4. Occupy your mind
Racing thoughts and a tense body make restful sleep difficult. Try this: When you reach the end of this paragraph, close your eyes and try not to think about a banana split. Do not imagine the cold ice cream. Do not imagine the scent of banana. Do not think of the chocolate syrup drizzle. Do not picture how the sweet juice bursts out of the maraschino cherry as you bite into it. Also do not think, I will not think of banana splits. After all, thinking of the absence of a banana split also constitutes thinking of banana splits.
You get the picture. The answer is to find alternatives to “stopping” unwanted thoughts from occurring.
Have you ever been told to count sheep to help you fall asleep? Try this experiment right now. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Imagine a field with a fence. What does your fence look like? What color is it? How high is it? Is it made of wood? Does it stretch the entire vista of your mind? Or is it only one or two sections of fence? Once you have a clear vision of what the fence looks like, imagine a sheep approaching it and jumping effortlessly and slowly over it. As the sheep’s front feet touch the grass on the other side, a second sheep jumps with exactly the same height and velocity. As the second sheep’s feet touch the ground on the other side, a third sheep begins the jump. Watch a fourth sheep jump. And a fifth. And a sixth. All of your sheep jump with the same form, speed, height and arc. And then a seventh sheep jumps. And an eighth. A ninth and a tenth. Then open your eyes and read on.
What did you notice? Some people find the monotony of this visual experiment relaxing and notice only the image of the sheep. Others are distracted by thoughts: “This would never work at night” or “This is boring.” Or perhaps you thought of other things.
What does the sheep exercise tell us? Engaging your mind by picturing something occupies space in your busy mind. However, it also tells us that if the picture is boring, you may become distracted by unrelated thoughts. There is a strategy here: Engage your mind in an image that will compete with other thoughts. Perhaps sheep jumping over a fence isn’t engaging enough to hold the attention of your overactive mind, particularly in a dark, quiet bedroom. What may work better?
Consider that many of the things people do to unwind involve following a storyline. People generally seek out stories—via radio, book or television—for diversion and entertainment. You may be surprised to learn there is a way you can enjoy stories in bed without using your eyes or ears.
Tonight when you get into bed, think about a story with compelling characters or a fascinating plot. It can be from a book, a movie, a television show, a play, or your imagination. Follow the plot from whatever point you like. You may like to imagine what happens after the end of a favorite movie or book. Or you may like to come up with an alternate ending. You may imagine a new story for a character you find compelling. Do avoid selecting a story that is likely to be so exciting that it would keep you awake. You want something that will hold your interest more than sheep, but not so much that you become wide awake. Focus on the details: What are people wearing? What are they saying? What does the room or setting look like? Occupy your mind and enjoy the story you create. If you find it difficult to think of a story, you may like to incorporate a hobby: Imagine you are decorating a home room by room on an unlimited budget or golfing a perfect game on a fantasy course. As long as it is not too exciting, it doesn’t matter what you visualize.