HEALTH: How to fall asleep when your mind won’t rest

Rein in racing thoughts with these calming, expert-backed strategies (no counting sheep required)

Source: Joanne Chen, Consumer Reports

If you can’t fall asleep because you’re playing back all the drama from earlier in the day, you are not alone. Studies claim 40% of Americans are troubled with this issue. In fact, 42 percent complain that “thoughts running through my mind, keeping me awake” was the most common sleep challenge Americans had experienced over the past 12 months.

The truth is, it’s not enough to get yourself physically ready for sleep—you need to settle in mentally, too. No matter how well you wind down and cozy up in your sheets, your mind can take on a frenetic life of its own—rehashing cringy work conversations, freaking out over climate change, fretting over undone chores. Racing thoughts at night can create a hotbed of emotions that result in very physical repercussions.

When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response, says Maren Hyde-Nolan, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit. Our blood pressure rises; our heart rate quickens. Stress hormones course through our veins. How can anyone sleep with all this going on? In fact, it’s impossible. “You can’t simultaneously be anxious and calm your body down—and you can’t sleep when your body’s fight or flight response is activated,” says Hyde-Nolan.

Breathing Exercises to Calm Racing Thoughts
One important way to calm the racing thoughts in your brain is to focus on the body—specifically by slowing and lengthening your breath. You thereby temper the release of those stress-inducing hormones, so that the parasympathetic part of the nervous system can take hold, says Michelle Drerup, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Cleveland Clinic. Your heart rate slows. Your blood pressure drops. As your body relaxes, your mind calms down, too, all of which help to ease your transition into sleep.

There is a range of breathing techniques to try, but the two below have worked particularly well for me when I can’t fall asleep. Practice them during the day so you feel more comfortable turning to them at night. Bonus: Beyond engaging the body, these exercises also give your mind something to focus on that’s much more tangible than imaginary sheep, as Drerup points out. And when a pesky thought intrudes? Briefly note it, and turn your attention back to your breath.

#1 Box Breathing
Before you begin, exhale to let all the air out of your lungs.

  1. Take in a slow breath through your nose (or whatever feels comfortable)
    for a count of four. Hold for a count four.
  2. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of four.
    Hold your breath for a count of four.
  3. Drerup suggests picturing a line slowly being drawn to form a square with each inhale, exhale, and hold.

#2 The 4-7-8 Method

  1. Breathe in for four counts.
  2. Hold for seven counts.
  3. Breathe out for eight counts.

Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, though experts
say you should opt for the strategy that feels most comfortable for you.

More Strategies to Tame Racing Thoughts
While paying attention to your breathing is important in and of itself, it often helps to incorporate mental exercise, too. What works, says Drerup, is something that engages your brain enough to distract you from your racing thoughts, but not enough to keep you from sleeping. Next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling, try one of the techniques below. Keep in mind, not everything will work all of the time. So you might have to switch up your strategies from night to night, says Drerup.

Count backward
As you take slow, long breaths, count backward from 1,000. This requires just enough engagement to do, so you’re not easily pulled away by racing thoughts. If you lose track, don’t reprimand yourself. Simply go back to where you think you left off and continue the countdown.

Picture your favourite place
This exercise is a self-guided spin-off of the guided imagery technique popular in mindful meditation, a practice in which you focus your thoughts on an idea or an object. So be specific—a secluded beach in the Caribbean, at the cottage, the back yard on a warm summer day, the library from your childhood, even the coffee shop down the street. Wherever your happy place is, imagine yourself in it and make a mental note of every detail, engaging all the senses: look up, down, all around, feel the surroundings, your chair, the ground below your feet, smell the air, and so on. “You’re engaging all your neural pathways so other thoughts don’t come in,” says Drerup.

Do a body scan
You can progress from head to toe or vice versa. “Focus on one area of your body at a time, allowing it to fully relax before slowly moving on to the next area,” says Hyde-Nolan.

Listen to a bedtime story
You can find free stories on the YouTube channel of popular meditation apps, (including Calm’s tour of New Zealand’s South Island with “Game of Thrones” actor Jerome Flynn, and Headspace’s visit to an antiques store on a rainy day with someone called Simon). For a robust selection on your smartphone, though, you’ll have to pay for a membership, which I grudgingly did (but for me, it was worth it). Like the techniques above, listening to serene stories “can aid in both distracting your mind while simultaneously relaxing your body,” says Hyde-Nolan. I like that they often incorporate breathing exercises, too.

How to Stop Racing Thoughts With the Help of Everyday Items
All these strategies can be done on your own, no instructor or apps are needed. Still, a little guidance can go a long way, especially if mindfulness techniques are new to you.

The most robust source of guidance comes from popular meditation apps, such as Calm, Headspace (my favourite), and Insight Timer. You also might want to take advantage of free online resources, like the exercises on Dartmouth University’s student wellness center site and UCLA Health.

Beyond smartphones, fitness trackers and smartwatches are also enticing wearers to strap them on for rest and not just exercise. For instance, the Fitbit Charge 5 is designed to track all things related to wellness, including sleep and stress. (To read more about those capabilities see our in-home review of the band.) That said, to get the best wellness offerings, you’ll need to shell out additional money to access the Fitbit Premium app. Fortunately, you can sign up for a free 90-day trial—ample time to learn breathing exercises and even some meditation basics. Even if you choose not to renew, you’ll at least have some access to the Calm app (a Fitbit partner). If you’re not keen on the stress-sensing capability (I already know I’m stressed!), then you might consider the less-expensive Fitbit Inspire 3. All versions of the popular Apple Watch also incorporate mindfulness options. Read more about these devices in Best Fitness Trackers of 2023 and Best Smartwatches of 2023.

As you might expect from digital assistants that do just about everything, they can help you focus on your breath and quiet the mind, too. Take the Google Nest Hub (2nd Gen) Smart Speaker. Simply say: “Hey Google, start a meditation,” and it will serve up a small range of options, including a body scan (courtesy of the Calm app) with breathing guidance. You can also call up YouTube content (such as the bedtime stories from Calm and Headspace, mentioned earlier) or use the screen as a sunrise alarm clock. Set on Sleep Sensing mode, it can even track your sleep, thanks to built-in sensors that detect every breath and movement. (Learn more about how the Google Nest Hub works in our in-home review.)

If letting a digital assistant track your sleep creeps you out, or if you just don’t want a screen (and a camera) in the bedroom, there are other options, says Allen St. John, who writes about technology, including sleep tech, for CR. You might just go with an audio-only speaker, such as the Google Nest Audio, which delivers meditations with the same command; or the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo, for which you can purchase third-party meditation apps. Note: If you want to bring a smart speaker or smart screen into your bedroom, make sure you know how to turn off the microphone and/or the camera to help protect your privacy, says St. John.

Joanne Chen has been a deputy home editor at Consumer Reports since 2022. From editing stories about air purifiers and gas stoves to writing about sleep, she’s obsessed with the intersection of health and home. Prior to CR, she was an editor at Vogue, Life, and Martha Stewart Living, and a writer at Wirecutter. Follow her on Twitter @JChenNYC.

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