Written by Psychotherapist, Lisha Cash, MSW, RSW
Why does this impact sleep? Well, if you're a "thinker", you probably have analyzed every single thing on your to-do list from every possible angle. You go over your options, brainstorm ways to meet your goals, list all of the pros and cons to your plans/ideas, and the various paths you could take to get there. At times, in between all of the planning, comes doubt. You may start feeling like you are unable reach your goals, which may be due to a lack of time or other elements of life taking priority. Cue "Mom Guilt" here. AKA you feel guilty for even thinking about doing tasks other than spending time with your children. It is a hard balance, reaching personal goals and aspirations, when the reality is, you also want to live in a world where you can feel inspired, while fully nurturing your family to the best of your ability. This is all enough to keep you up at night, let alone the day-to-day tasks, schedule changes, planning and preparation that come with being a parent.
It is common to use lists as a way to reduce anxiety when you feel life is a bit out of control or you require some type of organization. Lists can equate productivity. When generating a list, it may seem like you are being proactive rather than reactive. For mamas, this can feel great. That being said, lists have also been known to increase anxiety when it feels like they keep getting longer and nothing seems to be getting done. So, dependant on how you perceive list-making, you'll determine if this is a helpful practice or not. Seeing that the "to-do" list route is not always the best method for everyone, here are some alternative exercises you can utilize during the late hours of the evening, when you need to quiet, intrusive, ruminating thoughts.
1. Tell your story
Whether it be talking out loud (maybe you can get your partner some ear plugs), writing a journal entry, creating a blog post, writing a poem, or utilizing whatever medium you gravitate towards, telling your story might help to release some of your anxious energy. Similar to how we all have different learning styles, processing our day and our thoughts is very individual. Getting it down on paper or using your medium/creativity to simply put it out into the universe, may allow you to process your thoughts in a different way and facilitate your ability to move into a more rested state of mind.
2. Practice slow, deep breathing.
This is a common strategy used to calm yourself, and can be helpful in so many different aspects of your life. Finding a way to ground yourself through breath can be calming and may help you move into a rested mindset, which will allow you to drift off to sleep without even noticing it. If you feel safe closing your eyes, take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly release the air out of your nose or mouth, whichever you prefer. I usually say a minimum of ten slow, deep breaths, but you can keep going until you're ready for sleep. While doing this task, aim to clear your mind and focus solely on your breath. How it feels filling your lungs and expanding into your belly. Pulling your focus to the breath and your body, should help calm your mind.
3. Get some water.
Sometimes stepping out of the physical space and/or situation can reset the body and mind. By leaving the room and getting some water, you have a task to do and it helps to break the cycle you're in. Rather than continuing to sit in your ruminating thoughts, this break may facilitate your ability to refocus, helping to ground you, bring you back to neutral, get out of your head, which will help to settle you down for sleep.
If you have had any experience with mindfulness-based counselling, you may have gone through a visualization. The purpose of a visualization exercise is to bring awareness inwards, essentially allowing you to feel present in your body and be mindful of your thoughts. Visualizations are great because you can do them while still in bed and it takes your mind away from ruminating thoughts and refocus from a more relaxed state of mind. There are visualization exercises online or phone/tablet apps that you can get to walk you through one but it could be as simple as closing your eyes and visualizing a different place. A place that you find to be calm and beautiful, peaceful and free. It is recommended to couple your visualization with slow, deep, breathing. This not only relaxes the mind, it can bring awareness to your body and help you to settle into a calmer state of mind.
5. Count your blessings. Literally.
We know that counting sheep is definitely helpful from time-to-time and this is a similar exercise. Please note, this exercise is not meant to add to your ruminating thoughts. So, if you feel it could go that route, do not practice this method. Also, if you feel that you are not in a place where you can think of anything positive in your life, take a reflective moment to consider seeking outside support. If you are in this space, receiving outside support from people you love and trust and/or a professional would be a good next step for your emotional well-being.
This exercise is intended to redirect your negative thoughts/self-talk and focus your thoughts on a more positive wavelength. Go over elements of your life that you’re happy and grateful for. More often than not, we tend to ruminate on the negative aspects of our life or our “to do” list. Do your best to calm your mind by thinking about all of the elements in your life that make you happy and that you feel confident in. Negative thoughts may creep in, so try to work on recognizing them, accepting that they exist but, for now, you’ll say good night and you will tackle them tomorrow. You can also utilize visualization in this practice as you drift off to sleep.
6. Read a book. (A physical copy, if possible)
Pick up a good book, whether it be an old faithful or something you have had sitting on the sidelines. Be sure to make a choice that does not generate any other emotion than happiness/zen. How often have you read a book and you find yourself slowly falling asleep, needing to re-read those pages over again? It can be helpful to lose ourselves in a good book. It may simply bring you out of your own head and into another story. This story should not have any personal stake in your life, so you do not have to worry about the details, just simply enjoy the visualization it creates. I also suggest a physical copy for good sleep hygiene. I know with the technology these days, it is probably getting better with e-readers and issues with the blue light . However, it is suggested no back-lit devices prior to bed as it leads to less melatonin production, which impacts your ability to fall asleep. That is why they also say no televisions and cell phones before bed... I wonder the impact of our baby monitors on our nightstand... might explain a few things.
7. Utilize sound.
When your brain won’t stop, sometimes it is helpful to fill it with something else. If you’re a music guru you probably already have a great playlist for sleep. If not, try it out. Focus on a playlist that is calming and does not generate emotional thoughts from past, present or future, and is a tone that resembles what calm feels like. We want to ensure that the music does not generate unnecessary energy. Pick something soothing, that will lull you into a sleep. If you want to, set a timer, so the music will turn off automatically as a means of avoiding waking back up to do so. Disrupted sleep is no better. Additional options would be to turn on a fan or use a sound machine (they can help adults too).
8. Utilize an App.
Good sleep hygiene suggests no screens close to bedtime. So, if you utilize a meditation app on your device, try to cue it up prior to starting your bedtime routine. This will help you avoid screen time and distractions prior to bed, and allow you to quickly put away the phone after. An app I would recommend is, The Calm App. It helps guide you through meditation exercises, has calming music, has sleep stories etc. Load up the app, lay back, close your eyes, and listen.
A large majority of what I have listed here would be considered activities associated with meditation. You can actually flow through a few of these exercises in sequence and make it a regular part of your meditative practice. For meditation exercises, you could easily find a guided version on the Calm App, but here is an example of a meditation using some of the exercises listed in this post:
Put on some light, calming music, lay in bed, and find a comfortable position. Closing your eyes, ease into the meditation by taking slow, deep breaths. As you lay on the mattress, begin to feel grounded as you visualize your body slowly sinking into the cushion. Check in with your mind and body. Notice any points in your body where you feel tightness or pain, and breath into those areas. Focus on your breath and let go of any thoughts that may be trying to make their way back into your consciousness. Pay attention to the rising and falling of your breath, notice your chest breathing, and how that feels in your body. Be mindful of any thoughts that have entered your mind, and let them go. Focusing on breath for a few more minutes. If you are still not ready for bed and your mind continues to wander, visualize your day. From start to finish, what brought you to this moment. Only take a few minutes to get yourself to this present time, focusing on the important part of your story from the day, and not getting wrapped up in any new thoughts and feelings. Now bring awareness back to your body, slowly starting from the feet to the top of your head. Putting each and every part of your body to rest, every toe and finger all the way up to the last hair on your head. Sinking deeper into the mattress, grounding yourself in the present and focusing on your breath. Allowing yourself to feel rested, and paying only minor attention to fleeting thoughts until you fall asleep.
10. When all else fails. Write a list.
Okay. I know, I said writing a list does not work for everyone. However, sometimes getting it down on paper can help clear the mind. We may ruminate on information simply because we do not want to forget that it needs to be done. Having a pad of paper and pen in your nightstand is a great way to jot it down and put it to rest, so you can rest. I do not recommend using your notes app on your phone because by doing so, you are reintroduced to the blue light, which is disruptive to your sleep hygiene. In addition, it can create a whole new distraction, especially if someone has emailed or messaged you. Keeping it very simple, pen to paper, saves us from potential distractions. Do your best to only list the thoughts or tasks that are on your mind in that moment. Avoid trying to brainstorm everything else you can add because that can generate a whole new world of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the simple task of putting the thought out in the universe can ease your mind and help you put it to rest. Sometimes it is helpful to actually say out loud. “I recognize the importance of this task, but I cannot do it right now, so I will write it down and revisit it tomorrow.” I know it may seem silly, but telling yourself this out loud helps relieve some of the concern that you will not make it a priority/forget to do it.
To sum it all up…
Getting adequate sleep is a difficult battle. You can feel utterly exhausted yet be wide awake and unable to sleep. It is truly a difficult concept to wrap your head around. You feel that you would do literally anything to get some sleep, and yet you simply cannot get yourself into the right mindset to actually fall asleep. It can be frustrating, disheartening, anxiety provoking and leave you feeling defeated. These feelings can be especially heightened when you are a sleep deprived pre or postnatal mama. We know that sleep deprivation is a huge risk factor for perinatal mood disorders. Therefore, sleep needs to be protected and so often, it is not. Getting adequate sleep is one of the most vital goals for our perinatal well-being. Focus on your breath, calm your mind and body, and try to focus on being present. What is the saying? Worrying about tomorrow's troubles only takes away today's peace… well, some things are much easier said than done but I wish nothing but sweet dreams for you, Mama.
If you feel that this post has brought up overwhelming or unpleasant emotions, please book a counselling consultation/session here. You may also check out the Psychology Today website. You can search perinatal counsellors based on location. In the case of an emergency, please go to your nearest hospital. Your well-being is of the utmost importance. Be mindful to practice self-care and seek outside support when you need it. With help, it will get better.