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Tired but wired?

A racing mind at night is one of the most common complaints I hear. It's rare that someone with insomnia doesn't find their mind going in overdrive when they're lying in bed awake. And it's not just people who have insomnia either, lots of good sleepers go through short bouts where they have trouble sleeping and find themselves with a racing mind throughout the night.


Sometimes, you might find yourself thinking about a genuine worry. Pressure at work, an argument you had with a friend, financial stress, upcoming exams, etc. But sometimes, you might find yourself getting worked up and frustrated over something that, when morning comes around, seems almost meaningless.


One important thing to think about is the chicken and egg dilemma. Did your worries cause poor sleep, or did poor sleep give you the opportunity whilst you were lying awake to think about what's been bothering you?


Trouble sleeping when you're in a time of stress is completely natural. Think back to how things would have been many years ago, before things like exams and money problems existed. If we felt any kind of anxiety or stress, it was usually life-threatening. We could have been hunted by predators, in the middle of natural disasters and experiencing food shortages; these were all very real problems where sleeping peacefully would have put us at risk. Fast forward to now where modern life has developed much quicker than the human brain. The brain is still very primal and whenever you experience stress, the brain quickly magnifies this into a more intense anxiety that keeps you on edge. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response. This response could be over the top if the anxiety is actually very small or unimportant, but, in the brain's attempt to keep us alive, it causes trouble sleeping amongst other problems.


So, what should I do?


To begin sleeping better again, you must deal with the thoughts. Anxious thoughts create mental alertness, and if you're feeling mentally alert then it will be almost impossible for your brain to drift off into a peaceful and restful sleep. By calming your worry, you're telling the brain that there is no threat and it's safe to fall asleep.


Often, getting into bed where it's dark and quiet is the first time people have to think about things. We're all so busy throughout the day that we don't give ourselves chance to just be. This means we don't deal with those thoughts and we try to distract ourselves instead.


When was the last time you felt bored?


Not so long ago, we had fewer distractions. We'd sit at the bus stop, go for a walk or sit inside and think about things; things like our day, our friends and family, how work is going, any ongoing problems. Now, life is full of distraction. We never get a minute to just think. Whenever we do get that opportunity, we can pull a mobile phone from our pockets and distract ourselves with the latest game or by reading through social media. Work hours tend to be longer than ever and lots of people hardly get a minute to themselves.


It's no wonder getting into bed seems to be a cue for anxious thoughts to arise. Time spent in bed awake in the night is usually quiet and distraction free; it's a bit like meditation. If you think about it, if you weren't trying to fall asleep, it would almost be the perfect time to think about things! Those worries are genuine concerns that need to be dealt with. If you don't allow yourself time to think them through during the daytime, they're just going to pop into your mind whenever you do finally have the chance.


Here are a few ideas to think about. Try and do something every day, even if it's just for ten minutes. I bet within a few days you'll start to feel more relaxed at night and as a result, you'll sleep much better.

  • Walk outdoors without distractions. This means no headphones with a podcast playing in the background. You could walk solo and have some time to yourself, or walk with a friend and chat about how things are going at the moment.

  • Meditate. Meditation is a bit like marmite - people either love it or hate it, but either way research shows that it does improve our emotional regulation. Meditation can be hard to get into, but usually this is because we're just not comfortable spending time with our own thoughts. It could help you to familiarise yourself with your worries and thoughts, giving you time to think about potential solutions and not feel so threatened by them.

  • Journal. Journalling works in a similar way to meditation, it creates a space for you to physically write out what is bothering you when you're trying to sleep. By writing it down, it's easier to understand more clearly why it's keeping you awake at night. Just like meditation, journalling improves your ability to control your emotions and if you're feeling less stressed, you'll sleep better.

  • Exercise. Individual sports like running, cycling or surfing give you time to think without the pressure of competing or making up part of a team. Take your time and minimise distractions. The added benefit of endorphin release after exercise helps you feel less stressed and worried in general too.

  • Make art. Take the pressure off, there's something therapeutic about creating.

  • Put the day to rest. Take a few minutes before you go to bed to simply think back over your day and note down anything significant. What are you planning for the future? What's on your list of things you can't forget? You won't need to worry about it in the night if it's written down, your mind can rest and your to-do list will still be there in the morning.

Do whatever is best for you. You may find all of these examples and involve all of them in your weekly routine in some way, or you might not find any of them beneficial.If you're still finding it hard to calm your mind, try something else - we're all different and our preferences vary. The key point is you need to give your brain space to think about things and ultimately relax. It's normal to wake up once or twice in the night, but you should be able to simply roll over and fall back to sleep quickly. If you find your brain switches on and starts ticking away quickly, you'll be alert in no time and it's going to be hard to fall back to sleep again. Dealing with things that are causing you stress, no matter how big or small, will allow you to sleep better through the night.

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