We've all been there. It's time to get some shut-eye, but tomorrow's to-do list starts swirling through your mind like a tornado. As your head spins into a panicked frenzy and your stomach is aflutter, you curse yourself for not being able to turn off your brain: Missing out on sleep is only going to make you even more stressed. Here, tips that'll help you unwind when your thoughts are running rampant.
1. Stick to a natural sleep schedule.
If you're having problems sleeping (like 74 percent of women across the country, according to the National Sleep Foundation), try to align your schedule more closely with nature's. "Your body clock, hormones, temperature, and blood pressure fluctuations measure out a 24-hour day that's in tune with the rising and setting of the sun," says neurologist David Simon, M.D., cofounder and medical director of the Chopra Center and author of the new book The Ten Commitments: Translating Good Intentions Into Great Choices. When you stay up into the wee hours reading a book, baking cupcakes, or doing a few extra loads of laundry, the odd hours you're keeping throw off your body's production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep regulation and wakefulness. "Syncing up your daily routine with the rhythms of your environment -- namely, by getting up around 6 a.m. and going to bed around 10 p.m. -- will help you maintain mental clarity," Simon notes.
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2. Turn off the TV.
Chilling out in front of the television may feel like a good way to relax, but an emotionally draining or violent program actually provokes turbulent thoughts, which can result in insomnia, indigestion, even headaches. Unless you're looking at images of baby animals frolicking in a field -- or something just as innocuous -- skip the late-night TV, or at least turn off the tube a half hour before you turn off the lights, so you have some time to direct your attention inward. "This will help your brain separate the heart-pumping drama on 24 from the more tranquil reality of your bedroom, and let your mind settle into a peaceful state," says Simon.
3. Download your internal conversation.
Keep a journal by your bedside for the specific purpose of recording your thoughts before bed. This is not another to-do list, just a way to unload anything that's agitating you from the day that's passed, and anything you're concerned about for the one ahead. "It's like freeing space on your hard drive by saving files on a CD or Zip Drive," says Simon. Once you've got your concerns written down, put the journal away. This process won't make your worries magically disappear, but it'll clear your head.
Related: Why Am I So Tired? 7 Causes of Fatigue
4. Create a musical pharmacy for yourself.
Listening to mellow music jibes with the unwinding of your mind and body, and enables your brain patterns to remain steady. A slower beat stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain -- the area that's in charge of order, balance, and peace -- and will evoke a temporary forgetfulness, allowing you to slip away from your problems. "Fast beats, on the other hand, activate the left hemisphere, which affects reasoning, and can create tension and stress," says Simon. Even if you're comforted by up-tempo tunes, they'll counteract what you're trying to accomplish -- a good night's rest!
5. Tune in to your body.
Pay attention to physical sensations to quiet your overactive thought process. First, listen to the sounds around you, like the cars passing by, or the hum of the humidifier in the background. Then concentrate on your body: the feeling of your feet rubbing against the sheets, the weight of your pajamas against your skin. Focus on the passage of air through your nostrils, noticing the subtle aromas of your room and your own body. "Continue observing the inflow and outflow of your breath, and it'll bring you into the now," says Simon. Staying in the present relaxes your body and mind.
6. Look within.
Now turn your attention to the inside of your body. Still breathing deeply, allow yourself to get in touch with your emotions. "If sadness wells up, allow yourself to feel it without resistance," says Simon. "If you feel anger, let it move through your body and release it with your exhalations." Negative feelings that aren't fully expressed will continue to ricochet around in your head and upset you. Acknowledging and breathing through those thoughts will help you to let go of them.
Related: Are You and Your Partner Sleep Compatible?
7. Envision another world.
Imagine that you're drifting over the countryside in a hot-air balloon, or that you're floating in a canoe on a tranquil stream -- any image that transports you away from everyday worries. Okay, yes, it's a Calgon moment -- but it works! "Mental anguish often stems from the belief that we're living in circumstances that we can't free ourselves from," says Simon. Allowing your mind to picture adventures and goals that seem too impractical during the day puts tomorrow's to-do list on your brain's back burner.
Often the hardest part about meditation is trying not to fall asleep -- but in this case you can! Just lie comfortably, close your eyes, and begin observing your breath. Concentrate on words with a quiet resonance that have no significant meaning, like "So hum." As you're inhaling, silently say the sound "so." As you're exhaling, silently say the sound "hum." When you find that your attention has drifted away from "So hum," gently return it to the mantra. Continue like this for about 10 minutes, or as long as it takes to drift off.
How do you turn your brain off and fall asleep?
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.