When your bedtime thoughts become a runaway train

Take back your nights

Make it stop!

The mind can feel like a runaway train at times, leading us on a journey of upset. One thought can take us from feeling relaxed and peaceful to feeling stressed and on high-alert.

Our train-of-thought may get stuck on one track or it may jump tracks at random, with one challenging thought quickly leading to another. It can feel like a downward spiral. Our bodies and emotions suffer as we experience the effects of negative thinking, as adrenaline courses through our bodies.

Recently, at a mindfulness presentation I was giving, the group lamented they felt victim to their minds, especially at night. Challenges of the past and worries about the future consumed their minds, especially as they tried to doze off to sleep.

Even small problems seem to grow in size in the quiet of the night, and become disproportionate in size.

This challenge is so pervasive for some, just the thought of going to bed creates distress. There can be dread of being alone with one’s own mind in the quiet of the night. Just the thought of going to bed can be enough to cause the fight-or-flight response to activate, with the dread of another sleepless night.

This is a common occurrence for many, and with the increased use of technology, the problem is becoming more rampant.

When I suffered from this problem, I often wondered why it was always the challenging thoughts that stuck around, not the happy ones. There’s a reason for this.

Challenging thoughts are sticky, like Velcro, because of an evolutionary capacity called the inherent negativity bias. As we evolved, it was much more important we paid attention to potential dangers than to what’s pleasant.

This tendency of the brain that’s meant to keep us alive can feel like it’s torturing us, as we go over-and-over potential worries and threats. We can feel victim to our minds and exhausted from wrestling with them through the night.

Our bodies respond to challenged thinking in a feedback loop. Difficult thoughts activate the fight-or flight response, and stress chemicals course through our bodies, causing us to feel on alert, which causes our minds to race even more. This loop certainly challenges our ability to sleep, as the mind goes on high-alert, our hearts pounding and muscles tensed.

The good news and the bad news is we’re the only ones who are at the helm of our thoughts. It’s up to us. We can change our brains and the tendency of our thoughts with practice.

If a busy brain keeps you awake at night, here are some simple strategies that can help:

• Disconnect from technology at least half-an-hour before bedtime.

• Dim the lights, and allow yourself to slow down.

• Create a relaxing ritual that leads to sleep. Because we are habit-forming creatures, creating a ritual causes us to relax.

• Notice the thoughts, don’t resist them. Learn to simply observe your thoughts without judgment.

• Write your thoughts down. Make note of arising concerns or items you’d like to attend to tomorrow. Putting them to paper stabilizes thoughts and they’re less likely to grow.

• Remember, don’t believe everything you think. Just because you thought something, doesn’t mean it’s true.

• Practice mindful breathing, or allow a mindfulness practice to guide you to sleep. Having a recorded practice available is helpful.

• Notice what’s real, right here and now. Feel the sheets of the bed, hear the actual sounds in the room. Come to your senses and notice what is really happening.

What we practice grows stronger, according to mindfulness teacher, Shawna Shapiro. With practice and repetition, our brains change due to the plastic or changeable nature of our brain structure.

The negative thoughts become less pervasive, and reduce in frequency and intensity. We are the masters of our own minds. With practice, we can change the way our brains work.

Here’s to a good nights’ sleep.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

An assistant minister at the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, she is a retired nurse with a master’s degree in health science and is a hospice volunteer.  She is also an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan and currently spends her time teaching smartUBC, a unique mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. 

She is a speaker and presenter and from her diverse experience and knowledge, both personally and professionally, she has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people gain a new perspective, awaken and recognize we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts, stress or to life. We are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 44 years and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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