What To Do When Racing Thoughts Cause Insomnia

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Do you struggle with insomnia? A member of my online community asked me this, “If you are lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and find your mind racing, feeling anxious, what’s the next best step to stop the anxiety cycle?”
You all know that feeling. I’ve been there, You’ve got a big day ahead, or you’ve had a long day behind you, you really need to sleep, you’re soooo tired, but when you finally lay down, your mind starts running, you worry about everything, or you can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes you made throughout the day.
You can feel your stress levels rise, and despite your best efforts, you can’t sleep. And that makes you more anxious, which perpetuates the cycle, and on it goes. You desperately want to sleep, but your brain won’t shut up.
In this video you’ll learn why your brain doesn’t trust you to process these thoughts during the day. And, there is something you can do about this. So, let’s talk about the science behind why your brain gets stuck doing this, and 3 things you can do to escape that cycle:

1. Accept that you can’t just force yourself to stop thinking about something

OK, so first thing about your brain- You can’t just force yourself to stop thinking about something. We’d like to think we can control our thoughts, You might think “I have to force my mind to calm down” “I have to stop thinking about work” “I have to stop worrying or else I won’t be able to sleep” And again, this is the classic problem with the pink elephant, try not to think about a pink elephant and what happens? You think about it. 


Now we really can have a lot of influence over our thoughts, but it’s not through force, it’s through attention. What we pay attention to, we get more of. Just like a toddler who says a naughty word, if we give her positive or negative attention, she says it more. So with our thoughts, when we “Try to stop thinking about those things” we accidentally tell our brain “Those things are really important” and it actually makes the thoughts louder. 


And so, the more we struggle to control our racing thoughts, the harder it is to sleep. Engaging in a struggle to sleep or against our thoughts is like putting on our armor and riding horseback in an attempt to sleep- it’s just going to make us very alert. 


So, first step- it’s much more helpful to notice and acknowledge those thoughts than it is to try to stop your thoughts from racing. This is an essential principle of mindfulness. Notice that you’re having a stressful thought, say “Thank you mind for that thought” and then let the thought pass on- you could develop this skill by practicing mindfulness or trying the activity “Leaves on a stream”. 


Now I’m not going to spend too much time on this because I want to really jump into the next essential strategy

2. Let your brain run the update

If we really want to solve the problem of racing thoughts and rumination at night, we need to understand why the heck your brain would do this to you. When your brain brings up all those stressful thoughts, it’s doing its job, trying to solve a problem or address a threat. (“Did I say something stupid? What if I’m rejected from the tribe and die of starvation?! Did I remember everything for the presentation tomorrow? What if I get fired and die of starvation? Better run triple checks.”) Your brain is trying to tie up loose ends. But, the middle of the night isn’t a great time to actually solve problems. So you end up running in mental circles. 

So why would your brain bring these things up at the exact time you want to relax and fall asleep? Because it doesn’t trust you to address them during the day. 

One of the reasons that we get racing thoughts at night is because we keep ourselves so busy, so occupied and distracted throughout the day. I mean heck, we even stare at a screen when we’re on the toilet. We keep our minds occupied nearly every waking moment. This makes it so that our brain doesn’t have time to file away our memories and our to-do lists and work through any worries. So the moment we finally stop being busy, close our eyes, and remove distractions, our brain is like “Aha! Now’s my chance to file away each of these thoughts or work through each of these concerns” 

It’s like updates on your computer. Keeping busy all day is like constantly telling your computer that you’ll do the update later, until finally the computer just forces the update on you right in the middle of something important. 

If you don’t choose WHEN you’re going to process through your thoughts and worries, your brain will decide to do it when you lay down to sleep.

So what’s the antidote? Make time during the day for your brain to run its updates, to work through worries, and to do some housekeeping. So what does this look like on a practical level:

  • Get rid of mindless distractions during the day. This usually means being more intentional about your social media use, instead of randomly using it throughout the day, schedule in short time periods when you will use it and use an app blocker to stop that impulsive usage during the day.  This will open up tiny moments to process those thoughts when you’re waiting in line, sitting on the toilet, or taking a shower for example. 
  • Add in processing time to your day. Take quiet walks for breaks, without listening to stuff, or allow yourself to just “do nothing” for a few minutes at a time. 
  • Schedule a time each day to write down your worries and to-dos. Like toddlers, our brains don’t handle being told not to do something, as in “Don’t worry.” But our brains do very well with knowing WHEN to do something. Before you leave work, capture all the work things your brain wants to process, and then leave them there. At home, check off your to-do list every evening. Before your bedtime routine, review your calendar for the next day so your brain knows it doesn’t have to remind you of anything when you’re ready to sleep. You could also practice scheduled worry. When you make time for your brain to worry, you are teaching it to trust you that everything has been processed so it doesn’t have to nag you about them at night.

This is the best long-term strategy for dealing with worries at night. 

You don’t want to make a habit of dealing with anxious thoughts when your head hits the pillow, but if it’s night and you have a dump truck load of worries coming right when you’re trying to sleep, choose what will be most restful for you- laying there, just noticing these thoughts, or getting up, writing them down, waiting until you feel sleepy, and then going back to bed. 

For me, most of the time, I get up, do a brain dump– where I just write down everything in my head on a piece of paper, and it breaks the anxiety cycle so I can go back to bed. 

But again, prevention is the best medicine- process your worries during the day. If you are chronically anxious and distracted during the day- If you don’t work through your anxiety during the day, there are no magical fixes at night.  If you don’t know how to do this, check out my How to Process Emotions online course. 

OK, so…you’ve learned about attention and you’re going to practice some mindfulness- dropping the struggle with your thoughts. You’ve started processing your worries during the day, writing them down, giving your brain some time to work through them. You’ve shown your brain when you do solve problems- you do work at work, you write down events on your calendar, you keep a to-do list on your computer, etc. But what should you do if you still get racing thoughts at night?

3. Gently redirect your attention

The third skill is to gently redirect your attention instead of trying to “Stop thinking”. You can acknowledge those worries or racing thoughts, but then just shift your attention to something more restful.  

Here are 3 things you could pay attention to instead:

    1. Gratitude practice– to feed the sense of abundance in your life, just start making lists in your head of all the things you are grateful for. This can counteract a sense of worry with a reminder of how blessed you are. 
    2. Guided imagery- you could listen to a guided meditation or a walkthrough of a beautiful place or a gentle sleep story, or you can build your own personal visualization of your favorite places or memories. 
    3. Limited distraction- I like to listen to a somewhat dull audiobook, or a soothing podcast. For me it’s archaeology stories like “The fall of civilizations” or “Dan brown history”, other people like Bob Ross, Sleep stories, or ASMR. 

Basically anything that helps you drop the struggle with your thoughts or the struggle to sleep can help your natural sleep drive kick on. 

Now remember, distraction is a funny thing. During the day, too much distraction makes problems pile up. Distraction will never solve your problems, but at bedtime distraction helps by redirecting thoughts to something more restful instead of something stressful. In my next video on sleep, I’m inviting insomnia expert Martin Reed to teach us how to drop the struggle with sleep and overcome insomnia. 

But for racing thoughts, here are the main steps to take. 

  1. Accept that you can’t force your thoughts to stop. 
  2. Instead tell your brain when and where to process through thoughts and worries (hint- it’s during the day)
  3. Schedule in quiet or unstructured time without screens or stimulation, and practice scheduled worry or brain dumps to put your worries on paper. 
  4. Redirect your attention at night to mindfulness, gratitude, or relaxing distraction. 

In the long run this trains your brain that nighttime or the bed is a restful time, and little by little you really can break the cycle of sleep anxiety and insomnia. 

Learn more about the course, Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days by clicking the link below. 

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