“Every night I get into bed exhausted, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, my mind starts racing with worries and problems. I wish I could just shut my brain off…”
As a sleep therapist and psychologist, I hear this a lot. Folks describe how they lay in bed for hours, their minds churning with worried thoughts and ideas—everything from tomorrow’s grocery list items to work dilemmas and existential anxieties.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all these bedtime thoughts and worries are problematic because they keep our minds alert and unable to fall asleep.
And while there’s no dearth of advice about getting better sleep, most folks have “tried it all” when it comes to racing thoughts in bed and still can’t seem to shut them off.
Whether it’s blackout shades, blue light restrictions or melatonin and Chamomile tea, all those sleep hygiene tips and herbal remedies never really seem to help in the long run.
And let’s not forget the big guns: More potent pharmaceuticals like Ambien or Xanax may successfully knock you out (often with some pretty gnarly side effects) but they never address the underlying causes of a racing mind at bed.
The 2 Reasons You Can’t Shut Your Mind Off in Bed
The reason none of these strategies work very well in the long-term is that they don’t address the actual causes of an overactive mind at bedtime, which typically boils down to 2 things:
REASON 1: Classical Conditioning
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, our minds have been conditioned to think and worry when we get into bed. Unfortunately, we’re the ones who have done the conditioning, and the de-conditioning process is counterintuitive.
Recall from Psych 101 that Pavlov’s big breakthrough came when he was studying dog saliva. It just happened that the dogs’ kennels were set up in such a way that every time someone entered with food, a little bell would ring (like the bell that rings when you walk into a small store). While the food itself caused the dogs to get excited and start to salivate, because that food got paired repeatedly with the sound of a bell, over time the dogs learned that bell also meant food was coming. Eventually, just the sound of the bell alone was enough to cue or trigger the dog’s salivary response.
This is called Classical Conditioning. It’s the process by which almost any animal (including humans) can unconsciously learn to associate two unrelated things.
Most people who have trouble falling asleep quickly have unintentionally taught their brains to associate their bed with worry and thinking (I.e. being awake). If we repeatedly get into bed and then do some sort of mentally stimulating activity like having an emotionally-charged conversation with our spouse or checking a bunch of work emails, our beds become a cue or trigger for mental arousal (work mode). Which means that in the future, even if we don’t get into a conversation or check our phones, our brain is still going to go into work mode as soon as we get into bed. And if there’s nothing for it to actually work on, it’s going to do fake work (aka worry).
The best way out of this cycle is to re-train our brain to worry somewhere else and allow the association between bed and worked mode to extinguish. To shift my metaphor a bit, if you want your dog to stop pooping on the grass, you have to train it to poop somewhere else.
As we’ll see soon, Deliberate Worry is a technique for teaching our brain to worry somewhere else so that the association between our bed and worry weakens and eventually extinguishes.
REASON 2: Trust Issues
The other reason our minds worry in bed is because they don’t trust us to remember and take care of important things. Like rehearsing a phone number over and over again to yourself because there’s nowhere to jot it down, the mind resorts to a very primitive (but powerful) memory strategy for helping us remember important things when we don’t have a better strategy.
By continuously throwing problems and worries at us, our mind thinks it’s doing us a favor by ensuring that you don’t forget about these crucial concerns. Of course, the unpleasant side effect is that our mind stays alert and in work mode rather than relaxing and quickly drifting into sleep.
As David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, has said: Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
If we want to stop using our brains as a system of reminders and alarms, we need to create another external system that our minds will trust. Only then will our brains be able to relax in bed and quickly shut down for sleep.
Luckily, the technique we’re about to discuss, Deliberate Worry, does just that.
Deliberate Worry: How to Train Your Brain to Shut Down at Night
Over the last several decades, behavioral scientists and psychologists have developed a small collection of powerful techniques for training the brain to calm down at night and fall asleep easily, collectively known as stimulus control. The idea is that if we can control or limit the quality and quantity of stimuli our brains are exposed to at night, it will be much easier for them to remain relaxed and able to fall asleep.
In my own clinical practice working with people with insomnia, I’ve combined two of these stimulus control techniques (Scheduled Worry and Constructive Worry) into one strategy called Deliberate Worry.
Deliberate Worry is the practice of consistently making time each day to acknowledge your worries externally, and if necessary, make specific plans for addressing immediate concerns.
By choosing a specific time and place each day to deliberately worry about difficult things, you’re telling you’re brain: “
Look, little buddy, we’ve got this. There’s a reliable, consistent plan for keeping track of and dealing with all these concerning things. And it happens every day at 4:50 pm. So you don’t need to keep reminding me of this stuff every night when I get into bed.”
So here’s what you do:
STEP 1: Schedule a Dedicated Time for Deliberate Worry.
Pick a time slot that you can be consistent with each day of the week (or at least each weekday). It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of time—usually somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes is sufficient. Although the first few times you do it may take a bit longer.
If possible, piggyback your deliberate worry time onto some other consistent activity to help you remember to do it. I do it each day around 4:50 pm. Shutting off my computer before leaving my office is a cue to do my Deliberate Worry. Another example might be after you’ve put the kids to bed but before you start watching Netflix or reading. Most people tend to find the early evening—after dinner—but before settling in to read or watch TV before bed—to be the best time. Just don’t do it immediately before bed, since you should give your mind a little bit of time to unwind afterward.
Note: Deliberate Worry should be done consistently in order to get the desired effect. Does that mean you have to do it every day for the rest of your life? Of course not. But if you’re having trouble falling asleep, commit to at least a couple weeks of doing it every day (at the same time and in the same location) to see a positive effect. Once or twice here and there is not enough. Remember: You’re training your brain; consistency is key.
STEP 2: Embrace the Brain Barf
Traditionally known as Scheduled Worry, the first part of Deliberate Worry is what a client of mine affectionately named The Brain Barf. It goes like this: Simply list everything you can think of that is concerning or worrisome. Nothing is too big or too small—from your grocery list to nuclear holocaust.
The trick is to go fast. Don’t worry about spelling or completely elaborating on every idea. Just list as many worries as you can as quickly as you can. Be specific but not comprehensive.
It’s a little like those annoying free-writing exercises from high school English class where you had to write continuously about whatever came to mind, ostensibly to get your creative juices flowing. The Brain Barf is similar but you want to list as many of your worries and concerns as possible so that your brain learns A) There’s a time and place for worrying and it’s not your bed, and B) You have a trusted system for recording concerning problems.
Important: You must write your worries down, ideally by hand on paper, in a notebook that serves only this purpose. Don’t simply run through your worries in your head. Remember, we’re trying to convince our brains that we will remember and keep track of our worries.
STEP 3. Highlight Actionable Problems.
Once you’ve completed The Brain Barf, look over your list and highlight, circle, or somehow mark the ones that are actionable problems as opposed to hypothetical worries.
Much of your Brain Barf may be composed of hypothetical worries such as:
- What if the stock market crashes and I lose all my retirement and end up homeless?
- Did I come across as stupid in my conversation with Ted at happy hour last Friday? What if he thinks I’m not up for the job?
- What if I only get 6 hours of sleep again tonight? Will I be able to function tomorrow?
But some of what surfaces may be actionable problems rather than worries. To identify these actionable problems, single out items that are A) actual problems (not hypothetical worries), B) urgent (they should be done in the next day or two), and C) things you have direct control over.
Here are some examples of actionable problems that might show up amid other worries in your Brain Barf:
- Email I forgot to send my manager about revisions to the TPS reports.
- Getting my tax packet back to my accountant.
- Signing up Sophia for soccer practice because tomorrow’s the last day.
STEP 4. Create a Next Smallest Action for Each Actionable Problem.
For each of your Actionable Problems that you singled out from your Brain Barf, write down the next smallest action you could take in order to complete or otherwise work on the problem.
Here are the Actionable Problems from above followed by a Next Smallest Action:
- Email I forgot to send my manager about revisions to the TPS reports. Next Smallest Action: Gather notes on TPS report revisions from shared Dropbox folder (“TPS Revisions Notes” I think?) first thing when I get to the office tomorrow morning.
- Getting my tax packet back to my accountant. Next Smallest Action: Get the tax packet from the den and put it in my work bag before I leave the house tomorrow morning.
- Signing up Sophia for soccer practice because tomorrow’s the last day. Next Smallest Action: Look up number for city soccer league on city website (https://hunstville.ca) during my lunch break tomorrow.
Important: Notice how specific and concrete these Next Smallest Action are—sometimes painfully specific! In particular, try to always have a specific time and place associated with your Next Smallest Action.
Note: While your Brain Barf items may take the form of nouns (“Email about TPS reports”), your Next Smallest Actions should always take the form of verbs (“Gather notes…”)
STEP 5: Set a Reminder for Each Next Smallest Action.
The final step in Deliberate Worry is to hook your Next Smallest Actions into your task manager/reminder system of choice. If you use a full-featured task management app like OmniFocus or Things, great—just plug it in. More of an old-school, analog Getting Things Done kind of person? No problem, just enter them into your inbox of choice. No Idea what I’m talking about with all this stuff? Just ask Siri to remind you to do it at a specific time.
STEP 5.1: Relax
At this point, the process of Deliberate Worry may seem like a lot and you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. That’s normal.
But it’s really not a big deal once you get started and make it a routine. Most days, the whole process takes me at most 10 minutes, but usually closer to 3-5. Although in the initial week or two, expect to spend at least 10-15 minutes doing it.
Summary and Key Takeaways
Many of us struggle to calm our racing mind before bed, often laying in bed for what seems like an eternity worrying and not falling asleep. There are two root cause of excessive worry in bed: 1) Classical Conditioning, in which we train our minds to associate our beds with worry, and 2) Trust Issues, meaning our minds don’t trust us to remember important things so they keep throwing worries at us as a primitive way of helping us remember.
The solution to both of these root causes of sleep worry and difficulty falling asleep is a technique I call Deliberate Worry, which involves training our minds to worry at a specific time and place outside of bed and building a reliable system processing legitimate concerns so our mind doesn’t have to constantly remind us of them.
Deliberate Worry has 5 Steps:
- Schedule a dedicated and consistent time for scheduled worry.
- Embrace “The Brain Barf,” I.e. Listing all your worries.
- Highlight Actionable Problems
- Create a Next Smallest Action for each Actionable Problem
- Set a reminder for each Next Smallest Action
I’ll wrap up by saying that Deliberate Worry is essentially a practice for setting effective boundaries for our problem-solving mind. By cultivating an attractive alternative to worrying in bed, we free up our mind to do what it naturally wants to do in bed at the end of a long day: simply fall asleep.
Acknowledgments: My own ideas for and implementation of Deliberate Worry have been very much influenced by work on Scheduled and Constructive Worry by Drs. Colleen Carney and Rachel Manburn, as well as the productivity/organizational work David Allen, especially his book Getting Things Done.