We’ve all been there: Exhausted from the day, barely awake and functioning in an upright position, surprised we can execute the final tasks to shut the day down. Our heads hit the pillow with some amount of glee that the day is finally over and we can sleep! Precious sleep. Less then we want, but it’ll have to do. And then it doesn’t come. Not even close, not even at all. Time creeps on minute by minute as we begin to realize with a reasonable amount of dread that sleep is not going to happen. We are no longer tired. Not even a little bit. In fact, the brain seems to have amped up to some new level of hyper-drive in the quiet and the dark in an effort to capitalize on the down time – now that we aren’t busy with everything else that plagues us during the day– and find a solution to every problem our brain can possibly conceive. Lucky me, cause my brain never picks the easy stuff. I rehash and regurgitate the best of things that tend to fall into two categories:
1. Things I’ve done and didn’t like the outcome in – the past
2. Things I need to do – the future
My mind churns on, as it races from one thing to the next in a marathon like effort to conceive of every probable solution and /or outcome to things I’ve already done or am going to do.
So the question comes “How do you quiet a racing mind?”
In all likelihood – if you are at all like me – your mind races like this during the day to. You’re just too distracted to notice it. When your head finally hits the pillow and you want to sleep your awareness changes. You are no longer distracted by all the stuff you’ve been juggling. In the dark and quiet, you are blown away by the capacity of your brain to run away with itself like a hamster on a serious dose of steroids.
There are a series of things here. More than a few I guess.
Not thinking is a practice and not an easy one. Typically, we call it meditation. Focused attention. Training the person to be in charge of their own mind with deliberate focus and awareness. The brain is a bit of an egotistical narcissist. It doesn’t not want to be working; nor does it want you to direct it. (But you can!) Learning to focus on something else can be helpful. This isn’t a practice I use just during the night, I use it any time I feel overwhelmed. I tend to focus on my breathing (and I am not alone). Breathing doesn’t stop. It’s there as a constant point where I can focus my attention and awareness. I shift my awareness from my thoughts and problems to the feelings and sensations that occur in the process of breathing. Something I usually ignore because my brain’s got that part of me on autopilot (and a good thing to!). Feeling the air come in through my nostrils, my lungs inflate and slowly letting the air back out. I pay attention to as many of the feelings as I can feel. As my mind wanders I pull it back. Not with a rebuke for losing focus, but simply an opportunity to redirect. The more I practice not thinking and feeling what I can feel in my chest the more my mind lets go of its attempt to capitalize on this quiet. It’s not easy, it takes time and practice, but its highly effective. So a short answer might be, one of the main things I do is not think, but feel breathing. In and out. Focused attention till my mind gives up its fight to dominate my night.
I also play with some other things at least initially when I struggle to sleep because I’ve learned that what creates anxiety in me is related to what’s most important to me. To me, then, there is also an opportunity for me to be aware that one of two things is happening:
1. I did / experienced something and I didn’t like how it turned out. I want to think about it a bit. Typically, if it’s coming back than it means I’d change something if I could. But I can’t. It’s in the past. Doesn’t matter how far back it is, its lost. However, I have found incredible freedom in the idea of next time. I can’t go back, but I can go forward and change the very next opportunity that’s similar by doing what I would have done – if I could have changed things. That’s it. So when I am stuck rehashing something from the past I will evaluate what it was that bugged me and promise myself I will carry it into the future: till next time.
2. Something is coming down the pipe that I am having a hard time coping with and feeling calm about. These things that are vying for my mind at night are things that need attention during the day. For example, lying awake at night thinking about money does nothing to change my finances. But we mindlessly make tonnes of financial decisions all day long. Take a lunch or buy it. That’s a financial decision. Make it a combo or not. That’s a financial decision. There are tonnes of them everywhere. If you are lying awake at night thinking about money you need to take action during the day in every little area possible. I am speaking at a conference next month. That’s the one that keeps vying for my attention at night. It means I have to take action around it. Not everything we think about we can control, but there are things within it that we usually can. Like when I worry about my aging parents or relatives. I can’t control that -their aging- but it means that they are important to me. My values. So I play with the things I can control. Time invested in them. Now. What’s important to me is that there is in
formation related to my values that gets caught up in what keeps me up at night. I want some time with it – at least a little- so that I can learn and grow. It is me keeping me up after all.
The final thing I would do is something I do daily: Exercise. There is a direct relationship between how the body feels and what our brain is doing. As anxiety builds in our lives it builds tension in our muscles. The same systems utilized to save us in crisis are in play. The issue in most anxiety based situations is that we don’t do enough to let that anxt out. There isn’t enough of an outlet. So that energy is stored as tension. A tight chest says to the brain “you are in danger; get ready for more danger.” So the brain looks for it. It’s called a feedback loop. The brain scours your world looking for danger. At night – when you are laying there trying to fall asleep it can’t find a lot outside your thoughts – things you’ve done or are going to do. So that’s where it parks. A relaxed chest signals to the brain “things are okay.”
Exercise is my choice to use that anxiety based energy I seem to have in spades in a positive fashion. If I don’t I find that my mind tends to pick up all sorts of shrapnel from the past and near and distant future and pull it repeatedly into my mind. I know you can’t go for a run at night, but exercise is my proactive effort at calming and regulating my body. I do it as much as possible.
If I can feel the tension at night, then I’ll turn to some diaphragmatic breathing (deep, slow breathing that makes the diaphragm contract). Deliberate breathing involves expanding the chest muscles by inflating and deflating the lungs. By expanding the chest muscles (opening and closing them repeatedly) for a period of time, we relax the chest. This counters the message that a tight chest sends to the body. A relaxed chest signals to the brain “things are okay.” Deep breathing breaks the feedback loop we talked about above. That means in the moment, when anxiety is growing we can settle it down with breathing deep and deliberately for about 8 minutes.
Well that’s a lot longer than I anticipated and probably out of the order that I practice on a regular basis. So here would be my short and ordered version. To deal with a racing mind I:
1. Exercise daily. I get my butt kicked so my body is calm and my brain quiet.
2. Spend some time with the thoughts that are plaguing me so I learn my next times and where my choices should fall tomorrow for taking action.
3. Focus on breathing. I do my not think, but feel breathing routine.
4. Finally, if my chest is tight (and I can feel it) and my mind on fire I will square breath (google it) for 8 to 10 minutes to calm my mind and relax my chest. Then I am back at #3 focusing on more regular breathing.
I’ve lost nights, but I don’t fight them anymore. I feel my breathing and focus there. Slowly my mind has let go and given in to letting me sleep. Usually. It’s a practice.