Why Your "Pre-Sleep Window" Is So Important + How To Fill It
As much as I'd like to believe that the murder mystery book I've been reading right before bed doesn't impact my sleep, my Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque dreams say otherwise. The last thing we do before snoozing leaves an imprint on our sleep experience and quality—for better or worse.
But why, exactly, does this happen, and how can we use it to our advantage to craft the ultimate pre-bed routine? Let's hear from psychology and sleep experts about how to optimize your pre-sleep window.
Why your pre-sleep routine is so important.
One reason to be picky about your just-before-bed activities traces to human psychology. As Laura Faiwiszewski, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy, explains, when we feel an emotion while watching or reading something—say, anxiousness from watching stressful news—we have trouble separating that emotion from our own lived experience. Once we start to feel physically anxious, we may subconsciously search for experiences from our days that justify it. We grasp for reasons to feel anxious—and inevitably, we find them.
"We're not great at then shifting and compartmentalizing what we just experienced," Faiwiszewski explains. "If you look for something to be anxious about, you will find it. There's always something to be anxious about. Then we label our experience as anxiety."
And no surprise here: Thinking about all the things you have to feel anxious about before bed won't be conducive to falling asleep quickly1. Beyond a racing mind, the physical manifestations of stress, concern, and fear—such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol—are known to delay sleep onset and harm sleep quality2.
As my experience shows, the last things we take in before bed also have a way of seeping into our dreams. "You're priming yourself to think in that way before I go to sleep," explains Faiwiszewski, and your brain then takes that momentum and carries it into the dream realm. This phenomenon has a name: the Tetris effect.
Named for the simple but addictive video game, the Tetris effect theory, originally coined in the 1980s, says that when we focus on something for extended periods of time, it will inevitably shape our thoughts, perceptions, and dreams.
By this logic, it makes sense that my pre-bed literature has led to some pretty gnarly nightmares. But on the flip side, it also means that focusing my attention on something more positive before bed can set me up for easier sleep and constructive dreams.
The Tetris effect is why Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., spends the last few moments of every day looking at her "action board" filled with photos of her goals and desires. "I look at the board, visualize it as if it is already true, feel what that feels like in all my senses, and give gratitude for it becoming real," she writes in an article on her wind-down routine. "That leads to the priming of the brain as it chooses what to filter out/tag as important to you thriving the next day."
"The things that we consume before bed can allow us to relax and help us have more sound sleep," echoes Faiwiszewski.
What's the last thing you should do before sleep?
Ready to home in on our pre-bed ritual? Before you do, it's important to set the stage for sleep. You know the drill: In the hours before bed, make sure your bedroom is dark and on the cooler side, stop using electronics, and avoid foods and drinks that will disrupt your snooze. Winding down with a hot bath or taking a science-backed sleep supplement, like mindbodygreen's sleep support+, can further get you into the sleep zone.*
From there, you're ready to slip into your final act of the day. Here are a few that mental health experts find the most conducive to rest:
- Do a loving-kindness meditation: Faiwiszewski likes to save this meditation, which focuses on sending positive thoughts to yourself and others, for just before bedtime to reflect on love and connection.
- Meditate on gratitude: Along the same lines of loving-kindness, psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., listens to a guided gratitude meditation right before bed to end her day on a constructive note.
- Visualize nature: Thinking about the ebbs and flows of nature can help us put our own lives into perspective. That's why Faiwiszewski loves doing the Mountain Meditation, coined by Jon Kabat-Zin, right before bed. It involves visualizing a mountain as it changes through the seasons—showing off new colors in autumn and sitting under a blanket of snow through winter. "Even though its surface changes and the weather changes around it, the mountain is still a mountain," she says. "It's the same in our own lives. The weather of our lives might change, just like the surface of our mountain might change, but through and through, we're still this solid, rooted mountain."
- Set intentions for the days ahead: Precision medicine doctor and biohacker Molly Maloof, M.D., likes to use the liminal space before bed to think about her goals so they can be solidified during sleep. "Once I am in bed, I like to spend a good 15 minutes before I go to sleep setting intentions and praying and visualizing, thinking through the life that I want to live," she writes.
While negative thoughts are inevitable from time to time, these practices can help you quiet them during that key pre-sleep window.
How do you spend the last few minutes before bed? Turns out, there are psychological reasons to fill them with actions that prime you for superior sleep and dreams, like visualizing, meditating, or setting heartfelt intentions for the day ahead.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director 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 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. 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.