Silencing the Mind: Taming Late-Night Brain Chatter for Better Sleep

Silencing the Mind: Taming Late-Night Brain Chatter for Better Sleep

Have you experienced having a busy day of running around, feeling tired at night, and looking forward to sleeping…and then your mind starts? The minute your head hits the pillow, your brain gets going. Perhaps you’re worried about an upcoming event, wondering how you’ll manage the rest of the week, or suddenly remembered something you meant to do during the day. Whatever the thoughts are, they’re keeping you awake, and it’s an uneasy feeling that can lead to worries about being unable to sleep.

Dr. Margarita Cossuto, post-doctoral fellow at CBT Westport, explains that often when we are busy running around during the day we don’t have time to process and problem-solve worries. Usually, Dr. Cossuto elucidates, the only moments we have that are quiet enough to hear our thoughts are when we lie down to sleep. So naturally, thoughts from the day start flooding in. You are not alone in experiencing this busy brain phenomenon. There is no doubt that thoughts, worries, and planning for the next day can keep you awake and restless at night.

Thankfully, there are several strategies you can try to help quiet your brain so you get the much-needed rest that you need.

Set aside time to think and worry on purpose

Scheduling “worry time” is a 3-step cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique in which you set aside between 10-20 minutes to purposely worry each day.   Then, if worries pop up at different times during the day, you can make a note of the worry, but postpone the actual worrying until your scheduled “worry time.”  Sounds counterintuitive to purposely worry.  Yes, it does, but can be very helpful.  Give it a try:

Step 1: Pick a comfortable and quiet place where you can set aside a time that works for you. Your worry time should not be close to bedtime since the goal is to use this strategy to reduce stress and improve sleep. Try your best to have the same time, place, and duration each day.

Step 2: When a worry comes up during the day, postpone it until your next worry time. Some people find it helpful to write their concerns on paper or on a note on their phone and remind themselves that there will be time to worry later.

Step 3: Return to your worries at your chosen time and place. Use this time to assess if your worries are still bothering you or are still relevant and if anything, else is on your mind.

Why is this helpful?  Well, the postponement of worry until “worry time” gives you a greater sense of control over how much and when you worry. You learn that worries are just thoughts that you can put off.  You may even find that some of your concerning worries can feel less relevant or less important by the time “worry time” comes.  Many people find that their urgency to worry or anxious response to worry thoughts decrease over time by using this strategy.  Finally, worry time can serve as a mini exposure exercise that helps your brain become more used to the thoughts, so they aren’t as threatening to have.  All these things can help you get a better night’s rest.

Since this may be a new technique for you, be willing to practice and give yourself time to see the benefits. Be gentle with yourself and recognize that, ultimately, this strategy can help you worry less and sleep more.

Try some proven relaxation techniques

Mindful breathing exercises such as deep breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation are great techniques for managing stress and easing into sleep. Both can help slow your heart rate and breathing, which prompts the body and mind to relax. And that is good for sleep!

  • Deep breathing is also referred to as diaphragmatic or belly breathing. It helps increase awareness of the relationship between breathing and physical tension. While lying in bed, place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Try to breathe so that only your stomach rises and falls. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Exhale through your mouth (like you are blowing through a straw) for a count of eight. As you inhale, concentrate on your chest remaining relatively still and only moving your stomach up with each inhale and down with each exhale. After taking several deep breaths, return to regular breathing, continuing to breathe so that only your belly moves. Diaphragmatic breathing may feel a little awkward at first. With practice, it will become more natural to you.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves systematically tensing and relaxing your muscle groups one at a time from head to toe. Begin by slowly tensing your head, face, and neck muscles. Hold the tension as you gently inhale, then release it as you exhale. Repeat this process as you move down to your shoulders, hands, and arms and through your body to your feet. It can sometimes help to imagine a halo or soft light scanning each muscle group as you tense and relax.

Many excellent resources online with audio and phone apps can help guide you through these relaxation techniques. Take some time to explore different recordings until you find one that works for you.

Get out of bed

If you’re unable to sleep after 20-30 minutes, get out of bed instead of trying to force yourself to fall asleep. Doing so helps to break any association between your bed being a place where you toss and turn and stay awake. Instead, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing in dim lighting until you feel sleepy again, such as reading, doing a crossword puzzle, or listening to a podcast. Then, go back to bed when you feel sleepy.    This helps to strengthen your brain’s association of “being in bed” with “being asleep.” Behavioral scientists call this “classical conditioning”, and this can help change your bed from being a place associated with frustration, worry and wakefulness to a place of sleepiness and relaxation.

If late-night brain chatter continues to be a problem for you, or you find it challenging to manage your worries, you might consider seeing a psychologist for help and support.  At CBT Westport, we treat anxiety disorders that can have sleep-disrupting worries associated with them.  However, sometimes sleep difficulties are due to more than worries alone. We also offer “CBT for Insomnia” which has been proven beneficial to treat both insomnia and depression.