How to Sleep When Your Brain Won’t Shut Off

How to sleep when your brain is noisy and won't shut off

Sleep is important, but it can feel impossible when your brain won't shut off. There are guidelines for sleep hygiene to help establish your nighttime routine and make it easier, but there are still reasons you might not be able to fall asleep. If you deal with a lot of stress and anxiety, for example, or you are neurodivergent, you might experience a lot of mental chatter when you try to go to bed. People whose natural response to difficult scenarios is dissociating or otherwise "checking out" may also find their physical exhaustion and mental readiness for sleep do not match up. Even if you were tired all day, nighttime inspires some brains to perk up and feel "wired" at all the wrong times.

I have a chatty brain, myself. Even if I'm good about putting my phone away when I should be sleeping, there are times my brain keeps going and thinking and wondering. Over the years, however, I've figured out a list of relaxation and meditative exercises I can do to increase the likelihood I will fall asleep. I, personally, have ADHD and find trying to simply fall sleep is a fool's errand. The rest of my brain wants to focus on something and will wander. If I can focus, instead, on something calming and peaceful, the other part of my brain gets bored but doesn't have the ability to focus on anything else. So I fall asleep in the middle of these exercises. It's been a helpful trick.

Don't worry if focusing during meditation is hard for you: it's hard for me too, and that's kind of the point. It's not about having to immediately clear your mind "or else," it's about practicing and putting in the repetitions of redirecting yourself when you realize you're distracted. You will get better at it over time. This is like any activity we have to practice to get better at. Just keep redirecting.

So, here are the "exercises" I do and the order I do them in, with plenty of links for background information and instruction. Feel free to take what you like, skip what you don't, and mix them up however works best for you. Also, you may note that most of these mental exercises are not originally meant to induce sleep. For those who deal with a brain that won't shut off at bedtime, however, they may help you fall asleep anyway.

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation - This is a quick and easy one to start with. While it doesn't ever make me fall asleep, it helps me quickly check in with my body and prepare my muscles physically for relaxation. Practicing this in the long run helps people notice their physical tension better in general. You do this one by tensing, holding, and then relaxing one muscle group at a time. I start with my toes/feet and work my way up. Tense and hold for a few seconds, then relax, and move on to the next muscle group. I include my face and. separately, the back of my head. It's ok if it feels like I look silly: it's dark and nobody can see me anyway.
  2. Autogenic Training - This is next up on my list. These are sets of meditative focuses for connecting mind and body while inducing relaxation and creating a neurological sense of safety and calm. The document I've linked, presented by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, will walk you through practicing the parts of the meditation so you can learn it one piece at a time. These days, I just go right to doing number 6 on this list. If my brain starts thinking about something else during phrase repetition, I just jump back in where I was. Most nights I fall asleep before finishing the second or third phrase (with four repetitions each). Sometimes I fall asleep with just one or two phrases left. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I try to pick up where I left off.
  3. Wheel of Awareness Meditation - If I've gotten through the entirety of Autogenic Training without dozing off, I do the Wheel of Awareness Meditation. I've described the steps for this in a past post and, while it's a great one to do when you're awake, it also helps occupy my active brain when I'm trying to sleep so I can drift off instead. I take a mental inventory of my five senses, my internal body processes, my thoughts, my feelings, and my relationships. I work on just labeling basic ideas rather than getting caught up with in-depth analysis. Nights where I do the Wheel of Awareness mean I'm a little more mentally "wired" than usual, but I typically fall asleep in the middle around labeling my thoughts. If I get to relationships, I know I'm having a particularly "awake" night and things might be tricky.
  4. Simple Breathing Meditation - The worst thing we can do during a hard time is to add more pressure. If I get through all of the other relaxations and meditations, I need to accept I won't be sleeping well at all. Instead, I try to get what I can in terms of rest. Just lying there with your eyes closed already puts you in a more restful state than having them open. I do my best, even if I don't approve of being less rested, to accept that I can only get what I can get. I turn my thoughts to a very simple meditation practice: labeling my breathing in and breathing out. Literally: "Breathing in. Breathing out." When I find myself distracted, I come back to "Breathing in. Breathing out." This is my one job at this point. Typically, by the time I accept the struggle and acknowledge that I've done my best, and that I will now just focus on breathing in and out, I find myself waking up.
  5. "Listening" Meditation - This is an alternative to the "Breathing in. Breathing out." Sometimes my brain is just so noisy and full of chatter that, despite my best attempts to accept it, I get annoyed and frustrated anyway. Fine! On these nights, my job is to listen. I "listen" to the chatter but I don't engage with it, because once one piece of chatter is done, my job is to hear the next one. I don't attach to any of them or follow any trains of thought. I just "hear" them. I often find myself waking up once I've decided to do this one as well. I don't know if this is a feasible practice if you have auditory aphantasia and do not mentally "hear" your thinking in some capacity. If that is your situation and this tip does not work, I hope the idea of this gives you ideas to adapt for yourself.

Well, there you have it. This is how I fall asleep on nights when my busy brain is at its most active and won't shut up. Again, none of these outside of the progressive muscle relaxation are technically meant to make you fall asleep in the middle of them. Also, your mileage may vary. For those who haven't found help from other methods, however, I hope something like this routine of tools helps!

Dr. Stephanie Bloodworth, PsyD, LMFT