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Sleep Hygiene Tip of the Week || Capture your worries first

“Girl suffering from anxiety” by MikaelF.
CC BY-SA 3.0

Who hasn’t had racing thoughts at one time or another? It’s a perfectly human experience to go to bed with a lot weighing on your mind. Life can be very challenging, and stress from change, from fear and from events beyond our control can leave us sorting out what we can or should do next, often without arriving at any obvious answers. Ideally, we learn to cope with our dilemmas and return to better nights of sleep as solutions are applied and problems are ameliorated.

However, if you have racing thoughts every single night when you go to bed, and they aren’t spawned by singular events of change or stress, but belong to a category of more generalized worry, then you might actually need to figure out why you are experiencing this. Racing thoughts at bedtime can cut into the very important physiological process of sleep, leading to serious consequences down the line.

What are racing thoughts, exactly?

Racing thoughts are one way our body and brain present anxiety, which we all understand variously as worrying, nerves or unease about things in life that are uncertain.

Anxiety has an influence not only on how much we think about recurring concerns–“How will my daughter do on the flight by herself?” or “When will I get that raise?”, in example–but how we frame our concerns. Anxiety doesn’t typically pose thoughts positively; therefore, racing thoughts often acquire a negative tone which increases with obsessive returns to the thoughts themselves. Anxiety can lead our minds to repeat these negative thoughts with such negativity that they often become magnified. What might be smaller problems in the beginning can become psychologically insurmountable if racing thoughts aren’t held in check. These thoughts can be extremely distracting or seemingly benign (like the same musical phrase repeating itself over and over in your head), but if you can’t control them, you will find yourself growing even more anxious! It can become a vicious circle.

Daytime presentation of anxiety through the presence of racing thoughts can be troublesome enough and worth looking into if you just can’t seem to ditch this kind of behavior and it distracts you from activities of daily life. However, when racing thoughts have a negative impact on your nighttime sleep over an extended period of time, it’s imperative that you figure out why and try to correct the problem. If your thoughts prevent you from sleeping, make it hard to focus, bring up subjects that you find shameful, or otherwise cause you ongoing distress, you need to be concerned.

A disastrous side effect of untreated nighttime anxiety is sleep deprivation, otherwise known as insufficient sleep. Insufficient sleep, over time, will lead to many dangerous consequences, including the likelihood of being in a fatal car accident, chronic damage to the cardiovascular system, the development of type II diabetes and increased risks for stroke and the development of obesity.

Racing thoughts may also be symptomatic of an anxiety disorder, such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and, yes, sleep insufficiency caused by other means. It’s definitely worthwhile to check with your doctor if you have repeated nights of racing thoughts for more than a few days here or there, as well as for other symptoms that point to any of these potentially underlying conditions.

If you have racing thoughts from time to time, but do not think they are connected to any hidden emotional health concerns, you may wish to consider various relaxation techniques at bedtime.

One of the most empowering ways to conquer racing thoughts at bedtime is to write down your worries at night before going to bed. This nonpharmaceutical treatment for anxiety can be your first line of defense against chronic anxiety, in fact.

It’s simple. Keep a pen and notebook at your bedside. When you climb into bed at the end of the day, write down your worrisome thoughts in this notebook. It’s so simple it seems like it could be a useless task, but the fact is, your brain “frets” because it wants to avoid forgetting important things. Sometimes “important things” are a grocery list or the names of the people you work with at your new job. Then again, “important things” might also be tasks you need to complete on a deadline or a series of emotionally intense encounters you have recently experienced with a loved one. Whatever your “important things” are, it’s up to you to define them as the sources of your racing thoughts.

By writing them down, you are literally capturing your anxiety on the page. (Think of the page as their cage.) In doing so, you also then more clearly identify the sources of your stress. If all your thoughts point to one source, or to multiple sources, their presence in this “cage” gives you something concrete to work with later. Now your brain can relax and let these thoughts go, at least temporarily, while you sleep  because it knows your concerns are now safely captured elsewhere. And then you can then feel better knowing your thoughts will be there to address the next day after you’ve had some quality time to sleep on your problems. You might even have a dream or two which offers a solution!

Not only that, but your “cage” of “important things” can be an excellent basis for forming an action plan during your waking hours, which can be very positive and empowering.

You can even write your worries down, then turn to a back page in your notebook, where you have written the following: “I don’t need to think about this right now. I can look for solutions when I wake up tomorrow,” and repeat that as a kind of mantra until you can relax and fall asleep. Often, this positive affirmation is all you need to let your racing thoughts go.

Ultimately, by practicing this nightly, you should find satisfaction in having created an avenue for solving your problems, enough so that you can find calm at bedtime and re-train your thoughts on the more pleasant subjects that you turn to in order to encourage peace and sleep.

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