Writing Down Whatever Keeps You Up at Night

When you can't sleep at night, take a moment to write down the thoughts keeping you awake. It helps shut your brain off so you can sleep.
Photo by Annie Spratt.

I recently had one of those nights where, the second I lay down to go to sleep, my brain began swirling with a million thoughts.

It felt like my head was one of those videos from a mega sale where, as soon as the doors open, it's a wild stampede of greedy creatures, trampling around, grabbing things out of each others' hands, and generally wreaking havoc. It did not bode well for sleep.

Then, finally, I grabbed my phone off the bedside table, opened a new note, and jotted down in point form each of the thoughts running through my mind.

Guess what?

That giant mass of swirling madness? It was four thoughts. Four.

It felt like mayhem, but that's just because the same thoughts kept cycling through, trying to make sure they didn't get forgotten.

Guess what else?

After I wrote them down, I almost instantly felt the heaviness of sleep rise up inside of me. My brain knew that its concerns were recorded and it didn't need to keep rehearsing them. It could finally relax.

Two more times as I was drifting off, a new thought would pop into my head, bringing with it a small surge of stress that would start to wake me up. I grabbed my phone each time, added the new thought to the note, and then put it back down.

The experience was like turning some inner wakefulness dial up and down: thought enters, dial turns up; thought recorded, dial turns down. Up, down, up down.

Then I fell asleep.

This is a HUGE contrast from those nights where my brain just won't turn off. Usually, I wind up lying in bed for what feels like hours, trying in vain to will myself to relax and go to sleep. Instead, this time, I had the brief (and stark) interruption where the light from my phone smacked me in the face while I jotted down my thoughts, and then, poof! It was gone.

The funny thing is, I used to do this all the time. In university, I always had a notebook beside my bed. When I inevitably thought of something I needed to do the next day, I would turn on the bedside light and write it down. Sometimes, my little bedside light turned on and off four or five times before I went to sleep. It seems like a lot, but it was better to have a few big interruptions that immediately faded away than to lie there and hope that the to-do list running around in my brain would let me sleep.

Then, apparently, I forgot all about this practice. Until now! It's back! And with it, victory over nighttime thoughts!

Here's my theory: our brains don't trust us. When they think of a thing, they (often rightfully) can't trust that we will remember it in the future, and so they just remind us over and over and over again until it's dealt with.

When we write things down - especially in a place our brains know we will actually look in the future - they can breathe a sigh of relief. They don't have to keep reminding us, because we won't forget.

So this is my advice to myself and all of us: when you can't sleep because a thought - any thought - won't leave you alone, just write it down. Ignore the idea that sitting up and turning on a light will be more disruptive and that maybe you'll just fall asleep. That idea is a trap that will lead to you lying in bed, wide awake, for hours, with nothing but those original thoughts in your brain PLUS the new thoughts about how you're not getting enough sleep.

Write it in a notebook, write it on your phone, write it on the inside of the cover of the book you're reading. It doesn't matter. (I mean, ideally, none of us would have phones near our beds, but whatever. A few seconds of that evil blue light is still better than lying awake all night.) Get a little book light if you have a partner who will be disturbed by your lamp turning on and off all night. Just write it down! It's so worth it.

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