From racing thoughts at night to mental well-being for sleep
In a holistic approach to sleep coaching, we review daily habits to find what may be blocking sleep. This article considers factors for mental well-being and sleep.
11 min read
Hey sleep enthusiast,
Thanks for getting curious about your sleep struggles and specifically the psychological effects of sleep deprivation. In sleep coaching sessions, people often come to me with questions like ‘how do I quiet racing thoughts at night to sleep?’ or ‘what can I do to sleep when I am too stressed to sleep?’.
The truth is that there is no one way that works for everyone when it comes to soothing the mind to get sleep because different approaches will work for different people and their lifestyles across all areas of their life. As part of a holistic approach to sleep health, this article looks at common sleep struggles related to the mind, along with ways to care for your mental well-being when inconsistent sleep is a way of life.
Who this guide is for
People who have consistently had patchy sleep, going through sometimes-it’s-good, sometimes-it’s-bad sleep phases. As a former insomniac, when sleep was the first thing to go when life got stressful, I get it. It can become a way of life, something that you manage as best you can.
The intention of this article is to provide a resource for ways to manage your mental well-being and in so optimise your chances of Restful Sleep. If you have a specific question about sleep and mental health that's not answered here, please do let me know. That way this page can continue to be developed to help those who struggle with sleep to best look after their mental well-being.
You may need more specialised mental health support if…
You have a mental health condition that requires medical care, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder and more. You can find helpful information for living with these conditions and how they relate to sleep on the Mind website.
Another consideration for mental health and sleep comes from research that found seventy percent of neurodiverse employees in the UK suffer with a mental health condition. These kinds of intersections can bring more specific needs, whether you are living with autism, ADHD or other forms of neurodiversity. Again, the Mind website can be a helpful resource for general information, as well as linking to specialised sources of information by condition.
If you may be struggling with sleep following a recent traumatic experience, support from a therapist is recommended for appropriate treatment. You can search using directories, such as this one from Psychology Today which can be specified by country.
How sleep and mental well-being are related
You are most likely well aware of when you’ve struggled with sleep the night before, or a few nights before, how your mental and emotional capacity in the following days can be diminished.
It works the other way too: when your mental well-being takes a dip, it can be a significant contributing factor to insomnia. Whilst both sleep and mental well-being are impacted by a range of lifestyle, genetic and other factors, there is a large degree of influence between sleep and well-being.
How to handle challenging thoughts in the moment
In the short term, relaxation and stress management approaches can help to shift your state from being stimulated into more of a grounded state so that you can focus on getting more sleepy. For example, you could try this centring technique in the video below which is all about bringing more embodiment to your state of being.
On sleep quality and the four stages of sleep
Along with how many hours of sleep you get a night (the recommended amount is around seven to nine hours), there is also the quality of sleep to consider. This is because brain activity varies whilst a range of restorative purposes are completed during the stages of sleep in a cycle. Different parts of the brain are activated to support cognitive functions, such as the capacity for learning, thinking and memory, as well as being able to regulate emotions and maintain general mental health.
The first couple of sleep stages are shorter and lighter, this is when a person may be easier to wake up, as the body is gradually relaxing. These are followed by deep sleep, also known as slow wave sleep or delta wave sleep. Next is REM, rapid eye movement sleep, when the most brain activity takes place.
In a successful full night's sleep, multiple rounds of these sleep cycles will be completed. With each sleep cycle, about half of the time is spent in the lighter, first two phases; in the other half, the amount of deep sleep gradually decreases withwith increasing amounts of REM per cycle.
How deep sleep and REM sleep affect mental-wellbeing
To understand more about how mental well-being is impacted by the different sleep stages, it can be helpful to understand the different types of brain activity that happen at each stage.
Activity in the brain happens when brain cells (called neurons) communicate with each other through electrical impulses. There are many complex processes that take place at any one time in the brain; the level of activity is broadly summarised in terms of brain waves. There are five main types of brain waves, which correlate to different states of mind. When slower brain waves, known as delta waves, are the more dominant in the state of the brain, we feel more relaxed and sleepy.
Initial stages of sleep
Alpha brain waves take place during quiet, reflective states of minds. These are needed for falling asleep and gradually transition into theta waves. Theta waves bring dreams, inner connection and potentially vivid imagery.
Delta waves are typical of this sleep stage, these are the slowest waves of brain activity, typical for dreamless sleep as well as deep meditation or non-sleep deep rest.
The final sleep phase characterised by rapid eye movement whilst the rest of the body is fully resting. Brain activity is similar to when we are awake, with alpha brain waves mixed with beta brain waves, which are the frequency of being alert and problem solving.
Research has shown that during REM sleep, the brain consolidates and organises information from the day, which helps to improve memory and learning. It is associated with the formation of new neural connections, which can help to improve cognitive function.
This stage of sleep also impacts emotional well-being, specifically how well we are able to regulate emotions, by helping to reduce the activity of the amygdala. This is the part of the brain responsible for activating the fight or flight response and can bring more stress into our everyday lives when it is over-active.
You don't particularly need to worry about how much time you spend in each stage of sleep, as the body's natural homeostatic response will make sure to keep re-balancing the ratios. However, you do need to give your body a fair chance at doing so, namely by creating conditions that make it possible for you to sleep well and deeply.
By following sleep hygiene recommendations, learning more about behavioral interventions to sleep, or getting support from a sleep coach, you will be creating favorable conditions for your body to produce consistent, Restful Sleep.
Racing thoughts at night and other types of unhelpful thinking
Many people ask what they can do to help when their mind is racing at night, or when they find themselves waking up in the night with racing thoughts. It’s often the case that anxious thoughts contain some insight or care to you, from yourself. The challenge comes from how they have got mixed up and so aren’t communicated as clearly as they could.
Some typical thoughts that people bring to Restful Sleep when they start their coaching journey include:
“If I have a bad night of sleep, I won’t be able to function the next day.”
“Sleep is just not something that comes to me naturally, I’m a bad sleeper.”
(Upon waking up in the middle of the night): “Oh no, I am awake! Now my quality of sleep is ruined!”
“I’m going to stay up just a bit later, even though I know it’s not going to help” (have you heard of revenge bedtime procrastination?)
“If I catch up on with big lie ins at the weekend that will make up for my sleep debt in the week”
These are the kinds of thoughts that can be explored in sleep coaching sessions to get a deeper understanding of what is bringing more stimulation to your bedtime. This is where one on one sleep coaching offers the most effective support, giving a space to be with and explore racing thoughts in order to unpack the messages they carry.
You can read an example of how a former ‘bad sleeper’ got to the root of her seemingly unhelpful thoughts to integrate their insight and find her way to Restful Sleep below.
If you’d like to dig into some research to understand more about the thoughts that may be keeping you awake, some different ways to look at your thoughts include that are explored in sleep coaching include:
Cognitive behavioural factors - these to do with managing thoughts
Meta cognitive issues - thoughts about thoughts help with understanding deeper beliefs
Consciousness challenges - are you T’wired (simultaneously tired and wired)?
Frustrated with waking in the night, Deborah got curious about what her rumination was telling her to find Restful Sleep
There are many studies and initiatives that offer insights into how the population overall is handling stress; from increases as a result of the pandemic, to the ‘work stress epidemic’ and stress awareness month. Stress is something that most people are impacted by, and need to manage, in their lives.
When we are in a state of stress, our bodies can release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare for a fight-or-flight response to protect our safety. This comes from the primal need for safety and preserving the species from earlier times in human history.
Such life-or-death threats to survival are much more rare in modern times, however, our in-built fight-or-flight system remains the same and can easily become triggered by modern day challenges such as relationship strains or work pressures.
All of which can add extra stimulation, delaying the process for getting into a relaxed state for sleep. Instead it’s common to find yourself stuck in the frustrating place of being ‘too stressed to sleep’. If this sounds familiar, you can check out some sleep hygiene tips for helping to get sleep whilst stressed here.
Stress and sleep
When being a 'worrier' goes to the next level. Sleep anxiety can be a debilitating condition for many people. It can take the form of general anxious suffering, which extends to feeling anxious about falling asleep after experiencing insomnia. Or when anxiety at night happens specifically about bedtime.
Sleep anxiety is characterised by excessive worry and fear about falling asleep or staying asleep and how this will make for a difficult following day. If this is you right now, an embodiment practice that I share with clients to use when they are feeling anxious and would like to shift their state is the physiological sigh:
About sleep anxiety
Other practices you can try to look after your mental well-being
When it comes to managing your mental well-being on a more consistent basis, it’s important to look at habits. These are choices we make every day, even to the point of doing so on autopilot - without necessarily consciously thinking about it, like brushing your teeth. You can try different habits to support mental well-being, some examples include:
Meditation in the morning routine https://www.restfulsleep.eu/post/first-things-first
Journalling to note those racing thoughts and practice gratitude
Getting social connection by staying in touch with people, prioritising face to face, even if you’re not feeling your most energised
Volunteering with a charity can meet social connection needs, as well as giving the satisfaction of contributing to something bigger than yourself
Creativity and learning new skills - stimulate different parts of the brain and can also help with expressing emotions
Other areas of your lifestyle to experiment with
Ultimately, the way to finding your Restful Sleep is one of exploration and trying different approaches to see what works for you. This article focusses on ways to look after your mental well-being and improve your sleep. There is also practical information about different ways to look after your body and environment for sleep below. Looking at all aspects of a person's lifestyle comes from taking a holistic approach to identifying what may be blocking your sleep.
There are many lifestyle factors to experiment with in order to be able to find the routines and habits that will be work specifically for you. Because what is supportive for someone else won’t necessarily translate for another when there are different lifestyle needs, preferences and conditions to consider.
When working with clients in one on one sleep coaching sessions, we dive deep into exploring the individual sleep blocks in their lives to get to the root cause of their sleep struggles. You can read more about other areas of your lifestyle to consider when it comes to finding out more about what may be impacting your sleep struggles, or if you'd like support with getting there quicker, you can book a free discovery call here.
How nourishing our body can support sleep (or not), from food and exercise to drinking coffee and alcohol.
Everything that takes place in the bedroom impacts sleep, such as light, noise and sleep schedules.