It’s common for my wife to wake up around 3:00 a.m. and have a hard time getting back to sleep. This is not due to my snoring. While I may snore occasionally, I don’t snore that much or that loudly. And I’m not hanging all over her in some sort of romantic dream state. Usually, she can’t sleep because her mind wakes up at 3:00 a.m. and wants to play. This is an experience many people have.
I, on the other hand, have no trouble sleeping. I snooze on planes, trains, and automobiles, as well as in just about every recliner I’ve ever sat. My sleep tendencies are why I don’t like going to the movies. The soft reclining chairs and darkened room work like warm milk on me. And there is nothing worse than paying $12 for a movie ticket and then on the way home having to ask my wife what happened after the opening credits. So, needless to say, when I wake up at 3:00 a.m., I don’t typically have trouble getting back to sleep. And yet, my mind is just as active as my wife’s.
There is a lot of research being conducted to understand how our brains work. But what’s most important is figuring out how our particular brains work. We’re all different. And what I learned early in life is that I’m much better at using my imagination than I am at calming my mind. But either way, I don’t let it run wild.
I’ll show you what I mean.
Let’s pretend you wake up at 3:00 a.m. Here is an example of how our unattended mind might sound: I’ve got so much work to do tomorrow and I’m afraid I’ll never get it all done. I really need to go back to sleep so I won’t be too tired to do what I need to do tomorrow. And if I’m too tired, I might oversleep. Speaking of oversleeping, did I remember to set my alarm? I’m sure I did. I always do. I know I did. I don’t really need to check because I’m sure I did. But maybe I didn’t. I’ll just check. Yep, I set it. Now, I’m wide awake. I really need to get back to sleep. But I’m too wide awake. I have to relax. I need to think about something else. I wonder if there’s any cheesecake left?
Sound familiar? Our minds love to lead us into the Forest of Crowded Thoughts. It’s like a Wizard of Oz experience—anxiety and worry and stress, oh my!
In situations like this, we must not give in to our mind’s chatter and we need to recognize when it’s happening so we can do something about it. It’s called awareness and when we are aware, we have several different ways we can respond: We can give in to the chatter, we can quiet the chatter, or we can focus on something else.
Here’s how these options work.
If we give in to our mind’s chatter, we can’t get back to sleep at 3:00 a.m. Our mind wants us to stay awake and listen to all the propaganda it can drum up. If we pay attention, we get sucked into believing that our mind is the expert and knows what’s going to happen. And according to the chatter, the car will break down, we will lose our jobs, and the dripping in the bathroom is a massive leak that’s flooding the basement. So, we lie in bed and engage in a worry contest with our mind.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this is not the best approach. Relinquishing serenity to the anxiety of our mind’s chatter, and more specifically to our ego’s control, creates unnecessary worry and is not usually consistent with the actual reality. So, allowing it to happen doesn’t help us get back to sleep.
The second option is to practice mindfulness or meditation. This is a technique where we clear our thoughts and try to only focus on our breathing or on a mantra we repeat over and over. The goal is to either quiet our mind or at least to be present in the moment. By doing so, we recognize that the mind is active but we don’t get caught up in the chatter. This is a wonderful calming technique. That being said, I’ve never been very good at it. The minute my mind starts to relax, it panics and worries that I’ll forget about it. Then, it starts becoming active again. This is probably because I don’t practice the process nearly enough.
The final technique and the one that works best for me is guided imagery. This is a process through which we take our minds somewhere else. I learned about this for the first time in my college acting class. Our professor instructed us to lie on the floor, in a darkened room, while he had us imagine being somewhere else. Sometimes he took us on a walk through a forest or around the shore by a lake. And whatever the surroundings were, we were encouraged to fully immerse our mind in the scene.
In theater, the technique of guided imagery allows actors to mentally go somewhere else and that helps them get into character. For the rest of us, however, guided imagery is a proven relaxation technique. After being exposed to this technique several times during college and graduate school, I realized that I was good at it and over time, I improved my technique.
Now, when I wake up in the middle of the night after a bad dream or because I’m worried about something in my life, I use guided imagery to take my mind elsewhere. I might imagine myself lying on a warm beach where I feel the sun on my skin and hear the sound of the ocean in the background. When I imagine the sounds, sensations, and even the smells of the scene, it becomes very realistic. Before I know it, I’ve relaxed and fallen back to sleep. And even if I don’t fall asleep, I’m much more relaxed because I’m not anxiously following my mind’s endless chatter.
If you want to learn more, there are many books, CD’s, podcasts, and online resources for meditation and guided imagery. They’ll show you how to resist giving in to the anxiety prone distractions of the mind in exchange for a place that is pleasant and more relaxing. It’s worth the exploration.
Sometimes it feels like our minds have control over us. But in reality, since our minds are part of us, we actually have more control than we realize. We must embrace the control we have and explore ways to meditate or imagine another scenario. And then, rather than allowing our minds to keep us anxious, we can use them to help us get back to sleep.