Few things are more frustrating than spending the day fantasizing about sleeping only to find it elusive the moment your head hits the pillow.
We’ve all been there: our thoughts whirling anxiously round like a carousel and all we can think about is that every extra minute spent worrying is a minute we won’t spend sleeping.
This sort of obsessive, repetitive worrying is sometimes called “rumination" by psychologists and it is a well-studied, common problem. The causes of rumination are intricate and vary by the individual. But we all have reasons to ruminate… especially after a year like 2020. The problem is, it isn’t helpful.
Preventing your mind from relaxing can create a profoundly negative impact on your mood and focus.
You’re better off resting and there are a few simple solutions that can help you get there.
The first thing to do is look at your mindset. “Wellness” is a term you have no doubt heard before. It’s about considering your lifestyle with more agency. We spend so much of our lives on autopilot reacting, worrying and ruminating that we forget to spend the time to actually think about our behaviors. Wellness, in this case, is about discovering healthier, happier ways to move through the world and making changes where we can. Wellness is intended to be self-directed and evolving based on your needs.
From that point of view, here are a few lifestyle suggestions that might help rest your mind. While outside help might be necessary, a few alterations or activities might make a world of difference.
Perhaps some nights before you sleep you check Twitter. Twitter then helpfully keeps you up to date on all the ways that the world is ending, you’re doomed and evil people are getting away with it.
Then, for some reason, when you finally try to sleep it’s like wrestling a wolverine in your brain. How weird.
Well, beyond the fact that social media is designed to be addictive, looking at a screen (especially a phone or laptop) before bed is simply not good for you. Light disrupts our circadian rhythm, tricking our body into thinking it is daylight.
To help your mind relax, you can go into your device’s display settings. Many now have a nighttime function to make the screen more yellow. This can help, but you’re better off not looking at any screen at all for an hour before bedtime. Instead, use that hour to relax your mind. Take a luxurious bath or look at something that’s not on your phone like a book.
We would be amiss not to mention substances. You already know that caffeine can keep you awake and can have a big effect on anxiety. We’ve all tried to become infinitely awake with even more coffee—only to sweat our way through a job interview. But other substances can keep you awake too, like certain types of marijuana or alcohol.
Drinking as stress relief is practically a national pastime, but there are mountains of evidence that this is not the best idea. If you drink a few hours before bed your liver will metabolize the alcohol while you sleep. This will disrupt your REM cycles and it is why it is common to wake up horribly alert in the middle of the night after drinking.
So how can we properly quiet our minds without drinking a half bottle of wine and doomscrolling?
Meditation is a great option. It is much easier than you might think to get into it, and guided apps, podcasts and classes make it even easier.
If you’re feeling too restless to meditate, you might like a guided meditation yoga practice. Not only will this exercise your body, but it will help prepare your mind to seek a bit of calm.
If meditation isn’t your thing, going for a long peaceful walk can create similar effects, especially in nature. A growing scientific field called “ecotherapy" has found that nature walks result in lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the forebrain known to be active when we’re feeling anxious. Long walks have become common health recommendations even by professional psychologists.
This leads us into exercise during the day. There is good data to suggest that active people are generally less anxious than inactive ones. Some studies have found that exercise is actually as good as antidepressants, for some patients. This isn’t just short-term, either. Beyond endorphins (which are very good), any long-distance runner can tell you about the meditative effect of a long jog.
While these more obvious activities can help, perhaps your wellness activity is binge-watching a reality show. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. When seeking wellness, giving yourself a moment or activity to relax is more important than judging what that is. The important thing is to calm your mind and regain some focus from racing thoughts. Sweet dreams!