The other night, as my wife and I were getting ready for bed, we heard crying coming from our 9 year-old son’s room. It seems that while the boys were fishing earlier in the day, a bluegill swallowed the hook too deeply and died when they tried to get it out. Truthfully, if they hadn’t thrown it back we would have brought it home for dinner, and the same boy would have happily eaten it. But in his overtired, way-past-bed-time, state, he was working himself into a frenzy. The more he worried about the fish and getting in trouble for being awake, the faster his mind raced.
This vicious circle of worry and insomnia also happens to adults. Mentally editing the day’s events, thoughts of bills, or speculation about future events are just a few of the triggers. If left unchecked, it’s possible to lose more than one night of sleep or trigger another stress response, such as nausea.
When asking our son to talk about his trouble wasn’t enough to slow his racing mind, we switched to distracting it. If he could break out of the cycle and let his mind relax, even a little bit, his natural exhaustion would take over so he could sleep.
I started his distraction by giving him a “speed bump” phrase to disrupt a racing mind and act as as a transition. I asked him to say “Not right now, brain,” but he could have said “I’ll think about this in the morning,” or something else.
An important component of the speed bump phrase is “permission to revisit the issue.” Not every problem should be ignored, but if it’s a trivial problem, it will be gone by morning. If it’s a big problem, it will still be there in the morning, but after a good night’s sleep, finding a solution will be much easier.
The main step in the distraction process is to think about something else. It could be anything that’s personally calming or that uses enough brain power that the problem issue has a hard time resurfacing.
My son told me that he went through the steps of designing a video game race track “that was so big it would take me a while to build.” The age-old technique of counting sheep would also work because the brain has to focus on creating imaginary sheep, assigning numbers and keeping track of the flock.
This doesn’t mean you won’t have to go back to your speed bump phrase, and start distracting yourself again, or that the first time you try it you’ll fall asleep instantly. Like most things, this also requires practice. Eventually you should be able to train yourself so that it gets harder for your mind to race at bedtime and easier to distract yourself so you can fall asleep.