Switching off at night
Do you ever find yourself feeling exhausted during the day, longing for the time when your head can hit the pillow, only to find that when you do eventually curl up in bed and switch off the light your brain immediately goes into overdrive: ‘did I lock the door?’, ‘is the oven switched off?’, ‘what time is that dental appointment next week?’, ‘I must remember to buy milk tomorrow,’. Meanwhile, all this can be intermingled with trying to fathom big decisions about buying houses or moving jobs.
Yes, being able to switch your mind off at night can seem a daunting problem, but it is one that is not as difficult to take control of as it may seem. There are many simple tips and tricks you can try to help you get good, restful, worry-free sleep.
1. It is all about attitude
These days most of us lead extremely busy, hectic lives which mean that sleep is often sacrificed in order to get through our ever-growing to-do list. In reality, however, if we don’t get enough sleep we will be unproductive and struggle to get through everything we had planned and organised. This is why it’s important to understand that you cannot cram a week’s worth of work into a day – rather than staying up late to finish that report or send that last email, you’re far better going to bed and approaching the task with fresh eyes the next day.
The only problem is that it’s now easier than ever to take your work and worries to bed with you – how many of you sleep next to your smartphone or tablet? These worries will only train your brain to wake up and mull over endless options and possibilities, rather than allowing you to drift into restorative sleep. That’s why I always recommend not introducing television, smartphones or other electronic devices into your sleep routine. If you can teach yourself that being in the bedroom is for the sole purpose of sleeping, your job will become much easier.
2. Decompress before bedtime
Your preparations for bed shouldn’t just happen ten minutes before your head hits the pillow. Ideally, you should be making a conscious effort to slow down and unwind for at least an hour; this gives your brain plenty of time to get into a more relaxed frame of mind rather than going straight to bed and taking your worries with you. Instead of desperately trying to squeeze more into your day, use this time to do activities that you find enjoyable and restful – you could indulge in a soak in the bath, curl up on the couch with a book or even try some meditation. Just remember that sitting glued to the television or your social media account won’t actually help you unwind, so try to detach yourself from these types of devices – not only can they raise your stress levels, the blue light emitted from your screens can also inhibit your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
3. Put pen to paper
It’s all very well to say that you’re not allowed to take your worries to bed with you but this is, understandably, much easier said than done and sometimes a vicious cycle can develop when we begin to worry that we shouldn’t be worrying. That’s why, rather than bringing your smartphone or laptop to bed with you, I sometimes suggest bringing a journal instead. If we can find a way of effectively putting our thoughts to rest for the night, then we would be able to fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow.
Many people find that writing down their thoughts in a journal helps to reduce stress by re-organising their racing mind to give order, structure and importance to their thoughts. Even if you are not interested in divulging your innermost emotions on a piece of paper, writing a list of the things you need to do the next day can help prevent thoughts such as ‘I need to take the bin out in the morning’ jolting you awake just as you’re are beginning to doze off. It is best to do this at least half an hour before lights out, otherwise your head will still be buzzing when you are supposed to be dozing.
4. Dismiss your thoughts
We can’t deny that, however effectively we have prepared our brain for sleep; thoughts which disturb us do slip into our head. Rather than letting them plague us now, we have to let them know their place, and show them we have no time for them at the moment. There are many ways you can do this, though many people find that acknowledging the thought then turning it into a visual image can help.
For example, if you suddenly remember that you need to buy milk, you can realise that it is the middle of the night and there is nothing you can do about it now, so instead you conjure up a relaxing image of a cow grazing in a field, where the sun is shining and there is the gentle buzzing of the bumble bees, and allow this relaxing image to lull you to sleep. Alternatively, you could imagine writing the thought on a leaf or a balloon, then letting it go and watching it drift away. You could even try doing 10 or so minutes of mindfulness before going to sleep – this is a great way of observing your thoughts and worries without participating in them, plus it helps to relax the body, making you feel nice and calm before bedtime.
5. Mental exercises
There is a reason why counting sheep to put yourself to sleep is such a well-known method, even if its effectiveness is strongly contested. The idea behind it is to distract the mind from potentially bothersome thoughts and lull you to sleep. In fact, sleep scientists have found that slightly more engaging, though not stimulating, activities are more effective at this, for example counting backwards from 100 in threes, or reciting the alphabet in your head backwards. If you are occupied with these types of activities, you grow drowsy and sleepy, and there is no room for invasive thoughts to take over.
6. Herbs to help
A helping hand never goes amiss, and herbs can be very effective alongside a good sleep routine. Valerian is a very popular sleep herb as it is a natural tranquiliser which helps you to fall asleep and stay asleep, but does not leave you feeling drowsy the next day. It is often combined with other herbs such as Hops in A.Vogel’s Dormeasan® Sleep Valerian-Hops oral drops, a licensed herbal remedy.
Some herbs, such as lavender, are very popular in aromatherapy tinctures, and a few drops are placed on the pillow to help you to relax and sleep. Others are very popular in teas, such as chamomile, which helps to soothe and relax your whole body, ready for a calm and quiet night.
What is your magic button to switch off your mind?
(Originally published 31/08/2015, updated 17/01/2019)