We’ve all had those night’s when you can’t quite manage to switch off and your thoughts keep running through your head, becoming more catastrophic and anxiety-inducing. Before you know it, it’s 1am and you’re wondering how many hours you’ve got until your alarm goes off.
Overthinking at night keeps us awake and stop us from getting the sleep we need to feel refreshed and energised for the day ahead, but what causes it? Leading therapist and resident psychologist for high-tech mattress maker SIMBA, Hope Bastine, explains the reason our thoughts keeping us awake at night.
“We don’t have the time and space during the day to process the day and what’s happened, to evaluate and make sense of it and the only time we do that is when we get in to bed,” says Hope. “A lot of people tell me that when they get in to bed they start having all the thoughts rolling around in my head – it’s a blizzard and they’re suddenly remembering all the things that they should have done.”
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She explains that our days are now filled with so much and we’re taking in more information, so we don’t have the gaps to process our thoughts throughout the day.
Gadgets could also play a part in our inability to fall of to sleep. “Technology activities the beta brainwave state (present when we’re alert, attentive, engaged in problem solving, decision-making and engaged mental activity, etc.) and can be anxiety-provoking,” explains Hope. Moral of the story? Ditch the phone, the tablet and laptop a while before bed.
How to clear your head
If you can’t switch off and struggle to fall asleep or wake up a lot in the night with negative or persistent thoughts, help is at hand. Being able to sleep better could be as simple as leaving an hour before bed to relax. “A sleep ritual – an hour space – before you actually plan to go to bed is really, really important,” recommends Hope.
“Whether you’ve got in from a gym workout or a late night in the office, you still need that wind-down time to process your day. This time allows you to activate the ‘alpha’ brainwave state. If you don’t have time to have a full hour, then just pick two of your favourite things you do to relax and switch-off. For me it’s making some herbal tea, lighting a candle, sitting and meditating.”
Hope says the pre-bed ritual needs to happen regularly. “We’re habit-forming creatures – so association, repetition and routine is the language of the brain.”
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Chat your thoughts away
A really good way to stop overthinking at night is to chat things through with a partner, family member or friend. “It’s one of my top recommendations,” says Hope. “Have mindful communication – a genuine heart to heart, connected and meaningful conversation. Not ‘what I did today’. It’s not about even trying to fix problems, it’s just speaking, hearing and listening.”
Hope explains that it’s a great technique to help process the day and the added connection to someone allows you to feel happier overall. “We work so hard, so when we come home tired and don’t get time to appreciate what we’re working hard for, we become resentful and negative. That connection starts to stimulate the oxytocin release, which activates the arousal state that might actually lead to some quality sex and a good orgasm that, in turn, could improve your sleep…”
Journal writing for sleep
If you haven’t got anyone to chat to – or just prefer to write than have a conversation with someone about your thoughts – try journal writing. “If you’re writing negative thoughts, just be conscious of what you’re doing,” advises Hope. “Set the intentions and close that book, so you say goodbye to those thoughts. Don’t put it on the bedside table, but in the drawer out of sight, and out of mind. If that works for you, by all means do it. But it’s nice to balance it with a little bit of positivity, e.g. writing down three things that went well during the day or three things that you’re grateful for. It can be simple, such as spending time with your child or the sun that hit your face first thing in the morning.”
Don’t try to block your thoughts
If you can’t sleep and your mind is in overdrive with thoughts, you might try to block the negativity running through your mind, but this could be doing you a disservice. “Blocking thoughts is kind of a taboo in meditation and mindfulness, because our distress comes from the resistance to the unpleasant and the clinging to the pleasant and our fear of losing something,” reveals Hope. “When we accept the law of impermanence and appreciate that everything passes (both the pleasant and unpleasant), that is they key to happiness.”
Waking up in the night? Find what works for you
Overthinking or not being able to switch off isn’t just a problem when you first get in bed, but can also be an issue if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back off to sleep. And Hope suggests it’s a problem that gets worse as we get older:
“We have a sleep cycle – the first of which lasts about four hours and then it shortens as the night goes on, and we all wake up around 4am in the morning and takes it us roughly to fall 20 minutes to fall back to sleep. As we age, that window of time widens. This helps my clients in their 50s and 60s understand that this is just a normal part of ageing. Doing a quiet activity – maybe sitting quietly and reading a journal, reading a nice book or listening to nice music – nothing too stimulating – or another activity is really effective. I work with quite a few creatives who find it’s when they get their best ideas. It’s that free association, no blockages or negative thinking. Meditating in that time is really effective, because your brain and your mind and your body is naturally quite quiet.”
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR UK