How to train your brain to sleep

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Sleep. I don’t need to emphasise the importance of this for us humans. Getting enough sleep is one of the rare pieces of health advice which seems to receive consensus – from science experts to Twitter fitness gurus. It’s only perhaps your LinkedIn efficiency freaks who downplay sleep when they post about their 3am wake up and morning rituals in order to impress their followers.

I know sleep is important because I’m an erratic sleeper. Without enough sleep I’m slow and foggy. We all know this happens. But it’s worse than this. Lack of sleep also seems to induce a sort of increased sadness, helplessness and depression in me. It obviously manifests in physical appearance too. When I sleep properly I look better, feel better function better. It feels like I even smell better. Who knows.

But my biggest problem isn’t falling asleep. That’s easy enough for me. And if one struggles on that front my advice is either a book, a soothing audiobook, or a nice big glass of Sauvignon Blanc after dinner.

No, my biggest problem is waking up at 3am or so, usually due to a full bladder demanding attention, and then being unable to go back to sleep. So invariably the thought process goes something like this:

  1. Must go back to sleep quickly. Must go back to sleep quickly. Must go back to sleep quickly.
  2. Ok it’s not happening.
  3. Oh bugger, I forgot to send that email yesterday about the media campaign.
  4. Ok, got to stop thinking. Got to stop thinking.
  5. Who played in the number 10 position for Deportivo in that 2002 season? What happened to him?
  6. Focus on not thinking. Come on. You can do it.
  7. *Reach for phone* . . . Got to work out that Deportivo thing.
  8. Might as well scroll Twitter while I’m here. Ooh, that looks like an interesting book. Let me see if it’s available on Amazon.
  9. Ok, feeling a bit sleepy. Let me push my alarm by about 20 minutes.

The worst part, and this has happened countless times to me, is eventually falling back into a sleep as the alarm goes. Goddamit. You start the day off on completely the wrong note, irritable with the world.

But I’m pleased to say I’m slowly changing my ways. I’m doing this by slowly training my mind on a certain thought pattern, or should I say, thought intensity. I haven’t perfected it yet, but I’m getting there. Before I go on let me outline the basics, before getting into the mental side of it.

Yes, these are the very basics, but if you wake up in the middle of the night, these are the things you really shouldn’t do:

  • Put any lights on
  • Look at your phone, or any screen
  • Gulp down fruit juice, or anything with sugar in

Also, it goes without saying, but the more alcohol you drink, the less well you’ll sleep. Yes, it will work like a charm putting you to sleep, but more than two glasses of wine will more than likely wake you up in the early hours.

So onto the mental side. I realised something important recently. Trying to stop yourself thinking in order to fall asleep in the middle of the night is as futile as the overthinking you’re doing in the first place. The reason is, they’re both requiring you to exert effort. Some people know all too well that in the middle of the night the brain has a tendency to act like a crazed monkey in a cage. Trying to silence the monkey is hard work. Really hard work. And usually doesn’t work.

I realised that there’s a certain middle ground to be found between thinking and non-thinking. Let’s call it passive thinking rather than active thinking. The first step is obviously to relax yourself. Take the pressure off falling asleep. But then after a while, once you’ve found a good position, is to allow your mind to just . . .drift. Don’t stop your mind thinking, but don’t actively pursue any rational, operational, or problem solving thought. Just go along with what your mind wants to drift about. You’ll find the most random images and sequences enter your head, and this is fine. Go with it, don’t try to stop it and don’t try to steer it or think about it. You may find your mind starts playing sequences on its own, with no direction from you. If you can stay in this state, you’ve done it.

I suppose you could say it’s like finding a state of flow for your wandering mind, and then just flowing with it.

It is, of course, not always as easy as it sounds. And I certainly haven’t perfected this yet, but early progress signs are good. I’ve always envied those people who can quickly fall asleep wherever they lay their heads. Unfortunately I’ll never be one of those people. However, the brain is luckily something we can train over time. Step one is observing your own thought patterns.

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