Is your mind racing just before bedtime? Here’s how to calm it down for a good night’s sleep

It’s time to sleep but there you are in bed, with eyes wide open and a brain filled with a myriad thoughts. You might have had a particularly busy day earlier on and your head is still buzzing. Perhaps you had a disagreement with someone at home and the unsettled feeling is keeping you up.

Or you could have spent the whole day (and night) Netflixing on the couch – and now, you’re as mentally edgy as the zombies in your latest K-drama fix. Sometimes, your brain might, on a whim, pull out an embarrassing memory from way back in school.

Whatever your thoughts are, there’s one commonality: We tend to ruminate just when it’s time for bed. But why is that?

According to experts, your brain is constantly collecting new information all day long. The lull period before you drift off to sleep is when your brain has the opportunity to process the information, said Prof Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan Beach, California, on the Everyday Health website. “And all of that information, including your worries, comes flying through the door.”

(Photo: iStock/yanyong)

The result is, unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation. “We clock, on average, 6.8 hours of sleep each night in 2021 compared with the seven hours found in 2020,” said Lynn Ng, a clinical psychologist with Annabelle Psychology, citing a study done in Singapore. “And only 21 per cent of the respondents felt well rested in the day.” 

If you find yourself staring at your bedroom ceiling instead of sleeping, try these tips from the experts on some common scenarios you might encounter from time to time.

YOU’VE HAD A HECTIC DAY AND YOUR MIND IS STILL BUZZING BY BEDTIME

Prep yourself mentally before bed, advised Martin Williams, a counsellor in private practice at A Space Between. For starters, switch off all your devices, including the TV, an hour before bedtime, he said. “If possible, go for a short, gentle walk for about 20 to 30 minutes, followed by a shower to relax yourself.”

And don’t rush through the shower, said Chua Wan Zhen, an associate psychologist with Annabelle Psychology. This is a good opportunity to practise mindfulness and take some self-care.

“Note how the soap smells and the sensations you feel as you lather your body. After your shower, make a cup of warm chamomile tea and/or play some soothing music as you wind down for bedtime,” she said.

(Photo: iStock/PeopleImages)

If this fails, pick up a creative hobby, read a book or do some gentle physical stretching, suggested Williams. They are great ways to “activate different parts of the brain, which will help slow down the work-active buzzing part”.

For those who are familiar with meditation (try guided visualisation videos on YouTube), this is the time to put it to good use, suggested Yvonne Yeow, a coach and counsellor, who also has a private practice at A Space Between. “You can fix your heightened attention onto the guided visualisation exercises, which will gradually calm and relax your mind, and help you drift off to sleep.”

YOU HAD CAFFEINE A LITTLE TOO LATE IN THE DAY AND NOW, YOU CAN’T FALL ASLEEP

How long does it usually take our bodies to break down caffeine? “It takes at least five hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off by half, and it could take 10 hours for it to be eliminated,” said Jaclyn Reutens, a clinical dietitian and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants.

And each time you drink a standard cup of espresso-based coffee (latte, cappuccino, macchiato and espresso itself), you’re introducing about 60mg to 65mg of caffeine into your body, she said.

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Here’s a look at how each type of coffee and tea, based on a standard drink, stack up in terms of caffeine content, according to Reutens and the BBC Good Food website. 

  • Brewed/filtered/black coffee: 70mg to 140mg
  • Instant coffee: 30mg to 90mg
  • Espresso/latte/cappuccino/macchiato: 60mg to 65mg
  • Decaf: 0mg to 7mg
  • Black tea: 47mg
  • Green tea: 33mg
  • Matcha green tea: 35mg per half teaspoon
  • Herbal tea (chamomile, ginger, peppermint, rooibos and fruit teas that aren’t derived from the tea plant): 0mg
(Photo: iStock/BrianAJackson)

As for drinking more water to flush caffeine out of your system, it doesn’t really work. “Limited research has been done on that,” said Reutens.

“However, staying hydrated can reduce the caffeine-induced jitters caused by dehydration and help to keep the blood flowing smoothly. More water also helps the urinary tract to increase urine output, but it won’t hasten caffeine elimination.”

Your best bet to neutralise the stimulating effects of a late-afternoon cuppa? “You’ll just have to wait it out,” said Reutens. Or try these methods: Get moving by briskwalking or jogging; stop caffeine intake six to eight hours before bedtime; or eat high-fibre foods to help slow down the release of caffeine in the bloodstream.

YOU’RE EXPECTING A BIG DAY TOMORROW

Get up from bed and move out of the bedroom, advised Ng. Write down your thoughts on a piece of paper and read them aloud. You’ll notice how unhelpful these thoughts are and how they might have made you worry for nothing, she said.

“Put the paper aside and redirect your thoughts to your breath to release your feelings of anxiety,” she continued. “Consider doing some simple stretching to release tension from your body.”

If you are still thinking about the next day, repeat the process of taking deep breaths and/or stretching until you feel relaxed, she said.

Williams’ strategy, on the other hand, is to be well prepared for the event. “When we’ve done proper planning, we can relax more, knowing we’ve done the best we can. If you can do a practice run-through with someone at home (if you are preparing for an interview, get someone to ask you some likely questions), that will help build confidence and reduce the anxiety.”

YOU HAVE SOME CASH FLOW PROBLEMS

Find a time in the day to organise the bills to pay in a systematic manner (that is, how much money is needed, when is payment due, etc), suggested Chua. “List down the possible steps you can take, people you can speak to, services you can apply for.”

Williams added: “If possible, talk to a trusted friend or family member as they might be able to see opportunities for managing this short-term issue that you may not have considered”.

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If you find yourself worrying about it again while you are in bed, reflect upon the possible steps you’ve already listed down and that you have a plan to tackle these problems, said Chua. “This process will help you to mentally transition from worrying to a more problem-solving approach.”

YOU HAD A FIGHT WITH YOUR SPOUSE OR FAMILY MEMBER

You’re lying in bed and fuming over what your loved one said to you at dinner. “Wherever possible, try to make up with your spouse or family member before bed,” said Ng, “as going to sleep feeling angry will worsen your sleep quality.”

But if you’re still boiling mad, what can you do? Make some warm, calming drinks (chamomile tea and milk are good options), invite the other party to join you, sit down and have a chat, suggested Ng.

(Photo: iStock/PeopleImages)

Advised Yeow on how to mend the fence: “You can meet each other halfway or agree to disagree. If similar issues keep recurring, you may want to seek couple or family counselling. Working with a neutral third party can help to bring resolution to difficult matters”.

Williams recommended using the chat to reach an agreement about what you have been fighting about. “Even if you don’t (reach an agreement), reinforce your love for the other party and acknowledge that your relationship is more important than the issue at hand.”

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If you can’t bring yourself to have a calm discussion with the affected party, take some time to cool down first, said Yeow. “But it is important not to sweep the matter under the carpet. The issues should be brought up and discussed, so that some resolution is reached.”

SOMETHING UNPLEASANT OR EMBARRASSING HAPPENED AND YOU KEEP RUMINATING OVER THE INCIDENT

Just stop thinking about it? Easier said than done. “It is difficult to turn off emotions like regret and embarrassment, if you handled a matter poorly,” said Yeow.

But instead of playing the scenario on loop in your head, take yourself out of the bedroom to practise some compassionate self-reflection, recommended Chua. “Talk to someone or write down how you might have handled it differently. Notice how you are feeling after sharing or writing down your thoughts.”

Chua suggested listing one or more steps that you might have otherwise taken to better handle the incident. “Show yourself some compassion and encouragement. Tell yourself: I have done well today. It is not helpful for me to think about it now. I have already noted down some areas for improvement and will try again.”

(Photo: iStock/AntonioGuillem)

Use it as a learning point to improve yourself, added Yeow. “You can visualise how you would better handle things in future when a similar situation arises.”

And sometimes, the situation might not have been as significant as you thought. “If possible, talk it through with someone you trust to get a different perspective on it,” said Williams.

“The issue may actually be very minor and they can help you see that. If it was a significant incident, they may be able to help you plan an appropriate response or formulate a good apology, if necessary.”

YOU’VE JUST FINISHED BINGEING ON YOUR FAVOURITE SERIES AND NOW, YOU CAN’T SLEEP

Save yourself the trouble of tossing and turning in bed, and “accept that you won’t be falling asleep immediately”, said Williams.

(Photo: iStock/5432action)

Instead, do something more productive and get back in bed after 30 to 60 minutes of the activity. You could read a book, perform some breathing exercises or meditate in bed. “Your body will recognise that it is time to sleep and you will soon become tired,” he said.

It may be difficult to switch off the TV or laptop when you’re in the middle of a gripping episode of your favourite K-drama, but you should try to avoid screen time 90 minutes before bedtime, said Ng. “If you have to use your laptop for work or study at night, consider using night mode on your device.”

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