Why stress gets in the way of rest
Let’s imagine you have a busy day when 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.