One of the most common complaints I hear from my insomnia patients is “I can’t turn my mind off at night”! This is a very common problem and I’d estimate that about three quarters of the people I see in the sleep clinic suffer this to some degree. Whether we’re thinking about what’s happening the next day, worrying about big things like the health and welfare of our kids, or just random fleeting thoughts, the phenomenon of the overly active mind at night can really get in the way of falling asleep. Many patients have told me they wish there was a big switch in their head they could simply turn off at night. Unfortunately, such a simple switch hasn’t been invented yet.
One option is sleeping pills but this is not a healthy long term solution for many reasons. There are simple mental distraction techniques you can try that can work in the short-term. The old counting sheep method is an example of distraction but it’s pretty dated at this point. It may have had more relevance back when more of us were shepherds!
Beyond short-term distraction techniques there is another level of mental manipulation that can help you manage your overactive mind at night in a more sustainable way. This method is part of what I call “graduate level” sleep therapy. This approach can help no matter what kinds of thoughts might be keeping you up at night.
Here’s how it goes: As you lay in bed with your eyes closed, imagine a raging river flowing swiftly past you. It’s like the kind you might see on the TV news of a flash flood. The current is swift and there is debris and various objects in the water being tossed about as the river flows downstream.
In this metaphor, the river is your stream of consciousness. The stream is continuous, always flowing (even when you’re asleep!). Sometimes the flow is slow and peaceful but at times it can rage and feel out of control. The objects being tossed around in the cascading water are the contents of your consciousness, your thoughts. These are the things or concerns that are floating around in your mind at night keeping you awake. The river may even seem circular in that the same things drift away temporarily only to return again.
Now, imagine yourself sitting on the bank of the river watching all of this flow past you and tell yourself “Wow, I am so glad I’m not in that”! Instead of being tossed helplessly along with the current you can choose to swim to the riverbank, climb out of the water, and just observe. You, as a conscious being, are not one and the same as the things you think or worry about. Thoughts are things that happen to you. They are not you. You know this because in the moments when the thoughts are absent, you still exist. This realization of separateness can help you to distance yourself from your worries. Sitting on the riverbank is the separation.
You have the ability to choose not to engage with your thoughts. This is not a form of avoidance or denial. This is about worry management. There is a place and time to give energy to the concerns of daily living but the place is not in bed and the time is not 3:00 in the morning! Let “Not here, not now”, be your mantra. Assure yourself that you will re-engage with these concerns in the morning when the sun is up, the birds are chirping, and you have your beverage of choice in hand. Practice this as often as you can and you will find your ability to put aside worrisome thoughts at night should improve over time and so will your sleep!