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When Stressful Thoughts Keep You Awake, This Psychologist Has A Trick

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Guille Faingold / Stocksy
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September 23, 2021

Psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, has noticed that lots of restless nights stem from the same root. Many times, when someone has occasional trouble sleeping that they can't trace back to an underlying medical condition or poor sleep hygiene, it's because of what Harris calls "brain fatigue."

Here's how the author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia recommends resting your brain for the sake of your sleep.

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Why busy days get in the way of restful nights.

Let's imagine you have a busy day where everything is taking a little longer than planned. Suddenly, it's dinnertime and your to-do list is only halfway done. You power through to cross off every last thing and somehow still manage to get in bed at a decent hour. Success! But then, lying in the dark, you can't sleep even though you're totally exhausted.

Sound familiar? Harris says this is a prime example of brain fatigue, which happens when we don't give our minds ample time to wind down and recover before bed. "When you're going, going, going, it's hard for you to turn your brain off," she tells mbg, making it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep through the night.

This is why it's essential to start your nightly wind-down process at least 30 minutes, but preferably an hour, before you want to be asleep. Sleep, after all, doesn't happen with the flip of a switch. Instead, Harris likes to imagine that it functions on a dimmer.

Once you find a steady stream of relaxing tools—be it meditation, breathwork, a bathing ritual, or a sleep supplement—you can weave them together to gradually send the signal to your brain that bedtime is coming.*

While everyone's routine will look a bit different, Harris says that most people can benefit from kicking it off with a brain dump. This is simply a way to offload some of your stressful thoughts or worries so you don't carry them into bed with you.

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How to do a "brain dump" before bed.

These three practices can all help you get into bed with a calmer mind. Try them all out and see which one works best for you, or riff off of them in a way that you find easy to stick with. The important thing is giving your stressful thoughts somewhere to go—since they're definitely not invited to your precious wind-down time:

  • Make a to-do list: Research shows that making to-do lists at night can help people sleep better. The reasoning, Harris explains, is that making a list gets all your tasks and worries into one place. "If you think about it later, you can go, 'Nope, I already wrote it down,'" she says. For those with really long lists, she recommends breaking them into "need to get done," "would like to get done," and "doesn't have to get done" columns to help put them into perspective.
  • Journal: If there is one thing, in particular, that's on your mind, you may find it helpful to journal on it before winding down. (These prompts can help you get started.) This way, you'll be less likely to keep thinking about it in bed. You'll already have thought about it plenty and gotten some of your ideas about it onto the page.
  • Set aside worry time: Similar to a journaling session, "worry time" is 20 timed minutes that you spend doing nothing but, you guessed it, worrying. "It sounds crazy but you're allowed to worry, nonstop, for those 20 minutes," Harris says. She's seen this route be helpful for people who tend to get anxious about the future, for it gives them a structured space to play out their fears and worst-case scenarios. Then, once those 20 minutes are up, they can go about their day knowing that worry time is over and any stressful thoughts that come up next will have to wait until tomorrow.
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With your stressful thoughts released before bed, you'll have plenty of mental space for more pressing concerns, like how good your sheets are about to feel.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor

Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.