I was taught growing up that you'll fall asleep more easily if you imagine jumping sheep and count them, but this never seemed to work for me. The image's repetitive nature would bore me, and my own thoughts would take over. This left me wondering, what should I do with my mind when I'm lying in bed trying to sleep?
"Laying in bed with a racing mind is nothing short of torture," Corey Phelps, health and wellness educator and Founder and CEO of Cultivate by Corey, tells Bustle. "You seem to have a keen awareness of every minute passing, which amplifies stress and perpetuates an endless stream of thought, each thought a roadblock to the ultimate goal of a restful night's sleep."
When you're having trouble falling asleep, it may be tempting to worry about the insomnia itself. But this will only make sleep much more difficult. Remind yourself that just by lying down and closing your eyes, you're already getting rest, and you can have a good day tomorrow no matter how much sleep you get.
So, what should you do, then? Here are some mental tricks that might help you fall asleep if counting sheep doesn't cut it for you.
1. Count Backwards
This task is a winning combination of boring and mentally taxing, so your mind will want to give up and check out. "Pick a random high number (like 106), and count backwards from there," licensed social worker and therapist Tracey M. Phillips, PhD tells Bustle. "You probably will not make it past 10 numbers before you are asleep."
2. Try To Stay Awake
Often, your mind will do the opposite of what you try to make it do. "Strange enough, when you are trying to fall asleep, your mind will fight it," says Phillips. "If you try to stay awake (without distraction), your mind will also fight it." So, use reverse psychology and tell your mind to stay awake.
3. Do A "Brain Dump"
Phelps recommends writing down all your thoughts in a journal before bed to get them out of your head. "It doesn't have to be complete sentences or neatly crafted," she says. "This exercise is meant to free your mind and provides a receptacle for the ideas that are racing through your brain and preventing you from relaxing and achieving sleep."
4. Do The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
For this technique, created by Dr. Andrew Weil, you inhale through your nose while counting to four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Phelps suggests repeating this four times if you're having trouble falling asleep. We take breathing for granted, but it's a highly powerful way to control our minds and bodies.
5. Squeeze And Relax Your Muscles
"This technique operates on the principle that you must know tension to know relaxation," Phelps explains. Starting from your head down to your toes, tighten each muscle for three to five counts, and then relax it. "By the time you reach your feet, your entire body will be relaxed and primed for sleep," says Phelps.
6. Make A Mental Gratitude List
"Count all of the things you are grateful for that brought contentment to your day — from people in your life to accomplishments you made to kindness that was shown to you," psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD tells Bustle. This will not only give your mind something to do but also help you relax.
7. Create A Mnemonic To-Do List
Thinking about what you need to do tomorrow can stress you out, but sometimes, you're too tired to write it down. So, one exercise that can both give your mind something to do and ensure you get everything done the next day is to create mnemonics for your to-dos. "For example, if you need to Call your mom, Ask a client to pay their overdue balance, Look for the perfect lingerie to wear for the weekend, and Make an appointment with your dentist, then remember the mnemonic C.A.L.M.," says Lieberman.
8. Picture A Happy Scene
"Visualize yourself in a very serene environment, from your favorite place in childhood to simply walking on the beach to sitting in a garden," Lieberman says. Along with calming you down, this visualization may even help give you pleasant dreams.
If you're having trouble falling asleep, it's also important to think about what you're doing before you lie down. To improve in that area, check out this guide to practicing good sleep hygiene.