Racing and intrusive thoughts at bedtime

Some people go to bed feeling right and ready for sleep. However, when their head hits the pillow, racing thoughts start enveloping their minds and they begin to feel wide awake.

To counter these thoughts, they may engage in a bunch of different strategies: suppressing thoughts, distracting themselves, counting sheep, among dozens of other tips and tricks. However, these strategies are generally ineffective to subdue their frenzied minds.

In this post, I provide a few different evidence-based strategies based on research and clinical practice (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia) to work through different types of racing thoughts.

Sheep jumping over a fence
Counting sheep aren’t always helpful for racing and intrusive thoughts!

1. Worry Logs for everyday worries

One category of racing thoughts that people can experience are worries in their daily lives.

What do I do about my car’s flat tire? Who is going to take the kids to school tomorrow? I need to plan my sister-in-law’s baby shower.

When we notice our sleep is being impacted by daily concerns, then a worry log can be a helpful tool (free workshop developed by Dr. Colleen Carney).

The way to use a worry log is by taking a piece of paper and folding it vertically into two columns. One column will be the ‘worry’ section and the second column will be the ‘solution’ section.

In the evening, you would write in the ‘worry’ section some worries that may keep you awake at night. On the other side, you would then write the solution for that worry. If the problem requires several steps (e.g., planning a baby shower), then write the next step that you need to take. If there is no solution, then simply write ‘there is no solution, so I don’t have to worry about it’.

Once you’re down, place the worry log next to your bed on a nearby drawer. When you find yourself worrying, you can think to yourself: “I’ve already thought about these issues, so I don’t have to worry about them anymore”.

2. Thought records for scary beliefs about sleep

Although worry logs tend to be helpful for general worries, sometimes our racing thoughts are about the sleep itself. What if I don’t fall asleep again? I’m not going to be able to fall asleep and tomorrow will be a disaster.

If our thoughts are more insomnia-specific, then we may need another tool.

Thought records are a great way to evaluate our negative thoughts about sleep in a fact-based manner.

The idea is to take a scary thought, such as “I’m not going to be able to function at all tomorrow”, and really evaluate both the evidence for and against this thought.

You will likely end with a more balanced thought after this practice, such as “although I won’t be at my best, I have been able to do all the things I needed to do in the past, such as take my kids to school, get through work, and finish the chores”.

Here’s a helpful article on developing thought records if you’re interested!  

3. Regular mindfulness practice to let go of thoughts

Besides changing our thoughts as in the case of thought records, another possibility is to simply notice the thoughts and let them go.

Mindfulness practice works by helping facilitate our ability to simply observe our thoughts and not give power to them. We notice different thoughts, emotions, experiences, and then let them go. Mindfulness has been found to treat many conditions, including sleep problems (CITE).

Paradoxically, our willingness to engage with the thoughts and not forcefully push them away can actually help to get rid of thoughts faster. It’s like the Chinese finger trap, where the contraption is designed in a way that the more we struggle, the harder it is to get out of the trap.

Beyond mindfulness practice, relaxation exercises can be helpful to reduce stress and anxiety generally speaking. This can also have a beneficial impact on racing thoughts and create a more conducive environment for sleep. That being said, it’s encouraged to practice these exercises outside of the bedroom, so they don’t become a direct effort to fall asleep. This is important because we don’t want these practices to be a crutch to get sleep.

Man meditating on a wooden floor
Relaxation or mindfulness practices in the day time can be a great way to improve sleep (and other areas of your life)

4. Stimulus control to break the association between worry and the bed

Sometimes, the reason why our thoughts tend to race particularly excessively at nighttime is because we have associated the bed with worry.

When we spend a lot of our time in bed awake and in distress, our brain becomes conditioned to start worrying the moment our head hits the pillow (known as ‘conditioned arousal).

To break this association, there is an effective evidence-based strategy for insomnia called ‘stimulus control’. Stimulus control has been found to be a key strategy to break conditioned arousal in insomnia (Bootzin et al., 2016).

The idea is that we need to make our bed an environment solely for sleep. To do so, we would only go to bed when sleepy, and get out of bed (doing something pleasant and relaxing) when sleep is not coming. This process can be very tough, but also very effective over time.

Concluding thoughts

All the strategies discussed can have their unique benefit in reducing racing thoughts. Please feel free to pick the ones that feel right for you and work best. Hopefully, one – or more – of these tools are helpful to you!

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Best wishes,