Some people are able to look at the clock (or listen to their internal clock), know that it’s time for bed, move themselves through their nighttime rituals easily and without thinking about it, and drop off to sleep easily and naturally. Though that is certainly the way that things are supposed to work in a perfect world, there are plenty of people for whom that type of bedtime routine is nothing but a fantasy.
If you are one of those who finds themselves lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling, the hands on the clock, the peacefully sleeping back of our bed partner and all the while stressing about all that needs to be done, that might go wrong or simply about the inability to fall asleep and get the rest you need, you are not alone. Bedtime is supposed to be a time for winding down, but all too often we find ourselves still feeling energized, enervated, and wound up when it’s time to sleep.
The first step in solving this problem is determining exactly what initiates it; once that has been identified, you can fix it.
So let’s take a look at your evening, and the couple of hours immediately before the time you head off to bed and how you spend them. The first step in self-diagnosis of being overly alert is taking a look at your physical being. People who spend their evening unconsciously winding down would describe their muscles as being loose and relaxed Is that you? Are you laying peacefully on a sofa and letting the tensions of the day seep away, or are your muscles tensed, your jaw tight? Are you sitting upright as though ready to spring out of your chair? Are you unable to sit still, moving your feet or legs or fingers, fidgeting? If this describes you then your body is not at all ready for sleep. In fact, you are over stimulated, and that will carry into your bed and your attempt to go to sleep. If your muscles are ready to go then chances are that your mind is too, and that is a recipe for disaster when it comes to dropping off to sleep.
Second, let’s take a look at how your brain is operating. Are you rehashing the events of the day or anticipating the next morning’s meeting and possible confrontation? If your mind is tearing around, either with worry or excitement, then you’re going to have a very difficult time making a transition to relaxation and sleep. The process of letting go of tension is a slow one, and there needs to be a separation between the stress of the day and the rejuvenation of the night. But how to create that divide?
Time to take an honest look at how you’re spending your evening. If the only difference between your hectic workday and the demands of your home life is that you can wear jeans when you are home, but you’re still running around nonstop, trying to meet deadlines and get tasks accomplished, then it’s no wonder you can’t relax and fall asleep – though you are probably so completely exhausted that at least you have that working in your favor. The nighttime and the few hours before you head off to bed are not the time to start a challenging new project. They are not the time to go for a jog and get your heart rate up, and they are not the time to have a stressful or revelatory conversation with a family member or friend. Just as you wouldn’t make the decision to down a couple of shots of espresso before heading off to bed, you need to make sensible decisions about the kind of stimulus you are surrounding yourself with when you should be getting your brain ready for rest. Save the exercise, the heart-to-heart and the worry for the morning, when you want to be woken up.
Instead of surrounding yourself with stress and worry, spend some time trying to figure out a way to calm yourself before bedtime and destress If you have things that you absolutely must discuss or spend time hashing out, set that time aside for immediately after dinner and limit the amount of time that you’re willing to invest in it; establish a cutoff time after which you are going to allow yourself to relax, divert and divest yourself of stress.
If you find that even after your cut off time has passed you are still thinking about whatever is causing you concern, try this trick: write a short summary of your problem down, and then write down a few solutions or options that might alleviate the situation, including the pluses and minuses of each. Then walk away from the paper. Many find that by doing this they establish a psychological beginning and ending to the worrying process. They end up feeling more in control, even if they haven’t made an actual decision, and sometimes the process of writing it down or making a pros and cons list actually helps them to see the solution to their problem more easily. One way or another, it tends to release the mind from the circular anxiety that often takes over.
Once you have cut yourself off from your worries and whatever is over-stimulating your body and your brain it will free you up to focus on relaxation. Relaxation does not come naturally to everybody, but it can be very enjoyable to explore and determine exactly what works best for you. For some it is as simple as the oldest remedies in the book; warm milk, a cup of hot tea, a relaxing and aromatic bath or counting sheep. For others meditation works, or remembering a time and place of great contentment or relaxation. Perhaps reading a book or listening to music will work. What is most important is that you create a separation between activity and relaxation so that mind and body can fade into sleep.