Q: I can’t shut my brain down at night to go to sleep. I want to sleep, but my mind wanders, flitting from one thing to the next. When I do fall asleep, I often wake up a few hours later. Then the thoughts start all over again. How can I stop these thoughts?
A:You can learn to quiet your mind. It will take practice over time.
Currently, going to sleep for you is like riding an out of control bus. You go to the sleep stop and board. Walking down the aisle, the back seat looks pretty good. At every bend you hold on tight as you are flung side to side. Looking upfront, you don’t see anyone in the driver’s seat. The passengers are talking about your life. You hear the woman in front replaying a conversation you had earlier in the day – over and over again. Another passenger in a loud voice is making a long list of what’s going to happen tomorrow and dictating your to-do list, a youngster anxiously demands, “How long until we get there? This is taking forever.”
As long as you allow these voices to chatter away, stay seated, with no clear route to your destination and no one seeming to guide you there, you will have trouble falling and staying asleep.
The way to peaceful slumber, is to grab hold of the bars, stand up and say: “Everybody, listen up.” You walk to the front and sit in the driver’s seat. You turn and address the unruly bunch, “I am driving this bus.” You look at them and instruct each one: “My dear, sit back in your seat, breathe slow and deep from your abdomen.” Pointing to the next person: “You. Feel the tingling and sensations in your body, feel the beat of your heart. Focus on your toes, then slowly move upward concentrating on your feet, ankles, calves, thighs, back, stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, arms, and head.” To another: “Quiet now, release your clenched jaw; let it gently drop.”
In doing this, you transition from thinking to experiencing. Become aware of how your body feels sunken into the bed beneath you. Choose an experience to be your focus – the sound of your breathing, the rise and fall of your stomach, the odd visual patterns seen with eyes closed. When your mind wanders off, softly bring it back to the experience. It can be helpful to allow one soothing thought – one that is in the direction of, or at, your destination, for example, “I am falling asleep” or “I am already asleep.”
Thoughts that run amuck can be reined in with discipline – just as they went out of control over time without it. You can train your mind to do what you want it to do, not whatever it wants to do. Remember, you’re driving this bus.
Disclaimer: Responses to questions are not to be construed as receiving, and are not a substitute for, psychological services, or treatment.
Questions to Sophie is a new question and answer column addressing reflections on work, family, friendship and personal issues. Send your questions to email@example.com or mail them to The Hamburg Item office. Please submit by the editorial deadline.
The column is by Suzanne Kline, a practicing psychologist born and raised in the Hamburg Area.