Thinking about negative and stressful things before bedtime really does keep you up at night. There are probably few people out there that haven’t experienced this in some way. You have a stressful day, a lot to do tomorrow, or even random reflections about past events that you just can’t kick before bed.
You may even lose hours of rest regularly to negative thoughts that persist. It’s well-established in psychology that ruminating on the past or unpleasant thoughts is a risk factor for insomnia and even mood disorders like depression.
Some recent research has been focusing on how people can take control and purposefully redirect their repetitive or intrusive negative thoughts. From your bedtime to how you cope with stress, here are 4 helpful ways to get rid of negative thoughts before sleeping.
Head to bed earlier
In one recent study conducted by Binghamton University, researchers looked at participants’ propensities to worry, ruminate, or stress (all gauges of repetitive negative thinking) and at their sleep habits. They found that people who preferred to go to sleep late (evening types) had higher levels of negative thoughts compared to early sleepers (morning types). The same was true for people who slept for shorter periods of time overall.
If you aren’t getting at least seven hours of sleep each night or you tend to keep late hours, this means it could prove helpful to shift your sleep schedule earlier. Try gradually moving your bedtime up in 15 to 30 minute increments to create a schedule that allows you to get enough sleep. Keeping fairly consistent bedtimes throughout the week and practicing some of the other relaxation techniques below can make the transition a little easier.
Talk positively to yourself
One method of countering negative thoughts is to practice positive self-talk, popular with cognitive behavioral therapists. Essentially, negative self-talk involves habits like focusing on the cons of a situation and not the pros, personalizing blame, anticipating the worst, and polarizing between good and bad with no in-between.
The idea is that when you catch yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, you consciously work to assess its validity and move on. Instead of obsessing over things that went wrong, look for solutions to the problem or do something to refocus your attention. (Positive affirmation, a prayer, or exercise, maybe.) Thinking about things you are grateful for can also be mood-booster, and one study found higher levels of gratitude correlated with better sleep.
Use guided relaxation or visualization
Guided relaxation can be helpful for clearing your mind and taking the focus off of negative thoughts. Essentially, a therapist or a recording guides you through a step-by-step process as you follow along.
There are a few different types of guided relaxation program, and different types may feel more helpful to you than others. Traditional guided relaxation will work through relaxing your body and focusing on breathing. Guided visualization/imagery has you visualize a scene to occupy your attention. Progressive muscle relaxation takes a more physical approach of gradually tensing and relaxing different muscle groups.
Breathe with purpose
Breathing techniques are a well-established way to promote relaxation and minimize stress. Similar to guided relaxation, the idea is to follow a set pattern that places the focus on your physical body and off of the thoughts that are bothering you. Breathing also affects heart rate, which can help you feel calmer.
These techniques can be helpful for relaxing in bed, but can also be used anywhere whenever you feel stressed:
- Diaphragmatic breathing (breathing deeply through your stomach and exhaling slowly)
- Equal breathing (inhaling and exhaling for the same amount of time; counts of 4-6 seconds)
- Resistance breathing (breathing in and out via pursed lips or your nose)
- Breath moving (as you inhale, imagine you are moving the breath to the top of your head; as you exhale, move the breath to base of your spine)