4 Ways to Clear Your Head of Unfinished Business Before BedBy Steve Calechman
Not every project, decision, or conversation can be wrapped up before the end of the day. And often we’ll say we’re going to “sleep on it,” with the hope that time spent not thinking about the issue will give us some much-needed perspective and the ability to come back with a fresh eye. While this is not a hard concept to try, it can sometimes be difficult to execute. The body is willing to call it a night, but the brain keeps working, getting most active when we’re lying in bed, trying—and failing—to go to sleep.
Usually, we take one of two approaches: Wrestle with the thoughts; or, ignore them and hope they go away. Neither is a good plan. Why? “You won’t win,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of Real Happiness. The mind naturally likes to wander, which means we spend a lot of our time ruminating about the past and contemplating the future. Research has shown that the brain does this about 47 percent of the time, and that it usually leads to unhappiness. Part of the wandering is due to evolution. Worrying and anticipating danger kept our ancestors alive, but that translates to continually turning things over in our minds. “We’re good at mental rehearsals and mental reruns,” says Beth Kurland, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes. That constant churn, researchers say, takes an emotional toll.
Since you’re not going to make thoughts stop, the achievable goal is to treat them like clouds, says Salzberg. Some are fluffy, some are ominous. You notice them, but you let them roll on through. Here are four ways to give temporary closure to unfinished business and become better at calming your head so you can fall asleep.
Allow for Daytime Attention
Your thoughts are like children. The less attention they get, the more they want. The solution is to focus on them well before you want to sleep. That way, “you’re not kicking the worry can down the road until bedtime,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., clinical associate in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Try writing a to-do list. Anxiety-inducing thoughts tend to be vague and ripe for catastrophizing, but jotting down just one sentence per item downloads your thoughts, giving them form so “you can tell your min