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How to Quiet Your Mind When You Can’t Fall Asleep

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‘Quiet your mind and your soul will speak.’

If you’re stuck tossing and turning once your head hits the pillow, these tips can help.

There are few things more frustrating than getting in bed after a long, tiring day only to realise your brain isn’t ready for sleep. You know those nights – despite how exhausted you feel, your mind is off ruminating on tomorrow’s to-do list, your uncertainties about the pandemic, or whatever other worries are real for you at that moment. While you’re in the heat of tossing and turning, sleep can feel like a hopeless reality – but fortunately, that’s rarely the case. There are plenty of in-the-moment strategies that can help us kick our worries out the door so we can get the rest we need and deserve.

Try a 5-count breathing exercise

I find that a series of stacked breaths works every time. I inhale deeply for a count of five, hold the breath in for a count of five, and then exhale completely for another count of five. I repeat this five-count until I fall asleep. It works like a charm. 

Think back to a joyful moment

Some of my favourite most carefree childhood memories happened on my grandparents’ farm. Whenever I can’t sleep, I trace the steps of walking through their house. Then my memory turns to them – my grandpa sitting on a kitchen barstool with a cup of coffee and my grandma nearby doing a rosary and praying for all of her family. They’ve been gone for many years, but their memory always calms my restlessness.

Write down your worries on a notepad

My go-to trick that helps me when I can’t sleep is to write down the things that are racing through my mind on a notepad I keep by my bed. I scribble them in the dark, so sometimes I can’t read them in the morning, but simply getting them from my head onto paper is so helpful and it helps me fall asleep.

Cuddle with your pet

I tried many ways to calm my mind at night, but I’ve found that playing and cuddling with my dog works best. Lily knows when it is bedtime. She jumps on my bed and warms it up while I brush my teeth. We play around on the bed for a bit, and then I pet her until my hands get tired and I fall asleep.

Read something that makes you sleepy

When my mind doesn’t give up and keeps me awake, I have a go-to strategy for falling asleep. I turn on my side table lamp, so I don’t wake my wife and read something less exciting. We all have reading material that doesn’t have gripping tales that will keep us awake, so I’ll choose something I need to learn. Textbooks, manuals, or less exciting novels will always remove my mind’s hurdles to sleep. At least I’ll learn something before sleep takes over.

Use a calming scent

My travel retreats introduced me to the world of combining stimulating aromatherapy with bedtime meditation, and the combination has become my go-to ritual ever since. I use a combination of essential oils like lavender, rosemary, and tea tree as I meditate before bed. This ritual soothes my mind and eases down racing thoughts so I can fall asleep more easily. Research even shows that using essential oils coupled with meditative relaxation boosts sleep quality.

Listen to ocean waves

When I have trouble sleeping, I like to play one of two sounds – ocean waves or water droplets. Playing a soothing sound has a hugely calming influence, and coupled with a gratitude list and my affirmations, my mind is always at ease afterwards.

Visualise your future self

My mind tends to race at night when I have a problem or situation that I am trying to work through. My go-to strategy for quieting those racing thoughts is to do a self-guided visualisation practice, where I envision my future self after this problem has been solved. This exercise helps me to quiet my mind and shift away from my stressors so I can drift off to sleep.

Put on a sleep mask

My go-to strategy for quieting a racing mind at bedtime is wearing a sleep mask. The sleep mask forces my eyes to stay shut. I’ve found that when my mind is wandering, my eyes want to stay open which can trigger the temptation of getting out of bed or checking my phone. Keeping my eyes closed with a sleep mask signals to my brain that it’s time to sleep. In dire situations, I will also play white noise like rain sounds and focus on taking deep breaths. These three things together have never failed me.

Give yourself compassion

I learned years ago to remind myself when I can’t sleep: ‘Worst case, tomorrow will just be a tough day, but I’ll get through it. I have before.’ These reminders often help calm me. I also have learned to do my best to be present and accepting of what is. I put my hand on my heart and say: ‘It’s OK. This is hard and I’m with you.’ It truly helps to shower myself with as much self-love as I can. Giving myself some self-compassion always does the trick.

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

Put your thoughts to sleep. Do not let them cast a shadow over the moon of your heart. Let go of thinking.

Trishna Patnaik is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one-to-one basis in Mumbai.

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