Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #264) and blog, I talk about the surprising reasons why you may not be sleeping well, and how to use mind management to improve your sleep and mental health.
1. Stop worrying about not sleeping.
We all know sleep is really important. However, as I discuss in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, research also suggests there’s a huge cost to pathologizing it. This means that worrying about sleep and identifying and labeling yourself as a poor sleeper may be worse than not sleeping!
Unfortunately, there’s endless research telling us the impact of sleep deprivation and that sleep serves a myriad of functions. Personally, when someone tells me “You need to sleep or you will be too tired for whatever tomorrow brings,” or “Go to sleep early so you don’t damage your brain,” I won’t sleep just because I start panicking about not sleeping! It also doesn’t always help that everyone in the wellness and medical space keeps saying, “Sleep or else.” It’s like pouring fuel on the fire of your panic, which can make everything worse. Legalism around sleep is a hindrance, not a help.
So, if you can’t sleep, don’t fret. Use the time to catch up on that list of books you have been meaning to read, or to do those tasks you have been putting off. Your body is really good at adjusting, and chances are you will catch up on the sleep you need later that week or even with a nap the next day. It helps to look at sleep over a period like a week or month versus nightly, because current circumstances and demands can also temporarily influence sleep!
2. Daydreaming can help you sleep better!
If you’re constantly stressed during the day, and you don’t take the time to organize your thinking and reboot the brain, this can affect your sleeping patterns at night. When you go to sleep, you’re going into a “housekeeping” mode—everything is getting cleaned up, which helps prepare you for the next day. If there’s a lot of mental mess in the brain, this housekeeping function is hindered, which can affect how you sleep (including nightmares) and how you feel mentally and physically the next day.
Many of us tend to panic at night as we’re trying to go to sleep because our brains are exhausted from chaotic thinking patterns during the day. That’s why it is so important to take what I call “thinker moments” throughout the day when we switch off to the external, switch on to the internal, and just let our minds wander and daydream or doodle. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which increases your clarity of thought and organizes the networks of your brain by balancing alpha and beta activity. This increases blood flow to the brain, which helps it function better and helps you deal with challenges and stress and sleep better at night.
3. Don’t be afraid of the occasional all-nighter.
Sometimes, an all-nighter is excellent for the mind and brain (the mind works through the brain). If you are having deep, meaningful discussions, for example, or pulling an all-nighter doing some really creative and inspirational work, your brain health will actually benefit in the short and long-term because you are exercising those cognitive muscles and building good, healthy memories, which help boost overall mental health and can prevent cognitive decline.
4. Preparing for sleep begins when you wake up.
As mentioned above, chaotic thinking during the day can impact the quality of your rest at night and how you feel the next day. This is why self-regulation and mind management are important lifestyle habits you should practice throughout the day when you are awake—don’t just let random thoughts and feelings run through your mind unchecked.
To this end, I recommend using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I talk about in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking!
- Gather. Preparing for sleep begins in the morning, as counterintuitive as this may sound. The way your mind is managed from the time you wake up impacts the biochemistry, circadian rhythm, and energy of the brain. An unmanaged, messy mind is an unmanaged, messy brain that will result in messy sleep. Gather awareness of your thinking. What is going through your mind? Are you anxious about something? How do you feel physically?
- Reflect. Reflect on what you’re focusing on as you wake up. Is it on the problems and negative aspects of the day or the bits and pieces of your dreams, images from TV, and undealt-with thoughts flowing messily and chaotically in your mind? What is occupying your attention?
- Write. If you don’t catch your thoughts with their intertwined emotions, information, and embodied physical sensations, this messy waking state can become a messy day, and you will feel like you are playing catch-up all day. So, say your thoughts out loud or write them quickly into your journal next to your bed.
- Recheck your thoughts by breathing in for three counts and out for three counts, saying the opposite of what you reflected on; for example, say “I can only try to do what I can, and it’s fine if I don’t finish,” instead of “I have so much to do today!”
- Active Reach. Choose to put on a mindset for the day. Here are some more helpful morning Active Reach reminders:
- Write five things you are proud of yourself for—start your day off celebrating yourself!
- Write five things you are grateful for.
- Ask yourself not what you want to or have to do today but rather who you want to be today and how you want to feel.