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Four Techniques to Calm a Busy Mind When You Want to Sleep

Many of the people I work with are familiar with this phenomenon and you may be, too: you get into bed, turn the light off, and prepare to go to sleep. And then the next thing you know, the merry-go-round of thoughts and worries starts up. There’s no way you can sleep with those thoughts and worries circling round and round. Worse, for many of us, these thoughts and worries increase our anxiety and activate our fight-or-flight system. Once that happens, you can kiss the sweet release of sleep goodbye for some time. Fortunately, there are some ways to get off the merry-go-round.

There are a variety of techniques for addressing the mind that gets busy when you are trying to fall asleep. I’m going to focus on methods that keep your mind occupied so there’s no opening for the other thoughts.

1) Repeat a Word

Researchers found that when people would repeat the word “the” to themselves, they were able to prevent the run-away train of worried and thoughts and fall asleep faster. The word “the” itself isn’t particularly special. I like it because it’s boring but you could use another word if you’d like to as long as it’s a neutral word. Don’t, for instance, recite the name of your nemesis-that’s likely to be counter-productive! I’ve seen some people suggest that when you are reciting this word you should try using different voices, different accents, different inflections and emotions. While I suppose you could do this out loud (your bed partner might not be too happy with you), it works if you also think the word in your head, as well.

2) Math, alphabetizing, and other tricks

Some people pick a number and then start subtracting another number from it. For example: 4678 minus 89 is 4589 and 4589 minus 89 is 4500. And 4500 minus 89 is 4411, etc.

You might decide to alphabetize something. I’ve been known to list all of the states in alphabetical order. If that’s too easy, try listing the state capitols in alphabetical order.

3) Create a different ending

Is there a book or movie that you enjoyed but you hated the ending? This is your chance to create an ending you like better. Or, alternately, pick a character or two and decide what happened to them after the book or movie ended.

4) Slow, deep breathing

Slow, deep breathing with one or two words is another way to focus the mind. You can choose to recite a word on only the exhalation or inhalation, or you can choose a word for each. I often do this as I’m falling asleep at night and I don’t remember more than two sets of inhalations and exhalations most of the time. I pick my words each night based on what feels right. Many times I say the word “peace” (in my head) as I’m exhaling. For inhalation, I may say “calm” or “relax.” This is pairing the first tip of using one word to keep unwanted thoughts from appearing with a relaxation exercise. Don’t expect this to put you to sleep. Simply focus your attention on breathing in and out and repeating the word or words you’ve chosen. Sleep is likely to take care of itself.

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