It’s a common complaint experienced by many people that suffer from insomnia. You feel exhausted physically, but for some reason your mind seems to forget it is bedtime. You have decreased the amount of coffee. You have intentionally exercised hours before bedtime. You have even stopped watching scary movies that kept you awake as a kid. And it feels like you are doing all the right things, but you still are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep. So, then what’s the deal? If you are overtired, then shouldn’t your mind just naturally shut down as well?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple. The good news: racing thoughts can be understood to be healthy and normal. And the even better news: there are things you can do to help you fall asleep and stay asleep!
Ironically, your mind is actually quite active at night. The medical community has realized this for a long time. I.R. Tarkhanov is reported to have described this succinctly, “…the brain continues to function during sleep even more intensely than during waking…During sleep, the respiratory and circulatory centers for the brain do not sleep; speech centers do not sleep if we sleep talk; the attention, hearing and olfactory centers do not sleep; finally the cerebellum does not sleep, as demonstrated by the balancing antic of sleepwalkers. The only centers that sleep are responsible for [is] consciousness. All others continue to operate, even more actively than daytime.” Hence, although you may feel completely passed out when you are asleep, your brain is quite awake, and doing its job.
Modern technology continues to prove this is true. Current research attests that sleep is influential in many different systems of our body. It does not act independently, nor in isolation. Rather, sleep effects our emotional and physical health – sometimes simultaneously. Not getting enough sleep can make it more difficult for your body to fight off viruses. And poor sleep can make it more difficult to manage stress. It can even affect your mood and may bring on feelings of depression or anxiety.
Have you been feeling more emotionally fragile than usual? Chronic insomnia may be a contributor. Many people that have experienced recurring bouts of insomnia report experiencing sleep-related anxiety. “Why can’t I just fall asleep?” “All of this insomnia cannot be good for me.” “What if this sleep difficulty continues forever? What if not getting enough sleep is just a new normal for me?” These are just a few examples of racing thoughts someone experiencing chronic insomnia may be thinking. Many people also begin to worry about the long-term physical effects that coincide not sleeping well. Others may start to develop a fear of falling asleep because they are afraid of waking up over and over again and not be able to fall back asleep – just like every other night. To the outsider, this type of anxiety can seem silly and nonsense. However, to the one that suffers from chronic insomnia, such feelings are very real and intrusive.
What can you do about racing thoughts at night?
There are many things that have proven to be helpful to help reduce nightly racing thoughts. Stress management practices are commonly known to improve sleep health. Mindfulness is one of the most effective stress-reduction techniques that can improve sleep. For some, the concept of mindfulness brings to mind ancient meditation or existential experiences that seem out of touch to the common person. Or it may be reminiscent of failed attempts of trying mindfulness that resulted in more anxiety and frustration.
So then what is mindfulness? It is a complex term that is defined differently by many people. Yet, put simply, I like to define it as the ability to openly set my focus on the here-and-now, rather than get lost is the chaos of the stressful situations of everyday life. It’s taking a break from anxiety and my endless to-do list to regain perspective, peace and renewed energy. In doing so, mindfulness allows your gaze to shift from unproductive worries that you have no control over and redirect it toward the present moment in which you do have control over.
Thankfully, self-understanding and compassion accompany mindfulness. Learning how to be mindful can be challenging at first; especially in the middle of the night. Yet, like any other skill, it becomes more natural with practice. Some researchers have recommended practicing mindfulness for a few minutes each day during the day to gain the confidence to use mindfulness at night.
It is important to remember that mindfulness is not intended to cause someone to fall asleep. It’s not a magic sleeping pill. Rather, practicing mindfulness helps you regain control over worry by inviting your mind to start winding down and focus on the present. That is, mindfulness will not get rid of stressful life circumstances, but can provide an effective way to manage them.
Another effective tool that is often recommended for decreasing emotional distress and gaining clarity is journaling. Like mindfulness, journaling is often misunderstood. Images of children keeping a diary or writing endless pages of inner thoughts are often misconstrued for journaling. In reality, you can be as simple and in-depth as you desire.
If your mind decides to wake you up in the middle of the night to hold a business meeting because of concerns at work, try getting up and jotting down a few thoughts on a piece of paper. Then, you can return to bed knowing that you will address them in the morning. This is an example of journaling. Likewise, if you are experiencing conflicts in a relationship with another person, then taking the time to freely write down your concerns is another form of journaling.
There are many questions about journaling:
“Can I use a computer instead of paper and pen?” Of course.
“Do I have to journal every single day?” Nope, only if you want to
“What about drawing pictures or painting? Are these still considered journaling?” Yup.
“If I do write things down, can I destroy what I have written? Or use a password to protect my thoughts?” Anything you wish to do.
“Do I have to have all my thoughts together or can I just write whatever comes to mind?” Whatever you need.
Hence, journaling is very flexible. In fact the only guiding principle is to express yourself freely and with bold honesty. Such genuine and undisputed writing usually brings insight and inner resolution.
Think of journaling as a paint palette and each color as a different emotion that you may be simultaneously experiencing. Like an artist that selects each color, journaling helps identify each emotion. Then as the artist mixes the color together to create a masterpiece, so journaling can help you gain insight about the reasons for your distress and then explore solutions and resolution.
Getting outside help
Sometimes it is helpful to talk to others about our concerns. In doing so, not only do you feel less alone, but you are able to gain a different perspective. Racing thoughts makes it difficult to see things peripherally. That is, a narrow focus makes it difficult to recognize other solutions. Talking to others provides emotional support and offers a different frame of reference. Often, trusted friends and family members can fill this role. Reach out to them for their input.
Other times it may be helpful to seek help from a professional counselor, especially if your conflict involves those that you perceive may not be approachable. Physicians, clergy and friends and family are great sources for reputable referrals for getting help. Feel free to briefly interview them in-person or over the phone. A successful therapeutic relationship is not only based upon qualifications, but from feeling comfortable to discuss and share your concerns openly.
Racing thoughts can be frustrating and feel impossible to deal with at night. Yet, you do not have to accept them as a permanent problem. Implementing mindfulness and journaling can go a long way to help you overcome them. Additionally, getting help from a licensed professional can facilitate gaining insight and bring and end to sleepless nights so you sleep well and feel well.
Pigarev, I.N., Pigareva, M.L. A Long and Difficult Path towards Understanding the Purpose of Sleep. The Period before Electrophysiology. Neurosci Behav Physi 49, 75–80 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11055-018-0695-0
National Institute of Health News In Health. (April 2013). The benefits of sleep. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/04/benefits-slumber
Ong JC, Moore C. What do we really know about mindfulness and sleep health? Curr Opin Psychol. 2020 Aug;34:18-22. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.08.020. Epub 2019 Aug 24. PMID: 31539830.