Stilling the Mind
Last updated: April 2022
Hyperarousal and anxiety can be big sleep disruptors. I have personally spent many a night with my head churning through a million catastrophic scenarios. Every single one of them keeps me wide awake. Sleep-related anxiety became so overwhelming that I developed a fear at the sight of my pillow.
Tips to calm the mind and improve sleep
After years of cognitive behavioral therapy, I have learned some techniques that help still my mind. Alongside lifestyle changes and prescription medications, those techniques now contribute to improved sleep for me. Every little thing I learn is a little bonus.
Breathing to number systems that are easy to remember
Breathing is perhaps the first thing we are ever taught when it comes to anything to do with anxiety; to take slow, focused, deep breaths. There are all sorts of number systems but I make mine simple – breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts. Four, four, four. Easy to remember when I'm stressed.
I personally haven't found that focused breathing brings about sleep but it can help me stop the racing thoughts and bring me back into the moment, focusing on the here and now, and my body. It is a good start to relaxation.
Relaxing muscles distract the mind from stressors
Muscle relaxation is an essential tool for me, as my body is naturally tensed all the time. When I visit my massage therapist she’ll hold my arm out and say, “Relax.” And I say, "I’m relaxed." But she disagrees. My muscles just don’t naturally soften and relax. It’s part of living with hyperarousal. I’m ready to spring into action at any moment of the day, which is not conducive to restful sleep.
So, while I’m doing my "four, four, four" breathing, I try to pair up some muscle relaxation. I clench my hands or feet as hard as possible, then as I breathe out I relax the muscles. I repeat the process with as many bits of my body as I clench tight - arms, legs, butt, belly, face. Anything I can scrunch then unscrunch while breathing out.
The relaxation doesn’t put me to sleep, unfortunately, but again it focuses my mind away from stressors and slowly teaches my body how to relax. Which is a blessed respite from feeling tensed and stressed all the time.
Meditating and mindfulness with apps
In the past, I have used apps for meditation and mindfulness. I find that my concentration is not sufficient to do it unassisted but with a soothing voice talking me through the hows and whys of mindfulness, I can let go of some of the catastrophes that rabbit around in my head.
The beauty of apps is that they give me a voice to focus on so I can’t hear the noise inside my head. And I have even been known to fall asleep to a meditation app – which generally brings together breathing and relaxation, with imagery and calming music.
Calming the mind with imagery
Imagery is one of the most powerful tools to calm my mind. Instead of letting my head run wild with all the stressful things that have happened or are just around the corner, I focus my thoughts on a positive dream. Something I’ve always wanted to do. Or dreaming about how something might work out for the best.
I’ve dreamt up ridiculous scenarios where I suspend belief for a period of time and just sink into the soothing dreams of success, peace, and happiness. For me, this is a technique that often leads to sleep. I fall asleep imagining I’m traipsing around the country in a campervan or living in a lovely little cottage by a Vietnamese beach.
Focusing on single words
I have heard of some people who focus on a single word or concept to bring them into the here and now. A repetitive focus word words using any old word or image – cat, cat, cat. By staying focused on the word or image, anxiety around the day that has been or is to come reduces. Hopefully!
Listening to white noise
I find white noise to be another distraction from thoughts. I usually sleep with my air conditioner on which has a really gentle hum I can focus on. I know others who sleep with fans or white noise machines.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are also a lot of people who fall asleep to the sound of the radio or television going. The background voices drown out the stresses of the day. I have often napped in my lounge chair with the sound of my son tapping away on his computer in the background.
Writing thoughts in a journal
The last thing that I have done to help with excessive worrying is to write out my thoughts. I scribble notes into an app on my phone. I have even been known to wake in the middle of the night with some kind of very important idea that I just have to write down and then once it’s out of my head, I can go back to daydreaming about croissants in Vietnam.
Learning to control your thought process
We’re all different so no one thing will work for everybody, but overactive thought processes can be a big impediment to sleep. Learning to control my thought processes has contributed enormously to acceptance and relaxation.
On good days that leads to sleep. But always, I feel calmer and more rested.
What do you do at night when you can't sleep?