What better time to start fixating on your biggest worries than 11 p.m. when you’re trying to fall asleep? As soon as your head hits the pillow, maybe you start dwelling on an unresolved argument with your partner or keep replaying that awkward thing you said to your boss. Or perhaps you’re anxious about the future, obsessing about tomorrow’s schedule, or haunted by existential dread.
No matter the specifics, ruminating on negative experiences can keep you wide awake, Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep researcher and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. That’s because “focusing on things that are stressful might spike your cortisol [the stress hormone] or blood pressure,” Dr. Robbins says. Basically, when you have anxious thoughts, even if you’re safe and snuggled up in bed, your body can go into high-alert mode, making it impossible to relax, as SELF previously reported.
That doesn’t mean you’re destined for a night of tossing and turning, though. Below, Dr. Robbins shares her top three strategies for quieting your mind when you start overthinking at bedtime.
If you’re worrying about stuff you have to do the next day, write it down.
Maybe you can’t stop thinking about finishing that project, responding to those emails, and preparing for a presentation by the end of the day tomorrow. Or you suddenly realize that you forgot to do laundry and get groceries—so now you’re trying to work out how you can possibly fit those extra chores into your hectic morning schedule.
“Sometimes our to-do lists can keep us awake,” Dr. Robbins says. When looming tasks are weighing on your mind, she suggests putting them on paper to get them out of your head. This might sound counterintuitive (Won’t writing out my worries make me focus on them more?), but one study published in 2017 suggests that jotting down the stuff you need to do can decrease anxiety and help you fall asleep faster.
There isn’t much research on why, exactly, this works, but Dr. Robbins has a couple theories. For one, taking a few minutes (time you would have spent ruminating anyway) to organize your scattered thoughts in a notebook (or your phone’s notes app) might help you realize your schedule isn’t as daunting as it seemed. Plus, listing tomorrow’s tasks may signal your mind to stop worrying now that there’s a concrete plan in place, she adds. (The study above found that the longer the list, the quicker participants dozed off, so try to get specific.)
Count your blessings instead of sheep.
Writing down (or even just mentally noting) what you’re thankful for—like your health, your loved ones, or even small things, like achieving a PR on your morning three-mile run or receiving a compliment about your hair from that random person at Starbucks—can also halt bedtime overthinking, Dr. Robbins says. In the moment, this exercise can interrupt your stressful thoughts with more calming ones, which can shift your focus and help you relax, she explains. And regularly practicing gratitude has also been shown to decrease rumination and worry and increase sleep quality.
If you want to take the writing route, jot down a few things you’re grateful for in a journal every night before bed, or even just one positive highlight from your day, if that feels more manageable, Dr. Robbins suggests. This might prevent you from getting into a negative headspace in the first place, research shows, and you can also refer back to your list if overthinking strikes after lights-out. And again, if mental (or voice) notes are more your style, that works too. (Here are a few more practical ways to practice gratitude, if you’re interested.)
Try “cognitive shuffling”…or another mindfulness exercise.
Speaking of counting sheep, there actually is some truth to this age-old remedy, Dr. Robbins says, since you’re distracting your brain from whatever’s making you anxious or overwhelmed.
There’s certainly no harm in tallying up those fluffy creatures and seeing if it works for you, but because opinions on this method are pretty mixed, we’ve got some alternative exercises to test out. Dr. Robbins suggests counting down from 100 to zero, for example. Another option is doing a body scan, where you pay attention to the sensations (like tightness, tingling, maybe coldness) in each area of your body, starting at the bottoms of your feet, then your toes, then the tops of your feet, your heels, your ankles…you get the point. Personally, what works for me is a cognitive shuffle—I think of random, unrelated words (like cat…golf ball…jungle) until I doze off, without even realizing it.
The key with these mindfulness techniques is that they’re simple and repetitive enough to shift your attention away from anything stressful—without overstimulating your brain. “The goal is to get out of past or future thoughts and back into the present moment to achieve a state of calm,” Dr. Robbins says. That way, you’re drifting into dreamland as you should: Relaxed and at peace, not burdened by whatever happened earlier that day—or what’s waiting for you tomorrow.
Originally Appeared on SELF