It’s late on a weeknight. You crawl into bed. Every cell in your body is begging for rest. But when you try to drift off, your brain has other plans. It ping-pongs between the things you didn’t get to today, anxieties about tomorrow, and reliving that cringe-y moment from 10 years ago. If you feel like you can’t turn your brain off at night, welcome to the club — we have coffee (and dark circles).
Unlearning the myth of “turning your brain off”
The most common complaint I hear from patients is that they can’t “turn off” their brains as they try to fall asleep. But here’s the thing: Brains don’t have an off switch because they’re not supposed to turn off. Even deep in sleep, our brains remain active.
Instead of turning off your thoughts — an impossible task — it’s much more productive to work on redirecting them. And you need to start this process long before you hit the pillow. You need a better pre-sleep routine.
If you’re a parent, you know how crucial routines are for getting your infant to bed. This is because babies are born without circadian rhythms. Parents have the unenviable job of helping babies navigate when to rest and when to be awake. A 2015 study published in the journal Sleep asked more than 10,000 parents across multiple continents about their children’s pre-bed rituals. A consistent routine before bed correlated with kids going to bed earlier, falling asleep faster, and experiencing fewer incidences of nighttime waking.
But routines don’t just help kids. Adults, unlike babies, have established circadian rhythms, and having a consistent routine keeps those rhythms in-check.
Shifting your bedtimes and wakeup times can tip those circadian rhythms off-kilter. That’s a problem if you’re consistently inconsistent, because body temperature, heart rate, and even the production of certain hormones and chemicals, fluctuate depending on the time of day.
For example, cortisol, which is often called the “stress hormone,” ramps up production during the day as you need to stay awake to complete daytime tasks, and ebbs in the evening as you prepare for bed. But if you slept until noon, and are now trying to nod off at 9, your body may be confused on exactly what time it is.
Our devices and lifestyle choices can befuddle our internal clocks, too. Blue light emitted by electronics inhibits the production of melatonin, a hormone that tells our bodies it’s night and time to start drifting towards sleep. Getting too much bright light in your eyes in the evenings can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, so it holds off on the melatonin and holds off on sleep.
Doomscrolling or finding a late-night nastygram from your boss can disrupt your natural rhythms, too. It can trigger your sympathetic nervous system, which puts you in fight-or-flight mode, when what your body should be doing is moving into a state where the parasympathetic — or rest-and-digest system — is in control.
All this to say: Giving yourself a bedtime routine that isn’t endlessly scrolling TikTok can help ease your transition into Dream Land.
Rethinking bedtime routines for night owls
Honestly, my bedtime routine starts in the morning. With a small child and a hectic work schedule (and a natural propensity to be a bit of a night owl), my bedtimes fluctuate more than I’d like. But I try to wake up within an hour of the same time every day. Getting up at the same time every day helps me keep my circadian rhythm on track, and an on-track circadian rhythm is crucial for sleep quality.
Then I draw a clear delineation between “doing” and “being” modes. “Doing” mode is how I operate during the day. It’s productivity focused — answering emails and checking things off my list.
“Being” mode is how I operate after 10 p.m. It’s geared toward allowing myself to be in the moment, with no pressure to accomplish anything beyond preparing my body to rest.
Maybe that’s listening to a podcast I like. Maybe it’s taking a hot bath. Maybe it’s spending time with my spouse, rehashing the day. It’s often just daydreaming. Whatever I engage in after 10 p.m., it’s not goal oriented. Instead, it’s about enjoying the moment, or at least being mindful of my body and emotions.
If you spend your last hour before bed in “being” mode, you’ll meet your sheets in a headspace primed for rest. While turning off the light, remember, you can’t do the same for your brain. But with your pre-bed routine in place, you can activate a bit of a dimmer switch.
And if you keep your thoughts focused on being — feeling the weight of your body on the bed, the feel of the sheets on your skin, and the sound of your fan humming away — you may be surprised at how quickly that dimmer switch turns from sleepy to asleep.
Want more sleep tips from the dream team of Sleep Advisors, Guides, and Experts? Visit Unjunk Your Sleep.