What is your number one reason why you can’t sleep? Is it the endless loop of disturbing and sometimes frightening thoughts like “I should have done this”, “What needs to be done tomorrow?”, or even “If I don’t do this I will lose my relationship, my job, or all my money.”? You ruminate about the past, or you catastrophize the future – either thought pattern keeps you from restful sleep.
If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. For most people with poor sleep, the biggest challenge is to quieten their internal noise. I was no exception. In fact, for years, I felt that my thoughts at night got so much out of control that it strongly affected my daily life. I was always irritated, and my attention span became almost non-existent.
In this article, I focus on why our minds tend to race, the relationship between overthinking and anxiety, and what these feelings do to our sleep and overall wellbeing.
As this is a very complex topic, it’s going to be a long one. But stick with me, I will give you also some new but shockingly simple ways how to stop your racing thoughts at night which you can use right away.
What is a racing mind?
A racing mind is when your brain is flooded with repetitive thoughts which often focus on a single topic, or represent a long, imaginary sequence of consequences like this: “If I don’t perform well at tomorrow’s presentation my boss will become upset with me. My colleagues will look down on me. Who knows, I might even lose my job. That means I won’t have enough money to be able to pay the mortgage of my house. I will lose my home and end up on the street….” And on, and on it goes.
Racing thoughts often appear as rumination about past events where you felt an intense emotion like sadness or anxiety. Or they are concerns about things that could happen in the future. In both cases, they create a loop in your brain that feels difficult to escape.
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It is also important to notice that your excessive worrying is often totally disproportionate to your reality. In fact, these thoughts are typically triggered by normal everyday situations.
Why are racing thoughts so disturbing?
The reason why racing thoughts are so disturbing and sometimes downright frightening is that they create in you a sense of being out of control. They have the power to completely take over your mind, leaving you unable to focus on anything else. You are feeling insecure and anxious, and your stress level is higher than usual.
Your overstimulated mind at night has a lot to do with your tendency to overanalyze things during your wakefulness. In other words, your racing mind at night is the result of how you approach your life during the day. Therefore, to capture the underlying issue of why you can’t sleep, it is absolutely critical to look at your thought patterns during the day. That’s how you discover if and where you might have to make some adjustments.
Why are we prone to overthinking?
Your overstimulated mind is a direct cause of overthinking, the tendency of thinking too much about situations or problems in your life. Although overthinking and anxiety tend to be evil partners, you don’t necessarily need to have an anxiety disorder to be prone to overthinking.
Overthinking is also not always bad because there are times when we really need it. For example, if you are an engineer designing a new machine or if you are a surgeon performing complicated heart surgeries, you require a lot of extreme precision. In these situations, your focus on details may leave you in a state of overthinking, which is absolutely vital for your success.
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Whereas a clear sign of overthinking is when during your colleague’s presentation, your main focus is on unimportant details like the different font sizes in the presentation slides. I know that feeling all too well because that is exactly what I was doing all the time until I discovered that it was a big part of my struggle to calm down my mind.
What are the results of overthinking?
One result of overthinking is the struggle to make decisions or to finish things. When you focus on unimportant details, you often don’t see the bigger picture. You miss the most essential facts about a situation, and your mind can’t pick a lane, which makes it challenging to decide or to execute your ideas.
Another consequence of overthinking is that it often leads to difficulties in personal or work relationships. You may argue about trivial stuff and obsess about all the things that could go wrong. Other people might find you too critical or judgmental. Or they may find you too difficult to deal with in general because you are a poor listener, just waiting for a break in a conversation to start talking.
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In your romantic relationship overthinking can wreak some serious havoc too. The reason is that you tend to focus on your partner’s negative traits and over-interpret everything that he or she says or does. Your partner, on the other hand, might interpret your behavior as a lack of understanding and trust.
Why is overthinking so debilitating?
Overthinking can cause problems in any area of your life because you want the impossible: the right and optimal way for everything. You’re trying to get there by making overachieving and overperforming your first priority. However, this approach only creates additional confusion in your life and leaves you more and more stuck.
The truth is that your perfectionism limits what you are willing to try because you are terrified of doing it wrong. You rather play it safe, not realizing that the more you rely on your over-analyzing mind, the more it goes off-balance. The result is self-doubt, instability, and exhaustion. This creates continual stress that eventually can take a major toll on your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
What happens at night when your mind is racing?
If your mind is continually getting the message that there is something wrong or still missing in your life, it interprets this message as a threat. And a threat ramps up the fight-or-flight response branch in your nervous system because your brain believes you have sensed danger.
To prepare your body to react to the threat, it kicks off stress responses throughout your body. While this reaction would be helpful in the case of a true threat, it is useless and debilitating if the fear is all in your head.
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When you go to sleep the fight-or-flight part of your nervous system has to shut off. Otherwise, you can’t fall asleep because you are “wired and tired”: You desperately want to sleep because you are tired, but you fail to get some rest because you are too wired with worries and anxiety.
On top of this, you may get caught in a vicious anxiety-insomnia cycle: Poor sleep triggers anxiety, which in turn causes more poor sleep, which results in even more anxiety, and so on.
In this situation, any additional effort and coping strategies you put into trying to improve your sleep only make it worse. Your mind interprets these attempts again as mental threats that both feed and keep you stuck in your insomnia.
Numbing it with medication is definitely no long-term solution. Instead, you have to address the root cause of your confusion and anxiety.
What is the root cause of your confusion and anxiety?
Remember what I said before: Anxiety and overthinking tend to be evil partners. And it works both ways: overthinking is an effect of anxiety, but it also increases anxiety. So overthinking is really a form of mental resistance to the stress which was caused by your threat-defense system.
In other words, when you are overthinking or overanalyzing, what you’re really doing is to cover up a deep inner fear. A fear that is often related to the nagging feeling of inadequacy or the belief of not being good enough. And what are we doing when we feel inadequate? We spiral into self-doubt and become dependant on external validation that we are actually ok.
Even if this is only in your head but when you think that you are the problem, your self-image is threatened and you react as if your very existence is threatened. Your fight-or-flight system gets activated, and you start to either beat yourself up like “Why am I such an idiot?” (fight), or you get stuck in rumination and isolation with the destructive belief that you aren’t enough (flight or freeze).
This battle against yourself is hopeless because you are trying to solve your problems and pain by using exactly what generated them: your rational mind.
Why your mind is not the solution but the problem
Your mind is generally fearful and externally focused because it scans the outside world for potential threats. While this evolutionary behavior is beneficial in the case of an actual threat, it can be very debilitating if the fear is all in your head.
This is exactly happening when you’re lying awake in bed at night. Your mind is very powerful and starts to make up stories about how something is wrong about you. This type of thinking is perceived as a threat. It affects your reality, the way you feel, and how your body reacts. Your stress response system is turned on and keeps you awake.
How to create more balanced thinking and reduce racing thoughts?
Restful sleep can only be achieved if you successfully reduce your racing thoughts and create a more balanced mind. You need to get through your current layer of pain. Otherwise, you get stuck in the same patterns, same thinking, same decisions, and the same results.
The good news is that it is your own mind which creates confusion in your head. So it is also your choice whether you believe its unhelpful stories or not. In other words, you have the power to change your current thought patterns. You can self-heal your pain and go from confusion to clarity, from restlessness to relaxation, from stress and anxiety to empowerment, and from insomnia to great sleep.
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How? It requires two significant steps: First, you have to shift your focus from scanning the outer world to looking inside of you. And second, you need to let go of control and stop resisting your unhelpful feelings. If you are willing to accept your current experience, even if it is painful, you will heal your insomnia and move forward with your life.
Let’s look at each step in more detail.
Step 1: Shift your focus and call back your attention by getting into your body
As long as your mind is externally oriented, you tend to look outside of yourself to seek for solutions to your problems. With this state of mind, you are not really in charge of your own life. Instead, you depend on other people in trying to live your life the way you want.
If that’s not happening, you blame the external world for your lack of success, happiness, and fulfillment. As you realize that this attitude won’t help you to solve your problems you get consumed by self-doubt and hesitancy. You lose more and more confidence in yourself and start to believe that there is something wrong with you.
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Whereas if you shift your focus inward, your life’s outcome will depend on your own choices. You get back into the driver’s seat. Or in other words, you become the creator of your life and the true source for your happiness and success. That’s why the goal is to go from being externally focused to looking within yourself to sense and feel who you really are.
Why you need to get into your body
However, this shift doesn’t happen simply by changing your thinking or telling yourself that everything is going to be ok. In fact, your main point of reference must move away from your thinking mind to your body, or more precisely into the center of your body, to your core. That’s the location where you bring your energy to life and where you become aware of what is happening inside of you. That’s the location where it’s safe to feel all your feelings – even the unpleasant ones – so that you can become familiar with them and don’t need to avoid them anymore.
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When you become present in your body, you develop a more accurate picture of yourself and your situation. As a consequence, you begin to feel grounded and safe.
This will not be possible if you keep on relying only on your mind. Your overthinking will persist, leaving you in confusion and pain.
How to get into your body?
Getting into your body is essentially nothing you need to learn from scratch. I am sure there are many examples in your life where you are fully present in your body like having a deep conversation, spending time with your child, playing music, doing yoga, or your favorite exercises like cycling, hiking, or sailing. Even simple things like stretching your body or just smiling can be profoundly grounding. Almost anything meaningful to you will ground and anchor you in your body.
However, to ground yourself and sense your energy flow at any moment at any place, there are some simple but effective techniques you can use. One is the following short meditation in 5 simple steps which you can try out immediately.
- Look at a point across the place where you are, take a deep breath into your belly, and at the exhale close your eyes, maintaining the same strong presence behind your eyes.
- Notice your root chakra at the base of your spine and feel your energy pulsing there. Extend your energy downward from your root chakra like a tree growing roots or a waterfall cascading down into the earth.
- Let your grounding expand until it is wide as your body deeply rooting you into the earth. Feel your presence getting stronger in your body.
- Notice any pain or tension in your body. Let it release down into your grounding away from your body and into the earth.
- Say to yourself: “I love being in my body”. On your next inhale open your eyes.
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This short meditation is so effective because it guides you to anchor yourself in your body and to the earth. But it also helps you to release stuck energy. Keep in mind that like your physical body, your energy body has circulation channels that carry away waste. So whenever you feel anxious or confused, this simple grounding meditation can help you to move the pain out of your system.
Step 2: Give up resistance and accept your current experience by running your energy
Working with the mind often means working with resistance. All of us naturally put up resistance to whatever we perceive as causing us to suffer.
Anxiety is no exception: Feeling anxious means experiencing resistance. Here is how the struggle with unwanted thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations works: there is that feeling you don’t want to feel. You will do whatever it takes not to feel it. During the day, you might be able to manage by keeping yourself busy. Or you overcompensate for all kinds of things to build some sense of worth and self-esteem.
Why is it so difficult to give up resistance?
But during the night you don’t have these distractions. There in your bed, you can’t easily escape frustration, stress, and anxiety. In fact, the intolerable feelings and body sensations often even get worse. This is because your mind is incredibly powerful. Just imagining a worst-case scenario can determine how you feel and how your body reacts. Simply telling yourself, “I’m going to die because I’m so tired!” can ramp up your stress response system and keep you up for hours.
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It makes, of course, perfect sense to be resistant against not being able to sleep. No one wants to feel exhausted all day after another night of poor sleep. However, if you keep resisting your current experience, you inadvertently create more stress and anxiety. Your body perceives your resistance as if there is some kind of crisis going on and activates its fight/flight response, which pushes sleep even further away. Remember, it is not your insomnia that keeps you awake, but your battle with it.
Why you need to accept your current feelings in order to sleep better
If you allow yourself to feel your current experience, you can manage your daily suffering from insomnia or any other challenge in your life with much greater ease. If you start to accept what’s going on in your mind, you stop putting up your effortful, useless defense patterns.
During the day, that means that you don’t need to try to outperform some false sense of inadequacy or insufficiency anymore. And during the night, acceptance means that you choose not to fight against your poor sleep and all the pain and suffering that comes with it. Acceptance is the key to stop your overthinking and to break through your pain.
First things first: Letting go of control
However, accepting your current condition requires your willingness to open up and lean into the pain and suffering that you desperately are trying to control. So the real challenge is to allow yourself to let go of control and to choose to feel the feeling that you are too afraid to feel, be it fear, anger, shame, guilt, doubt, or any other emotion. You don’t even have to name it but to feel it. I know this is not easy! But remember, it’s your life, and only you have the power to choose what the next steps are.
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Therefore, if your answer is “Yes, I allow myself to feel these feelings!” you train your mind that there is no feeling that should be avoided. Your system will become familiar with all that you are now afraid of so that you can open up and move forward with your life.
The relationship between resistance and stuckness
Every time you experience something, you can’t mentally comprehend – something extremely upsetting, or frightening – your mind gets confused. You respond to the confusion with resistance and rejection, which creates stuckness in your system so that your energy no longer flows. The more your energy is blocked, the more you seek fulfillment from external sources.
To dissolve the stuckness, you need to focus inward on where your energy got stuck. By putting your attention to these spots, you re-establish the natural flow of energy in your body so that safety and peace can return.
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But remember, your rational mind with its interpretations is not helping here. You need to really feel the sensation in your body.
How to feel the sensations in your body?
A fantastic way to do this is a combination of tuning into your body to sense where your pain shows up and then to breathe through those spots by doing Dr. Sue’s central channel breathing technique. The idea is that your breath is moving your energy in and out of your energy field. Therefore it has excellent healing power.
Here are the steps:
- Whenever you are experiencing mental, emotional, or physical pain, ask yourself where you feel it in your body rather than why it is happening to you. Your emotional reaction may show up as a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, goosebumps on your arms or legs, some muscle tension, or any other form of bodily sensation.
- Locate the part of your body where you feel the sensation and gently squeeze the muscles in that area. (In case you can’t locate the sensation, just breathe consciously at that moment while you are feeling the unpleasant feeling.)
- Then do the central channel breathing, by breathing through it with every in- and exhale. Make three to four trips up and down the channel. With the last exhale quickly relax the tensed muscle.
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That’s it! This an easy exercise you can do while sitting at your desk, waiting in line at the grocery store checkout, or when you lie down in your bed. You activate your chakras and allow your energy to flow smoothly and undisrupted through the affected part and throughout your body.
It’s one of the longer posts, but I hope the main takeaway became clear: To stop the fear-based overthinking in your mind you need to shift your focus inward to the energy flowing within your body.
Here you don’t have to bypass the unwanted thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that come with a disorder like insomnia. Here it’s safe to face and accept the frustration, stress, and anxiety caused by the confusion of your rational over-analyzing mind. By shifting your focus inward, you can transform your struggle with insomnia into a powerful healing journey towards great sleep.
However, the step of letting go of control might scare you right now. Whereas in reality, it is not scary at all. You can count on your energy all the way. That is because your energy offers a higher intelligence than your rational mind and will guide you in your healing process. It will never fail to show you the real path to clarity, wellbeing, and coherency.
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