Not long ago, I had one of those ‘WTF, make it stop’ weeks. Not only had my workload crept up while my bank balance reached a sad low, but a bunch of personal stuff seemed to be happening all at once.
Needless to say, I was a little more stressed than usual. And while I’m no stranger to overthinking things during the day or when I’m trying to drift off at night (did that person give me a weird look? What did that email mean? Is so and so annoyed at me?), I experienced a strange phenomenon. I was overthinking in my sleep.
I would continuously wake up during the night, feeling exhausted and aware of the fact that I had been obsessing over deadlines or trying to come up with website copy ideas in my sleep. The only other time I had experienced anything like it this was when I had started a new job in the picture department at a magazine, and I would dream of dropping images into folders.
Aware of the fact that this experience was strange but probably not uncommon, I started researching. Here’s what I found:
Yes, you can think in your sleep
Not only can we think while we’re asleep, but it also happens to be when we do some of our best thinking! You see, our brains are complex machines. They’re active 24/7—perhaps even more so when we’re asleep. While our consciousness can only process about 40 bits of information per second, the unconscious mind can process several million bits per second. So, when we’re technically ‘at rest’ and we don’t have all the everyday stimuli distracting us (cough: smartphones), that’s when the brain is busy committing new thoughts, ideas and knowledge to our memory.
We’re generally unaware that this is happening, but it’s crucial for our cognitive growth. However, if you’re waking up throughout the night aware of the fact you’ve been ruminating, then you probably haven’t made it past the first or second stage of your sleep cycle when you’re only lightly asleep.
Overthinking while your asleep makes it difficult to fall into a deep sleep, and can make you feel exhausted by the time you get up in the morning—like you’ve already done a full day’s work! And by now, we all know how important a good night’s sleep is, for everything from our productivity and mood to overall health. Thankfully, there are a few things nocturnal ruminators can do to stop overthinking in their sleep.
How to stop overthinking in your sleep
Introduce a relaxing sleep routine
You’re going to be far more likely to overthink while you’re asleep if you haven’t given yourself a chance to properly unwind. Make sure you shut off your tech devices at least an hour before you hit the hay and create a pre-bed routine that helps you relax your mind. This might include meditation, a hot bath, listening to relaxing music, having a non-caffeinated cup of tea, journalling or all of the above!
Keep a notebook by the side of your bed
One of the best ways to give yourself relief from the worries that are keeping you awake at night (well, half awake anyway) is to keep a notebook by your bed. Do a brain dump of everything that’s bothering you, then jot down one thing you can do tomorrow to help alleviate that worry. Knowing you have a plan of attack works wonders for putting your mind at ease.
Play Tetris before you go to bed
Here’s a weird one! Playing 90 minutes of Tetris has been shown to help reduce overthinking in your sleep. This is known as ‘visual overwriting’ and according to Dr. Jane McGonigal the highly visual nature of the game occupies the visual processing centre of the brain so that you can’t imagine or obsess over those issues that have plagued your day. Warning: You will probably dream of falling Tetris blocks instead!
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