Everyone has experienced it. It’s bedtime, but your thoughts are racing 100 miles a minute, and you’re unable to stop or even control them – or so you think. Actually, there are some ways to free your mind and let you sleep soundly.
Replaying confrontations with loved ones over and over in your head and thinking about work – these were the two main things that would occupy my mind and wouldn’t let me sleep for years. That is until I decided to literally put these problems to bed once and for all by learning how to counteract them.
A racing mind can be caused by many factors – most often by anxiety, but possibly also by various mental health disorders. However, before you drop everything and run to the doctor, bear in mind that all of us have an occasional episode of an uncontrollable mind. So, don’t worry, having it happen from time to time is completely normal.
In psychology, the racing mind effect is called rumination, and rumination can be overcome.
Focus on your feet
Okay, it doesn’t have to be feet – it can be any body part of your choosing. From the scientific point of view, it works like this: the prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex and rational thoughts. The emotional charge is added by the amygdala – responsible for processing emotions and the fight or flight response. But when you focus on something physical like your feet, the connection between the two is broken, because you activate another brain part – the insula, which is responsible for processing data about your body. Hence the feet example.
When you focus on a body part, your brain won’t be able to keep up both – the racing thoughts and thinking about your body at the same time.
There are many breathing exercises, but in my opinion, the 4-7-8 method is one of the best. It was created by a Harvard-trained physician Dr. Andrew Weil. It is said that it makes you fall asleep in under 60 seconds.
- Place the tip of your tongue behind your two front teeth
- Exhale completely
- Close your mouth
- Inhale through your nose for four seconds
- Hold your breath for seven seconds
- Exhale completely through your mouth again for eight seconds
- Count the seconds, that way you will focus on this and your thoughts won’t wander
- Repeat until you fall asleep
Think inside the box
This exercise can be either physical or mental. When you find yourself just lying there with your mind mercilessly taking you for a whirlwind ride you’d rather skip, you can try to trap your thoughts inside a box. It can be an imaginary box that you build in your mind and put your anxiety-filled thoughts inside, or it can be a physical box somewhere near your bed. Then, you’ll also need a piece of paper and something to write with. Put down your thoughts on the piece of paper and lock it inside the box. This may seem too simple to work, but for many, it actually does. By using this technique, you’re taking the burden off your mind and transferring it to a place where it can safely wait until it’s revisited at a later time. But hopefully then, you won’t be trying to go to sleep.
Preparing a “worry-list” can also do the trick, and it works in a similar way. Temporarily taking worries off your mind by recording them for later consideration also minimizes the chance of a racing mind interrupting your sleep during the night.
Fun fact: leeches and opium
Although sleeping problems drastically accelerated in the last 100 years, they were also described throughout history. One of the most interesting solutions came from a 16th-century French physician André du Laurens. He advised his patients to put leeches behind their ears – but that’s just the start. After removing the leeches, they would put “a grain of opium in each hole.” In the 16th century, leeches were a very popular medical accessory, but I choose to believe that the patients’ peace of mind was really the deed of opium.
Though definitely creative, following this formula may get tricky today. Finding leeches may not be the easiest thing to do in the middle of the night. Finding opium, on the other hand, may land you in jail in most states – and that will really get your mind racing. Needless to say, don’t try this at home.