I’m still experiencing weird sleep disruptions. Many nights I’ll be up for an extended time during the wee hours of the morning.
This isn’t conducive to being bright and alert during the day, so I’m devising a game plan for limiting the length of these nighttime interruptions.
My newest strategy is a variant of a counting practice that I heard over the radio years ago, and it goes like this:
Imagine a clean whiteboard. In one hand you’re holding a dry-erase marker in your favorite color, in the other a cloth or eraser.
Write “100” in large numbers, but do it backwards so it looks like a mirror image. Channel your inner da Vinci. 🙂
Then erase the number and write “99”, again reversed. Erase it again.
Keep counting down. Don’t rush. Think about how your hand should move to scribe the backwards numbers. Breathe deeply. When you erase, erase carefully and completely.
You probably won’t get to zero. The first two nights I did this, I didn’t make it past 80. It doesn’t always work so well, but when it does, it’s soothing and sleep-inducing.
Why does it put you to sleep? First, you’re not doing anything very complex and therefore this shouldn’t be putting you into a greater state of wakefulness; in fact, counting down is kind of boring. You’re giving your full focus to this task so there are fewer opportunities for intrusive thoughts to interrupt. If they do, return your focus to the numbers. Do this each time your mind wanders. And while the task is easy enough, it does require you to pause and consider how to move your hand, since you’re doing the opposite of what you usually do to write a number.
The counting task requires enough attention that you shift your focus away from thoughts that may be keeping you up, but is gentle enough to lull you into a calmer state that helps bring on sleep.
If imagining a whiteboard doesn’t work for you in the middle of the night, there are other counting variations that would work as well:
Starting from 100, simply count backwards by threes (no imaginary writing required). If 100 seems too optimistically small a number from which to start, use 300 or even 1000. If counting down by threes seems too complex, try twos. Go slow.
Really good at addition? Try calculating the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two preceeding it. Start from zero, add one and then keep going: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… unfortunately, this can get out of control quickly (I usually lose track somewhere in the three-digit numbers). But intrepid math fans might be able to get far enough to refocus themselves to the present and enter a calmer state.
Does the idea of math cause you stress? Then just count your breaths, start from 100 and going backwards, slowing down the breathing as you go, imagining the numbers count down with each inhale. This works particularly well if you focus on releasing all your muscles with each exhale.
A specific strategy may not work every time, but the overall idea is the same: something that requires a little brain focus with minimal excitation or strain (so that you can lazily shift your focus and keep your mind gently occupied). Do not rush through these; the magic lies in the process. There is nothing to achieve here. You’re simply boring yourself to sleep.
Try any of these the next time you find yourself awake with a racing mind and let me know how it goes.