It’s bedtime, and your brain has not yet gotten the message. Even though you’re in between the sheets with your eyes shut, your mind is going a mile a minute.
“The scientific term for racing thoughts is rumination, which is likely caused in part by over-activation of the brain’s frontal cortex,” says sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD, author of "The Power of When." “Ruminative thinking is almost always due to anxiety, and it’s considered a symptom of insomnia.”
Not surprisingly, anxiety is spiking for many Americans. Whether we’re concerned about our health, the wellbeing of loved ones, our financial situations, our children’s educations, or the state of the world in general—there may be a lot on our minds. In a June 2020 study from Harvard Medical School and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, nearly 90% of people reported feeling increased worry during the pandemic.
What’s more, social isolation exacerbates this sense of unease. A November 2019 study in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics indicated that loneliness increases stress, and research published in the journal Psychological Medicine in September 2017 revealed an association between loneliness and poor sleep.
COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for people suffering with insomnia. In a May 2020 survey, 31% of Americans reported difficulty falling asleep during the pandemic. while another May 2020 survey by King’s College London found that Brits who were worried about the coronavirus were twice as likely to sleep worse than those who were unconcerned. Meanwhile, research from the healthcare company Express Scripts showed that prescriptions for anti-insomnia drugs surged by nearly 15% between February and March of this year.
Racing Thoughts at Night Can Create A Repetitive Loop
As if a racing mind and insomnia weren’t bad enough, research shows they can trigger a negative loop. A June 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that on top of their regular concerns, people who have a tough time nodding off tend to worry about their lack of sleep—which, of course, only makes things worse.
In addition, a November 2019 study in Nature revealed that one sleepless night can cause emotional stress levels to increase up to 30%. “When you’re stressed, you don't sleep well, and when you're sleep-deprived, you get more stressed,” Breus says. “It’s a cyclical relationship that feeds on itself.”
Why do repetitive thoughts make it so tricky to fall asleep? Anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, setting off a series of physical changes that boost your alertness and gear you up to act.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, the main stress hormone,” Breus says. “This coincides with glucose entering the bloodstream, which elevates your blood pressure. Soon, your muscles are tensing up, your heart is pumping, and your brain is working overtime.”
This reaction is known as the “fight or flight” response, an innate survival mechanism our bodies activate when we’re facing stress or trouble. And it’s pretty much the opposite of what you need in order to relax and get some quality sleep. “Trying to get good sleep while you’re stressed-out is like trying to make a half-court shot while blindfolded,” Breus says. “You can do it, but it’s really tough to pull off.”
It’s crucial to break this loop.
The last thing we want to do is add to your stress, but it’s important to mention that according to Harvard University, chronic insomnia is associated with health issues including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, dementia (including Alzheimer’s), and depression. So, if your brain tends to go into overdrive at night, it’s essential to intervene before it spirals from an occasional annoyance to an ongoing condition.
Don’t worry—we’ve got your back!
Five Ways to Slow Down a Racing Thoughts at Night
These research-based ideas are easy and effective.
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1. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a wind-down strategy that can help treat insomnia. To do it, sequentially contract and relax different muscle groups, beginning with your face, and working your way down the body to your toes. For example: Tighten your face muscles for 10 seconds—squeeze your eyes shut, clench your jaw, scrunch your forehead. Then release all of the tension and breathe in and out for several seconds. Continue down the rest of your body.
“This practice cultivates an awareness of what both tension and relaxation feel like in your body,” Dr. Breus says. “With that awareness you become better prepared to address physical tension and any mental or emotional stress that accompanies it.” It’s also an effective distraction from intrusive thoughts that pop into your head.
2. Practice Yoga Nidra
You already know that yoga can promote relaxation—and relaxation, in turn, can improve sleep. A 2012 survey from the National Institutes of Health found that 55% of yoga practitioners report better sleep and 85% report reduced stress.
But did you know that there’s a certain type of yoga specifically designed to facilitate slumber? Meet yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep,” a form of guided meditation that induces a deep state of tranquility.
Rather than moving into a series of poses, you lie on your mat with your eyes closed for the entire 30- to 45-minute session. The teacher uses techniques like body scanning, breath awareness, and tuning into your five senses to help you enter a place of semi-consciousness in between sleeping and waking. The National Sleep Foundation says yoga nidra can quell racing thoughts and help you fall asleep more rapidly.
3. Cool Off Your Brain
Since rumination is triggered in part by hyperarousal of the frontal cortex, scientists have identified a new way to dial down this overactivity: Make your brain chill out — literally. A May 2018 study in the journal Sleep revealed that cooling the frontal cortex via the forehead reduces metabolic activity, which slows down a racing mind and induces sleep. The researcher who led the study developed a temperature-controlled forehead band from SleepScore Labs that users wear all night to keep their brain at the ideal temp (about 59 degrees Fahrenheit) for restorative sleep.
If this headband is out of your budget, try draping a cold washcloth or an ice pack wrapped in a dishtowel over your forehead. There’s no guarantee it will work, but just the act of practicing self-care during a bedtime routine may help your body wind down for sleep.
4. Write Down Three Good Things
It’s not always easy to keep your spirits up during a challenging time, but a July 2019 study in Behavioral Medicine suggests that having an upbeat attitude can lead to longer and more restful sleep. “Optimists are more apt to think about stressful situations with a positive, hopeful mindset—which translates to fewer of the ruminating, negative thoughts that interfere with our ability to sleep,” Breus says.
You’re probably familiar with mood-boosters like exercise, a healthy diet, hanging with friends, and meditation. But here’s a suggestion from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley that you might not have heard of: Before bed, jot down three good things that happened to you that day, and how you contributed to each. This practice has been scientifically proven to help you harness a sunnier outlook after just one week.
Oh, and while you’re at it, make a to-do list for the next day. A small January 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that this can put you on the fast track to snooze town. Hint: “People who wrote longer and more specific to-do lists fell asleep faster than those who wrote shorter, more general ones,” Breus says.
5. Get Out of Bed
This might sound counter-intuitive, but staying between the sheets is one of the worst things you can do if your mind is on overdrive.
An April 2018 study in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal explains that people who have trouble dozing off tend to increase the amount of time spent in the sack. Insomniacs turn in early, get up late, and remain in bed even when they’re having trouble switching off their mind. But this conditions your brain to associate bedtime with stress and struggle, rather than peaceful slumber.
So, if you haven’t zonked out after 15 to 30 minutes in bed, get up and do a relaxing activity instead, like meditation, reading, or gentle yoga. Then, hit the hay as soon as you’re actually feeling sleepy.
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