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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: For a Racing Mind, Make a List

By January 18, 2013

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It can be hard to get to sleep when you have a lot of things on your mind. For people with insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, this is a frequent occurrence. Difficulty sleeping may provoke anxiety, and one technique to ease a racing mind is to make a list.

Why does anxiety disrupt sleep? The time before falling asleep should be relaxing. If it becomes a source of anxiety or stress, it can be far more challenging to fall asleep. Anxiety, stress, worry, or tension will provoke alertness. In a state of anxiety, your mind is triggered to keep you safe. Part of this is maintaining vigilance to your environment and preventing inattentiveness or sleep. This has an evolutionary advantage: if you get drowsy with a lion on the prowl, you will soon become its dinner. Unfortunately, this works against us in modern life.

Many people with insomnia will complain that they try to fall asleep and cannot. It becomes a chore to relax and drift off to sleep. After crawling in bed, the mind of an insomniac may rev up. Scattered thoughts may come to mind, like a movie made up of rapidly changing but distinct images. The litany of worries and preoccupations that fill the day present themselves to be addressed. Anticipation for the next day's events may also become provocative. There may be associated feelings with these thoughts that themselves are disruptive and alerting.

Let's take an example. You are leaving on a European vacation early in the morning. You know that you need to get up at 4:30 AM to catch your flight, and you rushed readying things up to the point of crawling into bed. Now that you are settled under your covers, you are starting to review your preparations. "Did I pack the camera? I need to water the plants in the morning. The passport is in my bag. Do I have enough cash? I stopped the mail. Have I left enough time in the morning to make it to the airport? What is the weather going to be like? Where is my black coat? ... Why can't I get to sleep?" This may be an infrequent example, but the same can occur on a daily basis with different concerns coming to mind.

What is the best way to diffuse a racing mind? Although a simple solution, it actually can be very helpful to make a list. It is best to set aside some time in the afternoon or early evening, several hours from bedtime, to sit and write down the issues in your life that might lead to stress. These may include incomplete home or work tasks, family stress, health concerns, financial problems, and a variety of other stressors. Enumerate these concerns. By writing them down, you no longer have to devote mental energy to keeping track of them. As part of this, you may even write down action points, any ideas you have to reduce or eliminate the source of stress.

Why is making a list helpful? This process orders your thoughts. It helps you to recognize, organize, and articulate what is leading you to feel stressed. By supplementing this with an action plan, you will decrease your stress because you have identified ways to make this better. You no longer have to worry about remembering these things. If you can set aside time each day to review the list, you will have scheduled a time to address these concerns. Then, if the thoughts come to mind as you are trying to fall asleep, you simply tell yourself, "I have written this down on my list and I will address it tomorrow when I have my time to review it." You then disengage from the anxiety, not dwelling on the thought, and let it go.

When partnered with a relaxing period before bedtime, this list can be a powerful way to diffuse anxiety and turn off a racing mind. For those who struggle with insomnia, it may be just the thing to finally get to sleep.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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