively when we can’t sleep. And there’s a fascinating scientific explanation!
Remember, there are many factors that go into a good or a bad night’s sleep. An overactive mind is just one. When combined with the concrete strategies from CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) to repair the sleep regulation systems and overcome the anxiety and hyperarousal that typically fuel the vicious cycle of chronic insomnia, each strategy helps strengthen the other strategies. Together, the sum is more powerful than the parts.
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