How to Turn Off Your Brain So You Can Sleep

December 27, 2022

Valerie Cacho MD

Do you have a hard time shutting off your brain at night? Do you wish there was a switch you could magically flip to transport yourself into dreamland? Currently (at least to my knowledge) no switch exists — but, there are things you can do to turn down the noise and quiet your brain at night. 

From a physiological standpoint, we fall asleep when our brain slows down; however, we are constantly on the go as we pack our schedules full of the busyness of life. It doesn’t help our sleep that we pride ourselves in being busy. We are bombarded with distractions from the ding of an email, text, or direct message while we eat, work, and even drive. It is no wonder so many of us have trouble calming our minds to the point where we can easily fall asleep. We haven’t given our brains a chance to slow down until bedtime rolls around.

Built within us is this wonderful system known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The parasympathetic nervous system is one part of the autonomic nervous system. The other part is the sympathetic nervous system which is also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze ” response that keeps us safe from dangerous stimuli. The PNS is known as the “rest and digest” system and calms our nerves by allowing our bodies to relax. When the PNS is activated, our heart beats slower and our lungs work less. Think of your PNS like a muscle — with time, you can learn and practice exercises to turn down the busy mind, experience less stress, and feel more at peace.

5 ways to turn off your brain so you can sleep

How do you activate the parasympathetic nervous system to fall asleep easily? Try these activities that will send you into snooze-landia!

  1. Get quiet and slow down your breath

Research suggests that if we slow down our breathing to less than 6 breaths per minute, we can decrease symptoms of anxiety, lower blood pressure, and heart rate more than lying in a resting position alone. Box breathing is a simple and effective breathing technique to try. Imagine the sides of a square or look at a frame on the wall. Inhale for 5 seconds as you move your eyes along one side; when you get to the corner, hold for 5 seconds. Repeat this process as you move your eyes along the side.

  1. Write down your thoughts

Releasing your brain from the to-do lists, conversations of the day, or meeting plans for tomorrow by writing them down can free up space within your brain for peace and rest.  Setting aside a time to do this practice earlier in the day and not too close to bedtime is a key step to clear your mind and wipe the whiteboard clean before you go to sleep.

  1. Mindfully slow down during the day 

Do you find your mind constantly darting between your grocery list to your inbox of unread emails? The next time you sit down to eat, challenge yourself to slow down and focus on your food. Bring in all your senses to this experience. Notice the color of your food. What does it smell like? Fully experience the different flavors for your food. How does your meal make you feel? Practicing mindfulness when eating trains our mind to focus its attention on the task at hand. The more we cultivate this practice the easier it will be to slow down our brains at night.

  1. Repeat a calming pro-sleep mantra

How we talk to ourselves matters a lot. Oftentimes, people struggle with judging themselves negatively about their ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Creating and repeating a pro-sleep mantra is a way we can program our brains to view sleep as a positive experience. When we are less stressed, sleep will follow. One pro-sleep mantra is, “My mind is calm, my body is relaxed, and I can sleep.”

  1. Listen to a guided imagery recording

Sometimes it can be difficult to quiet the noise of our own thoughts, even despite the above practices. Listening to a guided meditation about relaxation and sleep can replace the thoughts in our mind with a soothing voice or sounds of nature and can promote sleep.

There are benefits of rest even if you aren’t fully asleep. Know that sleep will eventually come. Be intentional about your sleep and by practicing stillness during the day, you’ll be able to turn off your brain so you can sleep at night.

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