“a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” — Charlotte Brontë
While browsing though the books in the local this title stood out for me: Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep: Solutions to Insomnia for Those with Depression, Anxiety or Chronic Pain by Colleen Carney and Rachel Manber. The “Quiet Your Mind” part stood out as I have been in the process of researching practical solutions for my often hyperactive mind, which prevents me from falling asleep and getting a good night rest. The book has a dedicated chapter specifically addressing my quest. After skimming through it, I thought that they are others like me, who are looking for ways to consistently fall sleep night after night when their mind is racing.
This article discusses practical methods for helping you fall asleep when you just can’t stop thinking, exploring some of the proposed solutions in the book, and other solutions I have found elsewhere.
1. Leave the Bedroom
If you can’t fall asleep, get out of the bed and leave the bedroom. Only return to your bed once you feel sleepy.
“Say what? I need to sleep! This makes no sense.”
That was my reaction when I first encountered this suggestion. I had to ponder on it, before I realized its wisdom.
The idea is an interesting one and I have encountered it some years back in my yoga studies. The core of it is that your bed should be only used for sleep. No reading, no TV watching, no sex, nothing, but sleep. That way the experience of your body coming in contact with your bed will lead to the one and desired outcome – quick descent into sleep.
This works on several layers. First, your subconscious mind gets trained and then quickly responds to the trigger “contact with bed” and puts the lights out in your conscious brain. Second, on the subtle energetic level, the bed retains only sleep-energy and therefore no other experience gets activated while you are on it.
Ideally your whole bedroom would be dedicated just for sleep, but in practice that’s not quite possible for most people, so at the very least making your bed “sleep-only” territory would be a desired goal.
2. Avoid Blue Light
Blue light emitted in the spectrum of TV, computer, phone screens and some artificial lights prevents your body’s natural generation of melatonin. Therefore you should either stay away from any light source that contains blue light several hours before you need to go to sleep, or you need to use an orange light filter to remove the blue light emission during that critical period of time. On modern phones and computers you could install software that turns the orange mode on. But you can also wear inexpensive orange goggles to accomplish the same.
3. Take Melatonin
Taking the melatonin supplement is almost guaranteed to override the hyperactive mind and put you to sleep. Albeit I experienced at least a few nights where no amount of melatonin would help and my mind would just plow through the sleepy haze melatonin generates.
Based on my research melatonin is absolutely harmless, is not addictive and doesn’t reduce melatonin-synthesizing capacity of the pineal gland. It has been even used for treating certain types of cancer. Of course we are all different and there are certainly some people out there for whom it might be not a good choice, so do your own research. The only side-effect some people report is the drowsiness experienced in the following day. You need to find the right amount of intake for you — it can be anywhere from 1mg to up to 10mg.\
I found that the sublingual-type of melatonin works much faster for me, since it goes straight into the bloodstream once it gets absorbed by your mucus membrane. I feel it kicking in within 10-15min of it dissolving under my tongue.
4. Break the Articulatory Loop
If you observe your mind, when it is not interacting with the external world, it tends to go around and around, in what in science is known as the articulatory loop. That is the mind articulates or repeats something over and over again. Should you try to break the spell and not think about that particular thought, the thought becomes even more pervasive. This is because our mind is not well equipment with a capacity to not think about something.
Try not to think about the pink elephant. In order for you to follow this instruction, your mind first must imagine the pink elephant, so that it’d know not to think about it. But it’s too late now, since your mind is now thinking about the pink elephant. So setting a task not to think about something is doomed from the very beginning.
One approach to breaking the articulatory loop is repeating something simple again and again, replacing one loop with another, except this time with something that has no meaning and therefore keeping you awake. Repeating an article ‘the’, or ‘a’ could be one approach. The only trouble with this one is that the mind very quickly will find it boring and will again look for some engaging loops which again will keep you awake.
Counting sheep is an old folk remedy, which also provides a simple emotionally and intellectually detached articulatory loop. It works to a degree, until again, the boredom kicks in and “off” the sheep go and the repetitive thoughts come to replace them keeping you awake.
One less boring and more sustainable solution to breaking the articulatory loop is a concept of cognitive distraction. This one calls for using your imagination. You could think of creating your own story ending for a book or a movie that you were recently exposed to. Depending on your whether you’re more visual, auditory or kinesthetic, you’d try to visualize, hear or feel that imagined story. The only requirement for this method to work is that the idea you choose to imagine must not be emotionally arousing. Also there should be no attachment to an outcome, but an idle wondering. If you suddenly become interested in the outcome, and perhaps want to write your own book about it, you can imagine you won’t have any sleep that night.
I found the cognitive distraction approach working well for me when I simply visualize scenes of nature without providing any internal commentary. When successful, I usually fall asleep very quickly. The key for me here is not to visualize anything that may provoke an internal dialog. If it happens and I have the awareness of what I’m trying to accomplish, I quickly extinguish that picture and replace it with something different. If however I lose the awareness I end up thinking about something triggered by the images, until comes the moment where I regain the awareness and then I try again.
The only tricky part with this whole awareness business, is often I could be on the brink of falling asleep, and because of having the awareness of what I’m trying to accomplish, I become acutely aware that I’m about to fall asleep, and that wakes me up! Oh, the joys of the mind!
5. Provide Mental Wind-Down Period
If you know that having an aroused mind just before going to sleep is a pattern for you, what might help is allocating time to wind down, instead of going to sleep straight after completing some mind-engaging activity. The activities that would fit into that winding down period would vary from person to person, the key is not to think difficult or arousing thoughts. These could include a brisk walk, a bath, a gentle yoga workout and stretching, reading a book, etc. The key is to find something that when you stop doing it and go to bed, you won’t be taking the mental process accompanying the activity into your bed.
If a lot happened during the day, or you know a lot will be happening the following day you may choose to practice a constructive processing of the subject matter. Introspecting about the events of day that has just culminated or worrying and making plans about the unfolding of the day to come can be done by writing in your journal. One of the main advantages of putting your thoughts in writing is that your mind no longer needs to reshuffle the same idea all over again, afraid to forget, since it’s now committed to paper (or a digital journal).
6. Correct Nervous Energy Conditions
L. E. Eeman in his book “How Do You Sleep?” suggests that in order to fall asleep you need a sufficient reserve of nervous energy to make it happen. If your body is exhausted after a long day of work, before you can rest you need to circulate some of fresh nervous energy in the body. You can accomplish that by clasping your hands loosely over the solar plexus, and crossing your feet and staying like that for some time. This method charges your body with fresh nervous energy. He explains how to do that in detail in Chapter III. Correct Nervous Energy Conditions.
The rest of the book has some other very useful practical suggestions that not only will help you fall asleep, but also to have a much more restful sleep.
7. Keep Your Body Cool
I find that it’s much easier for me to fall asleep if my body is relatively cool while it’s falling asleep. That means that either the room needs to be quite cool or the blanket should be light. When my body is warm I have a much harder time falling asleep. This varies from person to person, and in my case my body temperature tends to go up when I fall asleep, so having a slightly colder temperature to start with, works really well for me. Your ideal environment might be the total opposite of mine. If you share your bed with someone, it helps to have your own cover that works for your temperature preferences and let the other choose their own.
I read elsewhere that for some people having their extremities warmer than the core helps to fall asleep, therefore wearing socks would be a solution there. For me it’s the opposite, I have my feet out of the blanket most of the time when I sleep. This is actually one of the diagnostic questions homeopaths ask: “do you sleep with your feet under the blanket or have them exposed?”. So depending on your typology you will want your extremities warmer or colder than your core.
I also find that if my skin is sticky it’s more difficult for me to fall asleep. Therefore I almost always shower before going to sleep. Taking a bath, however, doesn’t work for me, since it heats up my body, which prevents me from falling asleep. Whereas it works miracles for others.
8. Assume a Familiar Body Position
If you tend to sleep in a certain position putting your body in that position is more likely to induce a quicker falling asleep. For example for me gently closing my fists and curling them inwards seems to often help me with falling asleep. It may have been the position my hands were in as a baby, I’m not sure, but it works.
I also fall asleep quicker if I’m on my belly and one of my arms is under the pillow. I remember sleeping like that since I was a child. I’ve been actively trying to change that habit as it affects my back and the level of body relaxation, but it’s been a very difficult habit to overcome.
9. Actively Relax
Hatha Yoga has a yoga posture that is said to heal all diseases. It’s called Shavasana or Corpse Pose. It is a pose of deep relaxation. Typically you get into this pose through a process of progressive muscle relaxation. You start with your left foot, visualize and feel it getting very heavy and relaxed, allowing the surface to hold its weight. Using a deep conscious breath is essential for this process to work. Then you slowly progress up the left leg, relaxing your left calf, your left knee, your upper part of the left leg. You repeat the same with the right leg. Then you relax your arms in the same fashion one arm at a time. Then you go over the buttocks, your lower, middle and upper back. And you complete the process with your neck, face and top of the head. It may take 5 to 10 minutes to get your whole body relaxed.
The funny thing is that almost always when we practiced this pose in a group, you’d start hearing people snoring long before the instructions were over, i.e. they would fall asleep somewhere around the stage of the right leg relaxation. And very often yours truly was one of those snorers ;) In fact the correct intention of this pose is not to fall asleep, but to stay aware and awake for 10-20min after the relaxation state was achieved, and that’s where most of the healing is supposed to happen. But why not use this method if you have a trouble falling asleep. The only time I won’t recommend this method is if you actually practice daily yoga and want to stay awake while performing a real Shavasana during your yogic practice. If you use it to fall asleep, it’s almost guaranteed you’d fall asleep during your yoga practice of Shavasana.
Also see L. E. Eeman’s chapter on Correct Body Conditions for more refined details on how to properly relax.
Eye Movement Technique (EMT) or Bilateral Stimulation is another way of getting to relax quickly. In the Chapter 12: “Rapid Relaxation and Better Sleep” of the book “Do-It-Yourself Eye Movement Technique for Emotional Healing” Fred Friedberg explains how you can mentally repeat the phrase re-lax, while alternatively tapping the sides of your thighs with your index fingers at a pace of 2 taps per second. If you do that for a few minutes or even sooner you’re likely to fall asleep. You can do the same by moving your eyes left and right, or use any other kind of Bilateral Stimulation.
10. Have an Orgasm
One thing that certainly works for falling asleep is having an orgasm or a few. One side effect of an orgasm is that it’s immediately followed by a state of deep relaxation, from which you can easily fall asleep.
As I will write elsewhere [XXX] in the future this is not necessarily a sustainable approach for men, because an orgasm is very likely to include an ejaculation. For all men it leads to a life force depletion in the long run and for some of men it may cause physical symptoms of illness and unwellness in the short run.
I used to use this technique often in the past, before I had the awareness of its impact on my wellbeing. I don’t use it nowadays.
11. Sync Your Brain to Sleep
Your brain oscillates like a metronome. While awake, it oscillates in the range of beta wave frequencies. When falling asleep it first goes through alpha, then theta and delta ranges of frequency.
Metronomes tend to synchronize with each other as can be seen in the following video:
Just like a metronome it’s possible to induce a desired frequency in the brain. One such method is to play a recording of binaurial beats. The beats themselves are potentially annoying beeping sounds and therefore they are often mixed with some background music that hides the beeping. By playing different types of binaurial beats you can induce your brain into different sleep stages: transitory (alpha), normal (theta) and deep sleep (delta).
You can also play your favorite relaxation sounds CD, which may include sounds of nature, gentle monotonous chanting and alike. These sounds put your mind into a day dreaming state, which leads to sleep.
12. Cull the Thoughts with Zip-It Technique
As presented in my write up on Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, this Tantra teaches various techniques for a guaranteed enlightenment for those who master at least one of those techniques. And guess what it has a whole group of techniques that work directly with thoughts. One of which is in particular useful in this particular context. It comes from dharana 105 (sloka 129) of this Tantra.
Swami Lakshmanjoo, the great Tantric master of the 20th century, translated it as following:
Towards whichever object the mind moves, one should withdraw it from there at that very moment. By thus leaving it without support one will become free from mental agitation.
While studying this technique in a group, we came up with a very accessible method of applying it as it was done by Austin Power’s Dr. Evil telling his son to Zip it. If you don’t remember that little gem, here it is:
Now apply this method to your thoughts as they rise and shoot them down before they had a chance to develop using the Zip-It method.
Usually people yawn when they are sleepy and if an opportunity to nap were to present itself they would be happily embracing it. What most people don’t know is that you can induce sleep by making yourself yawn. If when you’re tired your body tends to yawn, by yawning your can trick your body into feeling tired. This is because yawning is the anchor for wanting to sleep.
To make yourself yawn is trivial – just think of yawning and you will yawn, just like you’re most likely experiencing reading this line talking about you yawning. Using your imagination visualize, feel or hear yourself or someone else yawning — depending on your dominant sense of perception.
If you find it difficult, and the yawns don’t come — take it one step further into imitating the phenomena by opening your mouth wide as you do when you yawn. Now the success is almost guaranteed.
Repeat about 5-10 times, and really enjoy the yawns. If tears come, that’s even better. You’re now very likely on your way to fall asleep.
This method works really well for me if I remember to do that.
And of course all the presented methods are coping techniques. Ideally I’d like not to be a slave to my own mind and be able to stop its wheel spinning at will. Sometimes I’m successful at it, but more often than not, not quite so. So this is a work in progress.
I shared with you the methods that I have discovered and experimented with so far. Please share what works for you. I’m certain there are many more ways out there.