Here's What To Think About If You're Having Trouble Sleeping

PHotographed by Michael Beckert.
Have you ever been trying to fall asleep and thought to yourself: If I go to bed now, I’ll get five hours and 32 minutes of sleep. If so, you’ve officially self-sabotaged your own “good night’s rest.” That’s according to Dr. Susan Biali Haas, M.D. an expert on stress management and resilience. “Don’t go down that road,” Biali Haas says. “This can produce anxiety, and you should be thinking instead about anything that will relax you.”
What you think about when you fall asleep is an intimate, personal thing — and most of us do more than count sheep. I’ve spoken with people who pray, listen to meditation podcasts, fantasise about the future, and repeat the lyrics of their favourite song. Everyone does their own thing — but what’s the right thing?
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Clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., also known as the Sleep Doctor, says the happier your thoughts before bed, the better. “Thoughts before sleep usually turn into dreams, so I’m often asking my patients to think about more positive things right before bed,” Breus says. “One of my favourite pastimes is to have people write a gratitude list. This is usually very positive, and helpful.”
Psychiatrist Neel Burton, M.D. agrees that thinking about what you're grateful for can be helpful as you drift off. “I just focus on whatever crosses my mind, even if it’s only sleeping in a warm bed!” Burton tells Refinery29 via email. “Gratitude leads to feelings of perspective, calm, and relaxation, which are conducive to sleep.” Burton previously wrote about gratitude and sleep for Psychology Today, and noted that studies have linked gratitude with better sleep, health, and reduced stress.
Biali Haas says sometimes the best thing to think about is nothing specific at all. “I do think it’s important to avoid actual thinking,” she says. “Don’t focus on anything that’s going to stimulate or wake up the brain.” Although some recommend thinking about positive things as you fall asleep, you may want to avoid that if you’re a person who’s easily excitable. Thinking about your crush or the dazzling shoes you’ll wear out on the town this weekend is fun, but it might keep you awake. If this is the case, Biali Haas says you might want to focus on your breath, repeat a phrase or mantra in your mind, or meditate. “Focus on something neutral,” Biali Haas says.
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She also notes there are things you shouldn't think about. Thinking about work, or listing off things that need to get done tomorrow is a bad habit that can keep your mind racing. Biali Haas also notes that the brain has a tendency to "catastrophise" at night. We imagine that things are worse than they are — whether it has to do with your relationship or a work problem. “At night when the lights are out, a lot of people tend to blow things out of proportion,” Biali Haas says. “Darkness is conducive to this… It’s an interesting phenomenon, and that’s why panic attacks often happen at night.”
If you can’t stop yourself from thinking about the worst that could happen, Biali Haas recommends getting out of bed and journaling about what’s troubling you. Then getting back in bed and trying again. This time, try for neutral or pleasant thoughts.
All this is to say that thinking about “counting sheep” as you fall asleep is an antiquated concept. If you must count, try this trick from Dr. Breus.
“Counting works best when it is mathematically complicated and boring,” Breus notes. “So I recommend counting backwards from 300 by threes. Try it, it works.”
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