You’re ready for bed when you start thinking about something disturbing.
You turn out the lights and get comfy, but your brain won’t shut off.
What’s it working on this time?
- A nightmarish scenario (maybe from the news or a movie you watched)
- Negative thoughts about something from your recent (or not so recent) past
- A problem you have to solve
- A situation you’re hoping to avoid in the near future
- A conversation you have to have (but are dreading)
From one thought to the next, your brain jumps, and as you change position in your bed and try to tell yourself, “Shut up and go to sleep!” your brain scoffs — actually scoffs — at you and keeps running those in-house movies.
You can’t stop thinking.
You need a good night’s sleep, but your brain has declared mutiny and won’t shut down for the night.
So, what do you do?
You want to learn how to stop thinking about something when you need to get some rest.
But your brain must have its own internal coffee house, because it’s wide-awake, and it’s just going to keep thinking about one thing after another forever.
Fortunately, there is a way to calm your brain down and banish those distracting thoughts so you can finally get some sleep.
How to Stop Thinking About Something That Bothers You
You probably know already that it’s not enough just to tell yourself to stop thinking or to not think about a particular something.
If someone tells you, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” what’s the first image that comes to mind?
And if you tell a young child, “Whatever you do, don’t look at that picture on the wall,” how much time would pass before the child looked?
You might be older, but your brain reacts the same way.
On the other hand, just letting your mind continue to dwell on negative thoughts — what we call “ruminating” — isn’t a solution, either.
So, what can you do?
1. Practice mindful distraction.
Train your mind to distract itself from negative thoughts whenever they come. Instead of simply trying to block those thoughts (which doesn’t work), take your mind in a different direction by mentally shopping somewhere:
- A local grocery store
- A favorite bookstore
- An antique store or curiosity shop
- A museum
- A library
Do this every time those negative thoughts enter your mind. It may take weeks, but once you create the habit of taking your mind on a shopping trip (or library visit, etc.), your mind will automatically divert itself in response to a negative thought
can also practice mindfulness in other ways to draw your mental focus to something in the present moment — taking your attention away from the negative thoughts keeping you awake.
2. Avoid perpetually negative people.
I don’t mean that the people around you must be positive all the time, but try to avoid those who are always negative — about everything.
Nothing (and nobody) is good enough for them. Everything that happens that they don’t like is proof that life is pointless, people are terrible, and the universe hates them.
Everyone has their low points, though, and I would never recommend abandoning your friends or family to keep your company positive all the time. Besides, it wouldn’t work.
The emotions of those close to you would likely affect you even if they weren’t in the same room, thanks to the deep connection you share with them.
But you can spend less time around people who have made a habit of seeing everything through “Why me?” lenses.
3. Have a cup of tea.
Something that brings physical warmth — a hot cup of tea or a hot shower or bath — can simulate emotional warmth and soothe you into a more relaxed state.
This is probably why many people seek comfort in alcoholic beverages, which have a temporary warming effect. So, while they may not love the hangover, they still love the way alcohol makes them feel while they’re drinking it.
A hot cup of herbal or decaffeinated tea won’t cause a hangover and will probably cost less, too (to say nothing of its other health benefits). You can reap the same benefits from inexpensive tea from a grocery store, as long as you enjoy each cup and can mindfully savor each mouthful and the warmth it brings.
Certain herbs are more effective than others when it comes to helping you sleep: chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, valerian root, and passionflower are the most popular.
Decaffeinated teas (black and green) still have traces of caffeine, so it’s best to avoid them at bedtime.
4. Symbolically throw away the negative thoughts.
You can also capture the thoughts by physically writing them down on a piece of paper and then crumpling up the paper and throwing it away. In essence, you’re physically tagging those thoughts as “garbage” by discarding a physical representation of them.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “How much paper is this gonna take?” You don’t actually have to use paper, though. You can also create a digital record of those thoughts — a Word or Google doc, etc. — and then simply delete it from your desktop or drag it to your digital “trash bin.”
If your desktop has a “Recycle Bin” icon, and you’d rather emphasize the uselessness of the thoughts you’re discarding, you can rename it as “Trash Bin” or whatever term conveys the sentiment you’re going for.
5. Change the way you look at your situation.
If you can’t change your situation, change the way you look at it. Another word for that is “reframing.” No matter what happens to you from day to day, how you perceive it and react to it will determine your future more than what actually happens.
And your response to each experience will either help your personal growth or hinder it.
For example, if you’re worried that an imminent snowstorm will make it impossible to drive to pick your daughter up from work, you might tense up as you picture trying to get your car out of your driveway or down the road. You imagine your car sliding off the road or crashing into something.
Or, knowing that the storm is coming, you could take action to prepare for it:
- Stock your car with road salt, a small shovel, a flashlight, a utility tool, snacks, etc.
- Let your daughter know you may be late.
- Ensure you have the number for roadside assistance if necessary.
You then picture yourself driving to your daughter’s workplace — slowly, carefully, and without incident — picking her up, and getting her home. You know if something happens, you can now respond calmly and safely.
Those negative “what if” scenarios no longer have any power over you. You’ve essentially turned a potential threat into a chance to improve your preparedness.
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How to Stop Thinking So You Can Sleep
You’ve already read that a hot drink before bed can help you sleep, and it’s not just the warmth that makes it effective. Certain herbs can make you feel more relaxed — without the eventual sleep disruption typically caused by drinking alcohol before bedtime.
Maybe you know someone who sips hot milk with honey before bedtime, extolling the effects of the tryptophan in milk. In large enough amounts, tryptophan can help induce sleep. But the soothing effect of that warm milk may be more psychological than physiological.
Whatever the case, when you’re trying to get some sleep, and your brain isn’t cooperating, try the remedies listed above or change them up a bit to give your mind the break it needs:
- Get up and do some slow stretching exercises, focusing on each movement and on your breath.
- Get yourself a mug of hot herbal tea with soothing herbs like the ones mentioned earlier. For added potency, you can take these herbs in a more concentrated form as a supplement.
- Add a soothing essential oil (or blend) to your environment with a diffuser — like lavender, ylang-ylang, or frankincense.
- Play soothing ambient sounds or white noise in the space where you sleep. Even setting your radio to a station where you hear only static can help.
- Wear a sleep mask that blocks out ambient light. You can even find a lavender scented one for extra soothing.
It’s amazing how effective a one-two punch approach can help you put negative thoughts to rest so you can finally get yours.
- Distract your mind with mindful practices or thoughts that require less of a mental investment, and
- Help your body operate according to established circadian rhythms and routinely fall asleep when you need to.
Mindful practices are helpful with both but particularly .when you add external aids like sleeping masks, hot tea, essential oils, and white noise. These strategies assist with building a habit of establishing a set bedtime and signaling your brain to switch off for the night.
Can you stop yourself from thinking?
Now that you know how to get something off your mind, what are you going to try first?
Picture yourself getting ready for bed — all the things you’ll do before tucking yourself in. Remember how great it feels to slip under the covers when you feel deliciously tired and ready for the softness of your pillow beneath your head.
Your brain is pretty good at building habits and following them. So, create a bedtime ritual that signals your readiness for sleep.
Any of the tricks listed in this article can help you either prepare for sleep or train your mind to discard negative thoughts in favor of more wholesome ones.
So, may your resourcefulness and serenity influence everything you do today.