Picture this scenario: You worked a double shift and have to be back at work in less than eight hours. You are tired and finally make it home. You get into bed, only to have your brain keep your tired body awake. This sums up a common complaint that I hear from officers who struggle with sleep. Their bodies are tired, but their brains just won’t turn off at bedtime. The overactive mind is a common issue among people who experience sleep difficulty, and research has shown that the brains of people with insomnia are overactive in areas where they should be less active when falling asleep.
Overactive thinking generally involves thoughts that elicit either neutral or negative emotions. Some examples of thinking that involves neutral emotions include “to-do” items, your schedule for the week or seemingly random thoughts. Conversely, thoughts that involve negative emotions are accompanied by unpleasant feelings such as worry, anger, frustration, sadness or anxiety. The strategies for calming an overactive mind look the same for both neutral and emotionally charged thinking; however, you may have to use a few additional techniques when distressing emotions are involved.
The following techniques for quieting an overactive mind at bedtime are just a few of the tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). Some studies have shown that this intervention can be as effective as medication therapy for adults who have insomnia, both with and without comorbid conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety or depression. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine gave CBT-I its highest rating (strong recommendation) for the treatment of chronic insomnia in adults. CBT-I involves multiple components, including education about the impact of thoughts, feelings and behaviors on sleep, and techniques to restructure sleep-interfering thoughts and promote relaxation at bedtime.
Take some time to wind down before you go to sleep to help relax your mind and body. For example, you can get your clothes ready for the next day, meal prep, take a bath or long shower, take the dog for a walk, listen to relaxing music, do some stretches to relax your muscles, drink a cup of non-caffeinated tea, journal any thoughts you have about the day or a particular situation, or write down a to-do list for the week.
Worry is an adaptive attempt at problem-solving, but it often increases our anxiety as we think about things we cannot control. Bedtime is the least appropriate time to worry, and the anxiety it creates will keep you awake. Two techniques I like to use are “worry time” and “worry dump.” The first involves scheduling time (typically, 10 to 30 minutes is sufficient) to worry each day. This may sound counterintuitive, but it helps you gain control over intrusive worry and rumination. During this time, your task is to worry dump — that is, write down your worries and start generating solutions. Draw two columns and label one “Concerns” and the other “Solutions.” Think of any concerns you have that day that may cause you to worry or keep your brain awake at night, and write them down. For each concern, write down some concrete steps you can take to address or solve the issue. This can also include identifying which actions you can take versus which things are out of your control (in which case, the goal is to learn how to manage the associated emotions). If you are unsure about what to do about a concern, write down information that you need to help you identify ways to address the issue. When your worry time is up, place the worry dump list on your nightstand and intentionally tell yourself that you are done with your worries for today and will address things again tomorrow, if needed. If your brain begins to worry at bedtime, remind yourself that you have already dealt with things for that day and you will continue working on the concern tomorrow.
Change your perspective
Our thoughts influence how we feel and can also impact how we sleep. Learning how to change your thoughts from sleep-interfering to sleep-promoting can help quiet an overactive mind that is worried about sleep or thinking about trauma. Some examples of sleep-promoting thoughts to counter worry about sleep include “One night of poor sleep is not the end of the world,” “I can tolerate this” or “I can learn to manage my thoughts.” Some examples of sleep-promoting thoughts to counter thinking about trauma include “Nightmares are disturbing but not real and I am safe now,” “I know I’m in a safe place even though my mind is telling me something else,” “My body is reacting to a memory, and I am safe right now” or “This feeling will pass.”
Relaxed body, quiet mind
The body and brain like to be on the same page. For example, when we experience distressing emotions, our body tenses up and our stress response is activated. Likewise, it is difficult to sustain a quiet mind at bedtime when the body is stressed out. Learning to relax our body promotes sleep. Common techniques include relaxation breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, body scan and meditation.
Leave the bedroom when you can’t sleep
Forcing yourself to stay in bed and try harder to sleep is counterproductive. If you’re in bed for more than 10 minutes with an overactive mind, it’s best to leave the bedroom to do an activity that helps you relax and then return to bed when sleepy. The goal here is to help your body and mind associate your bed with sleep. Some examples of relaxing activities include reading a book or other light material at the dining room table or somewhere you won’t fall asleep, organizing a cabinet or drawer, going through junk mail, writing down thoughts or a to-do list for the week, or decluttering a desk or table. This technique can feel tedious and take some time, but stick with it.
If you’re interested in learning more about quieting an overactive mind at bedtime and improving your sleep, I recommend the book Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep by Drs. Colleen Carney and Rachel Manber. I also recommend the free mobile app “CBT-I Coach,” which was designed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be used as a companion to therapy. Both resources provide you with general sleep education and techniques to counter insomnia. I’ve used each of these in my professional practice with police officers and found them to be effective in reducing an overactive mind at bedtime and improving overall sleep. For general information on the importance of good sleep for law enforcement personnel, check out Dr. Stephanie Conn’s article “Getting Some Shut-Eye” from the February 2021 issue of APB magazine at apbweb.com/2021/02/getting-some-shut-eye.