Do you tend to ruminate on the negative events of your past or the fears of tomorrow? Many of us do. When we allow this pattern to continue, however, daily stresses and traumas have a way of building themselves up in our psyches, and even in our bodies, causing chronic mental and physical tension. This can make getting to sleep at night a very real challenge.
More than three in 10 adults in the U.S. suffer from brief symptoms of insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. One in 10 has a chronic insomnia disorder in which the sufferer has trouble sleeping at least three times a week for at least three months. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are often the driving forces of these sleepless nights which can eventually turn into a continual cycle of depression, no sleep, more depression, and so forth.
But why is it so hard to relax at night? When we are still, our brains often gravitate toward the most fearful thought in an attempt to “protect” us from impending doom. If there were a snake under the bed, this would be helpful, but today’s worries tend to be built-up thoughts of yesterday’s disappointments and the fears of tomorrow -- mostly mind tricks. There is a time for productive thinking about real problems, of course, but much of our time is spent on unproductive ruminating and worrying.
Finding your center—your innermost self and place of perfect calm—is paramount to getting a good night’s sleep. Before you get into bed, make an intention to “let go” of your worries and to be truly conscious of where your thoughts are taking you. You don’t have to follow them wherever they lead!
Next, understand that you can retrain your brain to focus on the positive and the present moment. It really is OK to let go of your worries and allow yourself to get a good night’s sleep. If need be, give yourself permission to deal with the problem tomorrow morning after you get some rest and a fresh perspective.
Now, try the following centering techniques before bed. These will help relax you both mentally and physically.
- Meditation: this really does work. If you’ve never tried it before, attempt it for just five minutes. Sit in a comfortable position, preferably on the floor with your legs crossed. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When your worrisome thoughts begin to intrude, gently turn your focus to your breathing again. If your brain starts to make you feel anxious for not focusing on your fears (and it probably will), acknowledge your anxiety but try to observe it from an outside perspective. Such as, Yes I can feel you, but you’re not a part of the true me.
- Yoga poses: do two or three just before getting into bed. Child’s Pose and Cat Pose, for example, are two very simple positions designed to relax your mind and body and also stretch your back, neck and shoulders (where we hold most of our tension). Child’s pose is so named because it is the position children will intuitively go into when feeling overwhelmed. It is reminiscent of the fetal position.
- Mindful observation: choose a natural object on which to focus. It can be a leaf, the moon, a feather, etc. For one minute, focus on your object and fully “take it in.” Observe every aspect of its beauty and its purpose in the world. If your mind tries to go back to your worries, gently bring it back to your chosen object of beauty.
- Gratitude: this is one of the easiest, fastest ways to let go of negativity. Whenever you find yourself dwelling on an unnecessary negative thought, match it with a positive thought. For example, if you hate your job, switch your thoughts to what it would like to be without a job. Allow yourself to feel gratitude for the job you have. Continue to feel deep gratitude for the job you have even as you look for a new one. Start a habit of giving thanks for other things in your life that you would sorely miss if they were gone tomorrow.
Retraining your thoughts to be productive, rather than destructive, takes some practice, but it can be done. Before getting into bed each night, be aware of where your attention is heading. If your thoughts were food, would they be healthy or toxic to our body? Continue to feed your mind and body nourishing thoughts and a restful night of sleep will come.