A latina woman lying awake in bed with light across her forehead, clutching her bedcovers. Her eyes are wide open, alert, and pointed up to the ceiling with a frown.

When My Body Is Tired but My Brain Is Wide Awake

Last updated: July 2023

I think to be honest this has been my biggest challenge since I was a young child – my nightly brain-body patterns with insomnia.

My nightly brain and body pattern with insomnia

I'll get into bed – to nap or for night sleep – and I'll be exhausted. My body will be consumed with fatigue, and I will have been counting down to this moment of reaching my pillow for hours sometimes.

I'll tuck myself in, get comfortable, turn on whatever music or sound I choose to listen to, put my sleep mask on, and... Then, I lay there.

Awake. Waiting to fall asleep.

Convincing my brain to rest

Here's what happens. I literally instruct my brain that it's time to shut down. That we're going to sleep. That it's time to turn off. That there's no present threat. That my body needs rest. That even it, my brain, needs to rest.

And then, I find a million tabs popping open on the internet-like browser in my mind.

My to-do list auto-adding tabs to my brain

Usually, it starts with a to-do list. Either things I've already written down on a real paper to-do list. It involves thinking about when and how they'll get done, what I need to do to cross them off and finish them.

Or, my brain starts adding things to that to-do list! That's when the trouble begins because if they are new to-do's, I instantly become nervous about forgetting them, so then I have to take off my eye mask, grab my phone, and jot them down.

Then, I reposition. I usually turn over to lie on my other side. Put my sleep mask back on. And try again to lull myself into dreamland.

Tabs continue loading and keep me awake

Except the next tab starts loading. It's usually some sort of memory, or a replay of a recent interaction or conversation. I will think really hard about my role in that scene.

Was I kind, straightforward, logical, helpful, and supportive? Did I deliver whatever the other person needed? Or, was it a case where I needed something, and I didn't receive it? Was it a moment during a therapy session that I wish I had said more, or I was thinking again about how something was reframed for me?

My mental redirect

This is a harder redirect for me.

It usually requires some sort of mental resolution before I can try to relax my brain again back into trying to reach sleeping status. After the mental gymnastics, I return to a state of laying on my pillow, cozy and tucked in, but... Awake.

I want to be sleeping. I need to be sleeping.

My body is ready to sleep. But my brain... is not.

Do I pick up my phone and try to read something or listen to something else?

I shouldn't, because... blue light. Brightness. Distraction.

I think about when we put our toddler to sleep. I try to sing myself a song in my head. It doesn't help. It feels like work, not like a lullaby.

Trying a physical redirect

I finally decided to give myself something different. I take off my sleep mask and untuck myself from the tangle of blankets. I go downstairs to get some water and to eat a small snack.

I don't turn on any of the lights. I don't make a sound. Maybe food will help me fall asleep?

My nightly brain-body pattern

The number of nights (and naps!) that my brain and my body follow this pattern is truly remarkable. It actually astounds me that I ever get any sleep at all, because it feels like I play out this scenario I've described for you above more often than not.

Does any of this feel familiar to you? Do you also have a nightly brain-body pattern with insomnia? I'd love to hear if there's anything you've found to overcome it!

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