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How to Sleep When You Have a Lot on Your Mind

A busy new semester can stir up lots of busy, anxious thoughts. So you could probably use a few tips to quiet your mind when your head hits the pillow.

The start of a new semester and a new school year (maybe at a new school) can bring with it a load of new worries to keep you up at night. Are you in the right major? Can you keep your grades up while holding down a part-time job? Is your study date interested in dating … or just studying? These are just a few of the thoughts that can keep you from easily drifting off to sleep, or falling back asleep if you wake up at 3 a.m.

Add to that the structure of college life—a ton of homework, campus parties, the pressure to do it all—and it’s no wonder that getting enough z’s can be a challenge. To short-circuit racing thoughts and set yourself up for a restful night, you have to unplug your brain from its energy source. Here are 3 stress management and relaxation techniques that sleep experts say can help you do that.

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1. Schedule 10 or so minutes of “worry time” earlier in the day, or right before bed

Daily life offers some excellent distractions (classes, dinner, laundry) from our anxious thoughts. But as daylight fades, those distractions disappear and we’re left alone in the dark with our worries. What this means: When you’re ready to wind down, there’s a good chance your mind is kicking into high gear.

Studies have shown that setting aside time, either earlier in the day or right before bed, to write down your concerns can reduce stress and help you fall asleep. Adam Perlman, MD, integrative medicine and health physician at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, recommends keeping a pen and pad by your bed and jotting down what’s on your mind before going to sleep. “Whether it’s something you don’t want to forget to do or something you’re stressed about, rather than ruminating about it, write it down,” he said. This takes worrisome thoughts out of your head so you can let them go. And if you wake up in the middle of the night with a new thought or something you’ve suddenly remembered, the paper and pen will be right there so you can get it down … and go back to sleep.

Another option: Write down what’s stressing you out, then list some specific ways you could deal with it. Say you’re worried about managing all your commitments. Write that down, along with actionable steps you can take. Experimenting with different organizational tools is one way: for instance, a to-do list, a calendar schedule, time tracking/blocking, prioritizing and goal-setting. For the things you can’t control, sometimes just acknowledging that you can’t control them can help you stop worrying.

And keep this in mind: Often, middle-of-the-night anxiety doesn’t pan out. Last week, maybe concerns about making friends kept you awake; this week your classmate invited you to join a study group with a whole new group of people (i.e., potential new friends). “Such rational thinking is challenging in the moment,” said Dr. Perlman, “but it helps to put things into perspective.”

2. Listen to a podcast or audiobook

If you can’t stop your brain from worrying, “you can distract it by focusing on something neutral,” said James Findley, PhD, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Podcasts or audiobooks can take your mind off your worries, and they’re a good alternative to reading if you don’t want to turn on a light or strain your tired eyes, or you can’t bear to look at any more text. Using headphones means you won’t disturb your roommate(s). Find a topic or story that’s not too exciting or upsetting (lay off the heated political debates and true-crime series, for example).

The meditation app Headspace offers “sleepcasts,” which are audio content (kind of like adult bedtime stories) designed specifically to create the right conditions for sleep. There are many story environments to choose from—Rainday Antiques, Sleeper Mountain, Beachcomber—each with its own soothing narrated tour of a different dreamy landscape.

3. Try a cognitive science­–based sleep app

Most smartphone sleep apps aren’t based on cognitive science; the mySleepButton app is one exception. Created by Dr. Luc P. Beaudoin, professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, the app “shuffles” your thoughts by reading you random, unrelated words that you visualize for 5–10 seconds. This encourages your mind to wander from one random image to another, essentially imitating and bringing about the first stage of sleep, in which your mind drifts from one random thing to another.

We live most of our day in the left side of our brain, in verbal, linear, analytical, problem-solving mode, which is neither a relaxing state of mind nor conducive to sleep. According to mySleepButton.com, the app “helps you replace your internal mental dialog with a dreamy parade of sundry images” that can help you drift off.

Worst-case scenario: There’s always tomorrow night

If you don’t manage to get a decent night’s sleep, remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world. Everyone wrestles with insomnia now and then. Although it may be frustrating or worrisome, remember nothing too terribly awful will happen if you get very little sleep tonight. Sure, you may be tired, cranky, and not at your best, but you’ll still get through the day.

Take it from Derek Jarvis, who studied at Florida State University and was an avowed insomniac. When he was up at 3 a.m., he managed to make productive use of his time, taking a walk, discussing life with another night owl, or doing an early Walmart run. He even penned the beginnings of a college bedtime book:

Goodnight dorm, goodnight moon

Goodnight roommate who snores like a baboon.

Goodnight library, goodnight you.

Goodnight homework I didn’t do …

His words of wisdom: Not being able to fall asleep doesn’t have to be the worst part of college.

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