Have you noticed that some of your busiest thinking happens when you lie down at night and your head hits the pillow? Actually, it's no wonder you can get a lot of thinking done -- you finally have a moment to yourself. It's just you and your thoughts without interruption.
The problem is this: Bedtime is not the time for intense mental processing, worrying or problem solving. The mind is powerful and you can actually think yourself awake.
The truth is if you jam up your day with constant activity, you will have trouble mentally slowing down for bed. Your body may be dead tired and ready to collapse, but your mind may be ready to go a few more rounds.
What can interfere with your brain's ability to wind down for bed? Stress is a big contributor. But even if your days don't feel stressful, you can overstimulate your brain with too many activities. When this happens your mind is over-activated and sleep becomes a battle to accomplish instead of a welcome invitation to the day's end.
For those who like to grill burgers on the backyard patio, here's an analogy. If you grill with charcoal, you know the coals are ready for cooking when they turn white. But it takes time for the smoldering coals to cool after you've cooked your meal.
Many have a super compressed day that begins with a long commute to work and ends with work on the computer in the evening after finishing a number of routine, home-based chores (e.g., helping the children with their homework, cleaning up the kitchen, giving the kids a bath and reading them a bed-time story, etc.).
Crashing into bed with the lights turned off and expecting to fall asleep quickly is analogous to taking your burgers off the grill and expecting the hot, white coals to cool immediately. It's just not going to happen.
So what's the solution for the quintessentially busy, working American?
When it comes to sleep, daytime activities are critical impacting events. Just as you may need to reboot your computer after hours of intense processing, similarly, you need to reboot your brain by taking a break from the constant stream of information that's generated in and out of your brain throughout the day.
Tips for decompressing your day
Negative effects of technology
True, technology makes life easier and more efficient in certain areas. However, the trade-off here is that technology also makes it easy to become information overloaded. Between emails, cell phone texts, social media and web site surfing, you can require your brain to process information at an intense and constant level throughout the day. This constant mental processing not only leads to "mental overload," but also leads to poor attentiveness when it comes to focusing on an individual task.
Smart phones (ironically) make it harder to intelligently focus on a certain task, for example, because this medium of technology constitutes a mental distraction. Inattentiveness and distraction also create impatience which can lead to relationship challenges.
A generation ago, for example, a call to a friend or associate would often not get answered until he got home and checked his voicemail. But today if this were to happen, we would consider this person unresponsive for not texting or emailing back within the hour.
The technological ability to receive and respond to messages quickly has heightened our sense of urgency and, accordingly, modified expectations concerning how and when we should respond to messages. The result is a more complicated and stressful life.
At the end of the day, this constant mental stimulation has a cumulative effect of leaving your mind wound-up to the point where even if you're physically tired and ready for bed, your mind may still be activated and not ready to shut off. To help with this, consider taking these three steps:
1. Set Limits with emails/texts
Check your emails/texts in batches at certain times during the day rather than letting them stream in endlessly. This affords you control over how you handle the input your receive and gives you a chance to have mental breaks to prevent information overload.
A sample schedule for someone who works 9 to 5 may be: 9am, 11:30am, 4pm and 8pm. There's no magic formula in choosing the precise intervals here; the idea is to check your email and text boxes twice in the morning (early and late) and twice towards the tail end of the day (mid-afternoon and early evening).
2. Take a break in the middle of the day to reboot
Spend 15 minutes each day to meditate. Meditation lessens anxiety, decreases blood pressure and slows your mind. Not only does meditation improve your mood but studies show that mindfulness mediation works as well as antidepressants in preventing depression.
Mindfulness involves disconnecting from your activity-laden environment (which is often comprised of facing a mountain of emails and texts and earnestly making attempts to comply with work-related deadlines) and focusing only on the task with which you're currently faced.
This can be undertaken at your desk and doesn't have to be complicated. It can take the form of listening to peaceful music, breathing exercises (e.g., taking five belly breaths in and out while you listen to your breaths) or practicing progressive muscle relaxation. (If you listen to music, you should try to focus on the rhythm and not run through your grocery list.)
Click here for a download of a breathing meditation, if you'd like to see how this can work in practice. Download it to your IPod or simply listen to it online at your desk (but obviously not if this will cause problems at work).
3. Carve out an hour before bedtime to wind down.
Doubtless, some will still manage to quickly fall asleep despite being very busy during the day. Be thankful if you fall into this category.
But if you find yourself to be like those who regularly face the challenge of slowing down your mind at night in order to fall asleep, these are a few suggestions to help cool down your mental coals well before you're ready to turn off the lights.
Follow Tracey Marks, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/traceymarksmd