By Juan Santos, M.S., CRC, LPCA
Why is it that before going to bed our mind often feels like it’s on steroids?
Our brain is sometimes in “hyper-mode” when we have some sort of anxiety or fear driven issue taking place. Consider if you have ever experienced a break-up, failed an important test, got in a fight with your significant other, or felt in a state of danger. Our brain does this extraordinary change prior to bed. It pushes itself into a state of hyper-mode in which we feel ourselves experiencing excessive amounts of thoughts.
I remember, the night before asking my wife, Elizabeth, for her hand in marriage. It was a long night for me. I honestly spent about an hour or so experiencing what are called “racing thoughts.” Will she say “YES?” Will she say “NO?” What if I lose the ring? What if I forget what to say? What if I put the ring on the wrong finger?
You get the point.
Fun fact. She said “Yes!”
Before bed, our brain transitions into a “records room.” You know, the room in an office that is used for filing? The brain begins to file each of our thoughts in order to help us feel safe, secure, balanced, and assured in our decisions.
Due to the brain transitioning into a state of filing our thoughts, we are hindered from establishing healthy sleep. Ideally, it is our goal to fall asleep without experiencing racing thoughts or even anxiety driven thoughts. This can be extremely difficult to accomplish without effective coping skills that are aimed in identifying the trigger which activates the brain to race.
The first course of action is in understanding what causes our brain to transition into a filing state. Triggers are the factors that stimulate the mind.
Common triggers that lead to unhealthy racing thoughts:
- Technology. Our phones, tablets or television can often become a direct trigger that leads to racing thoughts. Consider if you are playing a video game with lots of blood and violence. Or if you are watching a scary movie.
- Noises. Often noises can directly lead our minds to wander. I remember, as a child my dad would take us camping. We would do it the old school way. Old school tents, camp fire, fishing for food, and s’mores. During one of the many camping trips, my brothers and I prior to falling asleep heard noises outside of our tent. I have four brothers. As the middle child, my older brother did a great job of telling us that the noise was a bear. From that point on, every noise that I or my brothers would hear became associated with a bear. I remember feeling scared, nervous and on edge. The noises of course could have come from falling limbs, birds, squirrels, or my parents’ tent.
- Reflecting on your day’s accomplishments. When we begin to think about the tasks that we have achieved during the day or the tasks that we will engage in on the following day, our brain becomes stimulated and in an restless state. I’ll be the first to tell you, that I am “bad” at this. It may be the counselor in me that likes to reflect too much.
- Current problems or issues going on in life. As mentioned at the beginning of the post, when we are going through some sort of stressful issue in life, our brain tends to carry it through the day and file it at night. Consider if you are debating over quitting your job. At night, you may find yourself experiencing racing thoughts. This is due to your brain being stimulated by the “current problem or issue in your life.”
At this point you have an understanding of why we experience racing thoughts at night. As well as common triggers that lead to the racing thoughts.
Let’s transition to coping skills. Below are tips and recommendations that support you in managing how your brain is stimulated at night. With the overall goal aimed to help you reduce late night racing thoughts.
Strategies that can help you attain better sleep:
- Put away the to-do-list one hour prior to bed.
- Do not use technology one hour prior to bed.
- Avoid late night physical activity or activities that exert energy.
- Instead of reading late at night, transition to writing. What tends to happen is that what you read stimulates that brain and hinders your ability to fall asleep.
- If you are experiencing distress, problems or difficulties in your life, write them down one hour prior to bed. When you write down the issue or problem, include what time you will devote to it tomorrow. Push yourself to find a time. For instance, if you are dealing with the issue of quitting your job, write down on a piece of paper (in the same fashion as a to-do-list) the exact time that you plan to work on the issue the following day.
- Reflect on your day one hour prior to bed. An hour prior to bed, take some time to group and categorize your thoughts, anxiety, or fears.
As a professional counselor, father, author, and a guy that loves to fish, I think it’s fair to say that each and every one of us can experience racing thoughts prior to bed. Kids may experience it due to an upcoming test. Teenagers may experience it as a result of wanting to date someone at school. Adults tend to experience it due to money problems or issues in the relationship. Before wrapping up, I do want to encourage you to check Dr. Schaub’s video “on how to stop the mind from racing”.
Knowing that we are susceptible to racing thoughts is the first step. The second and final step is to act on it!