The evening arrives, and you feel exhausted after a busy day. But as the night draws in and your head lands on the pillow, thoughts begin to whirl in your mind. From fixating on to-do lists, worrying about the future, or even past memories that still make you cringe or feel fearful.
The thoughts are familiar, frustrating and relentless. Meanwhile, your heart races and Restful Sleep feels like another world away. It seems like everyone else is peacefully snoozing, whilst you’re alone with thoughts that just won’t stop.
As a former unreliable sleeper, I know these experiences well and as a sleep coach I want to share how racing thoughts at night, as well as morning anxiety, are actually very common. So whilst you’re lying there consumed with anxious thoughts, not least about when the alarm will go off, it may bring some comfort to know that you are not alone in this struggle. Countless others share this very human experience and there are things you can do about it.
Why does rumination start when you are trying to sleep?
In working with sleep coaching clients, a question I often hear is: "why does my monkey mind turn on at night?". This article offers some insights into what happens when the mind goes into racing thoughts at night so you can understand more about the experience. There are tips for ways to find relaxation and rest when the mind starts its tricks, plus how to approach the work of tackling the root cause of rumination. This last one takes some courage, but I promise it’s not as scary as those racing thoughts at night!
Where do racing thoughts at night come from?
At their core, racing thoughts at night come from stress in our lives. Stress is a normal part of the human experience, it’s when the levels get to a place where they are experienced as overwhelming that they need attention. Stress can be related to work, relationships, family matters, health, finances, dealing with uncertainty, going through changes, the state of the world, anything! There is also ongoing stress to be aware of, which can come from living with a mental health condition or can lead to one.
Why don’t I get racing thoughts during the day?
For some, racing thoughts take place during both the day and night, but often people may simply not have the space for racing thoughts during the daytime. This is because there are many responsibilities and distractions taking up most of our attention during the daytime. These can include work, caring for others, making plans, maintaining a social life, attending classes, maintaining your home, distractions with screens and more. Generally, being in a state of constant activity. Yet, as we move into the stillness of the night, the thoughts, unresolved emotions and worries we have not dealt with have space to surface and demand attention.
What about morning anxiety?
Waking up in the morning and feeling anxious is another common experience and has similarities to ruminating thoughts at night. Again, in times of peace and stillness, thoughts that have not been dealt with during busy days can come up in a way that can be confronting.
There is also the biological release of cortisol to factor into this experience. Known as the ‘stress hormone’, its purpose is to support our waking up in line with our circadian rhythms, the body's inner 24-hour cycle. The combination of thoughts we haven’t dealt with along with the ‘stress hormone’ can make for a panicked and often overwhelming start to the day.
Ways to overcome rumination
So how to stop the rumination? The first step is in finding ways to be able to find relaxation in the moment in order to actually get some rest. The following activities can help with finding a more peaceful state (they get more challenging as you go down the list):
Winding down before bedtime
Creating a routine of relaxing activities in the hour before bedtime can slow the body and mind down, such as taking a bath, reading or listening to calming music or a podcast.
Avoiding stimulation from electronics
This can be done by reducing screen time before bed, as well as keeping lighting in your space soft (with candles or lamps) to prepare for rest rather than alertness.
Keeping a 'worry journal'
By writing your thoughts down, you can get them out of your head with the intention of returning to them at a time when you have more capacity to do something about them. When you notice racing thoughts creeping in, you can either write any new ones down, or tell yourself that you have written it down and will deal with it on a set date in the future, not right now.
You can listen to a guided meditation, a yoga nidra or build up to practicing staying present with your breath and simply noticing thoughts. This is rather than allowing yourself to engage with thoughts. This simple (and not easy) practice helps to cultivate a different state of mind to ruminating and is a useful skill in overcoming it in the long-term.
Try a rumination exercise
Take some time to address the stressors in your life
This is the big one. It can seem overwhelming to work out where to start with thoughts that may have been avoided for a long time. But this is your way out of racing thoughts. You can start with revisiting your worry journal and working out what in there may be limiting beliefs and identifying practical actions you may be able to take. This is also where sleep coaching can help you to explore what’s coming up for you so that you can address the root cause.
Can you find the message in your rumination?
Here’s the part that may be challenging to accept when you’ve been suffering with ongoing rumination at night for a while: the only reliable way out is to address the messages that your racing mind is repeatedly communicating. Rather than seeing ruminating thoughts as an unfair inconvenience, can you get curious about what the message may be from yourself? Can you see it as a gift from you, to you, even?!
Whilst this may seem like a radical way of looking at a challenging experience, as a sleep coach, I can say: it works. I have witnessed many joyful breakthroughs as people have uncovered new ways to understand themselves through the thoughts that they previously avoided. Having supported people using science-backed tools of CBTI and more in their inquiry, clients have been able to uncover what it is they may need for more peace and ease in their waking lives - which ultimately leads to consistent, Restful Sleep at night! You can read an example of how a former client overcame racing thoughts at night with sleep coaching here.
How sleep coaching can help
So whilst there may be a way to go, I hope this article has brought you some hope that there are things you can do to ease racing thoughts at night and morning anxiety. My intention is to share the tools I have collected over the years as a sleep coach so that more people who are living with unreliable sleep can find ways to manage better and learn about what nourishes them as they go. Sleep coaching is the magic that speeds the whole process up.
If you’d like to ask any questions about your particular sleep struggles or find out about how sleep coaching support could work for you, you can find out more about one on one sleep coaching here or book a free discovery call here.