How to calm your overactive mind for better sleep

If you often go to bed exhausted but can’t sleep because your brain won’t switch off, you’re not alone

Zeta Yarwood
Zeta Yarwood - Special to Al Arabiya English
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If you often go to bed exhausted but can’t sleep because your brain won’t switch off, you’re not alone. Excessive thinking at night is one of the most common causes of insomnia. More often than not, it’s a sign of stress. Your mind is on high alert, afraid to fall asleep in case you might forget something important. Something you’re worried you ‘should’ be doing. However, sometimes it might be because you have some exciting plans or ideas you want to explore and execute. Whatever the reason, your mind won’t let you sleep until it feels confident you’re on top of it.

To fall asleep more easily, we need to train our brains it’s safe to fall asleep at the end of the day. That sleep doesn’t mean things will be forgotten and the world is going to end.

Here is an exercise you can do, either before you go to sleep or if you wake in the middle of the night to help calm your mind for better sleep:

1) Write down ANY and EVERY thought that is going through your head

Take an A4 piece paper and get writing. Doesn’t matter what the thoughts are – good or bad, logical or illogical, fact or fiction. Get them all down. Thoughts. Images. Voices. Feelings. Whatever is in there. Keep going until your brain has nothing more to tell you about. These thoughts could include tasks for the next day, what you’re going to wear, holidays you want to plan, anything you’re worrying about, imaginary scenarios and stories, past events or feelings you’re experiencing.

2) Double check all the thoughts are out

Once you’ve written all the thoughts down, ask yourself: “If there was something I missed, what would it be?” Write all these down too.

3) Let go of anything out of your control

Go through the list and make a note of what you can and can’t control. Put a ‘NC’ next to anything you have ‘No Control’ over. And a ‘CC’ next to the things you ‘Can Control’. Take a look at your NCs and recognise that no amount of worrying will help change them. Accept they are what they are, take a deep breath and let them go, crossing each one out after each breath.

4) Identify your stressors

Looking through your CCs, circle anything that is consistently on your mind or causing you significant stress. Doesn’t matter what it is – whether it’s big, small, nonsensical, fictional, boring, or downright ridiculous. If you’re thinking about it, it needs to be dealt with.

5) Take action

On a new piece of paper, draw three columns. Put the headings “Stressor”, “What action will I take” and “When” at the top of the columns. (Ideally you want to take action as soon as possible i.e. tomorrow)

Actions could range from making a call, writing a list, having a conversation with someone, booking an appointment, doing some research, writing a journal, seeking help etc. The size of the action doesn’t matter. But in order for your mind to calm, it needs to see evidence that you’re listening. So, whatever action you decide to take, commit to it and take it as soon as you can. Noting that action can also include choosing to let something, or someone, go.

6) Reassess

Now you’ve got clarity on what’s stopping you from sleeping and actions you can take to gain a better sense of control. After this it’s important to assess on a scale of 1 – 10 how busy your mind is now. If it’s a 2 or less out of 10, take 5 long deep breaths, and put your head down for a good night’s sleep.

If it’s still a 3 or above, ask what else could there be that needs to be addressed? Any feelings, thoughts, images that you need to face and deal with?

Keep writing until you’re done and repeat steps 3) to 6) until you reach a 2 out of 10 or less for your mind ‘busyness’ score.

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