How To Slow Down Your Brain To Maximise Sleep

Sleep is where your body finds balance for its many functions, from the emotional to the cognitive, all the way down to the immune system - everything we need to function at our best. Getting a good night’s sleep can be particularly difficult if you are dealing with anxiety because your brain thinks it needs to be awake to protect you. The good news is there are many ways that you can slow the brain down to prepare you for a good night’s sleep.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a physiological reaction to our perception of threat that’s called the fight or flight reaction. When we perceive threat in our environment (worry thoughts) the prefrontal cortex in our brain responds as if it was a real threat, such as a tiger in our midst. It sends a message to the part of our brain called the amygdala and then sets off a number of physiological changes in our body, to enable our body to fight or run away. This is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It causes us to take shallow and rapid breaths, and adrenaline soars through the bloodstream, keeping us wide awake.

Why does anxiety impact sleep?

We need oxytocin and melatonin to sleep and when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, secretion of these hormones and chemicals are suppressed. So in order to fall asleep, you have to engage the parasympathetic nervous system that stops the secretion of adrenaline and reestablishes the hormones and chemicals that are necessary for sleep.

How do you slow your brain down to sleep?

One of the most powerful ways to do this is to slow down your breathing. Focus predominantly on the out breath because that is the most effective in the release of stress and slowing the system down. You can try visualising blowing the stress or muscle tension away while you breathe out with pursed lips - like you’re blowing on a dandelion.

The other part of the brain we need to deal with to prepare for sleep is the prefrontal cortex. We can do this through mindfulness, journaling or meditation which all take the attention away from the worry thoughts and help us re-engage with our senses.

  1. Mindfulness is present moment awareness that involves intentionally observing and allowing your experiences to be without judgement. When you’re preparing for sleep, notice the sensation of the sheet, the pillow, the doona, then work through the other senses. Breathe through your nose and out through your mouth. Let your thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky and imagine your worry thoughts sitting on a cloud, floating away.
  2. Journaling helps take the worry thoughts out of your mind and puts you in more control of the thoughts rather than your thoughts in control of you. Note down your worry thoughts as they arise throughout the day and separate them into what’s in and out of your control. Engage in active problem solving to deal with the things that are in your control and try not to spend time on the things that are out of your control.
  3. Meditation is a fantastic tool for enabling quality sleep. There are many types of meditation, so find one that is right for you. Breath meditation is similar to the mindfulness exercise and the beauty of this style of meditation is that you have your breath with you all the time, so you can meditate anytime. Transcendental meditation is where you focus on a mantra or you can try listening to a guided meditation.
  4. Tech detox is key to sleep. Phones or any other electronic device are best kept out of the bedroom. In order to slow down the brain, you need to switch off from your devices including your phone, TV, laptop screen and tablets, at least half an hour before bed. Having your phone in the bedroom is just too tempting to check before bed, during the night or first thing when you wake up.
  5. Engage a clinical psychologist if you are experiencing anxiety and not sure what to do about it, I recommend engaging a clinical psychologist to help you with identifying practical strategies to help you overcome any challenges. Start by going to see your local GP and they can put you on a Mental Health Care Plan and help you find a clinical psychologist to see.

Whatever routine you choose to prepare yourself for sleep, keep it simple and make it a habit. Find what works for you and be kind to yourself in the process. Nothing is better for a good night’s sleep than a big dose of self compassion.