6 ways to stop your mind racing in the middle of the night
If you're gifted with the ability to fall asleep immediately as your head hits the pillow and don't wake up until your alarm in the morning - you need read no further. The rest of us? We're the ones who are woken in the night by thoughts like: "I forgot to put capsicum on the shopping list", and end up in a place that's totally irrational - "My friend didn't answer my text this afternoon, does this mean she hates me?"
It's a mental thought loop which can continue for hours, exhausting you both physcially and mentally the next day.
Fortunately there are some strategies you can use to relax which don't involve reaching for your phone at 3am.
1. Acknowledge (most of) your worries are absurd.
There is nothing like the pitch-black silence of the middle of the night to make us see things in a totally irrational light. Night-time doesn't offer the distractions that daytime does (such as other people, activity, and work) so our minds can easily go into overdrive unless we are careful. If you look back to the thought-loops you've experienced during insomnia episodes, you can see that it's very different from the way you think in the light of day. Remind yourself that no matter how bad the problem seems, the morning always brings a fresh perspective.
2. Write it down
If you come up with a million things to put on your to-do list while you're wide awake at night, simply write it down. Keep an old-school notebook and pen on your bedside table, so you don't whip out your phone and go down the social media rabbit hole. There's nothing like dumping out your mind, including any midnight inspiration and ideas, to feel instantly calmer.
3. Take a deep breath
Once you've acknowleged the illogical nature of your worries and/or emptied your mind onto paper, the next step is to use your breath and visualisation to calm down. Counting sheep is a little passe, but if it works for you, great. There are lots of techniques around on the internet, so you might have to try a few to find something that works for you. This is quite a simple one from The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington: Picture a tranquil lake (or another scene that makes you feel peaceful) and take 25 deep breaths in and out.
4. Remind yourself you'll be OK.
This might just be the most powerful sleep hack of them all. Ask yourself: "What's the worst that can happen if I lose some sleep?". You feel tired the next day. Just like those irrational worries, in the middle of the night sleep seems desperately important, and the implications of a poor nights sleep seem diabolical. In reality, the world will go on and your panic is over nothing. Nothing that bad will happen if you only catch a few zzz's. You'll be a bit tired, that's all. You will live, you'll buy a large coffee and go to sleep earlier the next night.
If you're worried about work or what people will think if you cancel plans, try the truth. You might be surprised how well people take it when you say "I haven't been sleeping well. I was awake at an ungodly hour last night. I don't think I can function today/ make it tonight". People get it. They've probably been there themselves. It happens.
Ironically, when you stop worrying about going to sleep, you're more likely to fall asleep (but don't rely on this - it's just an added bonus if it happens). At the very least you'll lie there peacefully, and experts agree this kind of peaceful rest is almost as good as being asleep.
Countless studies on the impacts of long-term exercise have shown that adults with insomnia fall asleep more quickly, sleep longer, and have better quality sleep if they exercise. The exercise doesn't have to be vigorous either - walking seems to be the best. It's thought that exercise positively impacts the body's circadian rhythms (the internal body clock that helps us sleep) which can be out of whack in those with sleep issues. Exercise also allows us to better regulate levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can help quiet that mind-chatter. But if you start an exercise program be patient - it can take several months before you see a significant impact.
The effect of lavender essential oil on sleep is well documented. It works on the olfactory system in the brain - where smell is linked to emotions - to help soothe, calm and relax. Try using a quality lavender blend in your bath to wind down or in the bedroom at night: sprinkle some on your pillow before sleep, or on a tissue tucked under your pillow. Sniff this during the night when you wake. Alternatively you can spray your bedroom and pillow with Bosisto's Lavender Spray or Bosisto's Sleep Aroma Mist, which is a blend of lavender and chamomile oils.
Always read the label and use only as directed. If symptoms persist, see your healthcare professional.