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How To Stop Overthinking At Night (And Finally Get Some Sleep)

It’s 2 a.m., and I’m still awake. 

Nothing’s overtly wrong, but I can’t get my mind to settle down enough to doze off. This isn’t new – in fact, I call this the ‘witching hour’ – and I often find myself lying awake for hours, ruminating on every conversation I’ve had for the day, overthinking every decision I’ve made, and pondering on everything I did.

Overthinking. It’s become a bit of a buzzword these days, but it’s an undeniably common occurrence that prevents as many as 73% of people between the ages of 25 and 35 from getting restful sleep. It doesn’t just affect the younger generations; research suggests that more than half of 45 to 55-year-olds lie awake overthinking.  

If this sounds familiar to you, you may be one of the nearly 70 million Americans who have a sleep disorder – and overthinking could have something to do with it. 

What Is Overthinking?

You may call the careful thought and analysis of a situation in your daily life overthinking, but that’s slightly different. The overthinking I’m referring to here is a process of repetitive thinking that sees you turning over certain topics in your mind over and over.

Some people refer to this as dwelling on certain points, ruminating on an event, excessively examining something from every angle, sifting through racing thoughts continuously – or, as I refer to it, rerunning the scene over and over in my mind. 

Overthinking is quite strange because, for some, it doesn’t have to be about reality. For some, overthinking involves playing out possible scenarios, thinking about alternate possibilities, or imagining issues that may crop up. If this sounds like the Multiverse of Madness to you, you wouldn’t be far off.

Overthinking itself isn’t considered a mental health disorder, but it is often linked to mental health conditions, most often to anxiety disorders. And those who struggle with depression, have a distorted self-image, or are in toxic relationships are even more likely to spend hours contemplating every eventuality that may crop up in their lives.

Aerial shot of a woman in bed looking up at the ceiling, unable to sleep due to racing thoughts and overthinking
how to stop overthinking at night and get some sleep

Why Do We Overthink At Night?

So why does overthinking seem to crop up when you’re trying to get some sleep? Sure, there are times when we overthink during the day – and if you take some time to think about it, you’ll likely see the pattern of overthinking when you’re not actively busy. 

The theory is that when you’re winding down at night, your brain works on processing the day’s events that it may not have had time to do during your busy working hours. This is when your brain sifts through the things you’ve experienced and tries to evaluate it, add meaning to it, or analyze the implications of it. 

Of course, those with high anxiety levels will experience this particularly negatively, second-guessing their decisions, trying to decide if they could’ve done something better, made more impactful decisions, or acted appropriately. Careful thought about matters doesn’t inherently sound problematic.

But overthinking at night can be debilitating. During the times I’ve experienced the most severe anxiety (admittedly, I was dealing with some challenging personal situations), I’ve spent six or seven hours mulling over things, only for my alarm to go off without having shut an eye. 

So, are there any direct causes for overthinking?

Biological Causes For Overthinking

There are a few things that studies suggest could trigger overthinking at night. The first of these is fatigue; if we are physically and mentally exhausted, it’s easier for troubling or worrying thoughts to intrude on us because we don’t have the capacity to regulate them. 

Secondly, hormones that regulate our ability to deal with stress, like adrenaline and cortisol, peak during the day and are typically lowest at night.

But for those who have elevated anxiety (perhaps you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder or facing challenges), these hormones remain elevated at night, triggering a pattern of overthinking in response.

Psycho-Emotional Causes For Overthinking

Anxiety. It feels like this one word is the overarching cause for all things relating to overthinking. While that may be true, we must highlight how traumatic events like losing someone you love or dealing with abuse or neglect can cause us to get stuck in a pattern of overthinking. 

It’s natural for humans to ask ‘why’ –so it is with trauma and our response to it. It’s something I’ve seen repeatedly over the years, and these thought patterns are somehow amplified at night, causing significant distress.

Technology and Overthinking at Night

Studies have shown that the increase in accessible technology – and our growing dependence on it – plays a role in overthinking at night. Watching a film or series that stimulates your brain means you don’t wind down after a long day, instead remaining “switched on.” 

Of course, there’s also the idea that the stuff you’re exposed to can be harmful, elevating anxiety and making you feel vulnerable. This is a commonly occurring thing in practice, with clients reporting that particularly disturbing world events or tragic news pieces kept them up at night pondering the meaning of life, the human condition, and even their own mortality.

It’s also been proven that technology such as cell phones and the blue light emitted from the screens mess with our circadian rhythm, confusing our brain and disrupting the natural sleep/wake cycle. If you’re prone to browsing social media in bed at night, don’t be surprised if your brain struggles to switch off when you eventually put your phone down. 

The Impact Of Overthinking at Night

For those who have struggled with overthinking, you’ll know that the effects are more than just feeling tired the following morning. The ripple effects of poor sleep quality reach almost every aspect of our lives. 

Not only is poor sleep quality related to being unable to function at your best the following day, but being tired also makes for a tenuous mood. Experts have found direct links between sleep disturbances and mood disorders.  

Personal experience has taught me that lack of sleep makes me emotional, prone to crying and irritation, and results in making silly mistakes that can affect the quality of my work. Many people also find that they are less patient, less empathic and understanding, and more likely to snap at others when they’re over-tired, so your relationships are also at risk.

There are also many health-related side effects of sleep deprivation, including high blood pressure, weight gain, aging skin, and a decreased sex drive. We’ve delved into the impact of sleep disruptions in the past, and a quick refresher may be helpful.

How To Stop Overthinking At Night: 10 Strategies That Work

Although contributing factors to overthinking will vary, there are some effective strategies I’ve used in practice that can help you minimize the effects of overthinking and maybe even train your brain to opt out of the cycle entirely. 

A woman lays down on her side, smoke encircling her mind to symbolize racing thoughts. The photo has a pink hue
10 strategies to help you stop overthinking at night

1. Winding Down Routine

An intentional bedtime routine can be a secret weapon. If we understand that our frame of mind as we wind down will affect our quality of sleep, we can make better choices about how we relax and prime our minds when it’s time for sleep. Limit your evening screen time, especially regarding social media, cell phones, and mobile gaming. 

Many clients report that reading as a means of unwinding yields much more positive results. Getting into a routine that alerts your brain for downtime can take some time, but it’s an ideal time to practice self-care. 

Having a bath or shower, following a skincare routine, getting into comfortable night clothes, and spending some time on your own will be much more relaxing than a frantic rush to cram in episodes of a wild series or trawling the emotionally-charged world of social media. 

2. Preempt The Problematic Thoughts

This is especially pertinent when dealing with higher-than-normal stress levels or anxiety. If you know what’s keeping you up at night (for example, you can’t stop thinking about the new job you’re starting next month), dedicate time to discussing your fears, concerns, or excitement with someone you trust. 

Running through all the possible scenarios out loud and verbalizing the things that seem so nerve-wracking in the middle of the night may help to prevent your brain from ruminating if you’ve already addressed those concerns in real-time.

3. Journal 

Writing your feelings down isn’t for everyone, but it’s an excellent suggestion for those with a lot of big emotions bottled up. Letting them out in a safe space can bring some relief, so incorporating journaling into your bedtime routine can be especially helpful.

Journaling can take on many forms; I had a client who worked two jobs and didn’t have much time to herself in the evenings, so she would talk to herself while she cleaned up after dinner, recording her one-person conversations in case she wanted to reflect on it. She didn’t often go back and listen to those recordings, but the act of just ‘dumping’ her emotions out loud had very positive effects.

4. Mindfulness 

Meditation has been known to work wonders for those who are having problems with anxiety and stress. Even when our brains run full steam ahead with stressful thoughts, we can use deep breathing and relaxation techniques to slow our thought process down.

This isn’t something you only have to use at night, and while some people may want to meditate in the hours before bed, it is equally effective if you make time to meditate, ground yourself, and get in tune with your thoughts and feelings during the day. It also puts us in the right frame of mind to listen to our internal clock and not sabotage it with unhealthy practices like binge-watching shows through the night.

5. Keep Track of Triggers and Patterns

One of the benefits of journaling is that you learn to spot the patterns and identify the things that may trigger your overthinking. This is how I realized that the days I had to deal with a particular person at work led to overthinking during the ‘witching hour’.

Once you’ve identified the triggers, you can act to mitigate the effects. This can look like dealing with situations that cause overthinking, avoiding specific topics or places, or actively seeking healing for specific things like abusive relationships.

6. Lifestyle Changes That Decrease Stress

We’ve touched on how anxiety and stress can prompt overthinking, so it stands to reason that if you make positive changes in your lifestyle to decrease (or mitigate) your stress, the quality of your sleep and your mental health will improve. 

Lifestyle changes that have a positive effect include eating a balanced diet, moderate exercise, and engaging in pleasurable activities and hobbies. We know from experience that people who live a balanced life – with equal parts responsibility and leisure activities – are generally much happier. 

7. Relationships

Human beings are relational creatures, and since most of what we do occurs within a system of other human beings, we can be positively or negatively affected by those around us. You must curate the list of people who have access to you. While we may have to work with people that don’t necessarily add value to our lives, we can decide how much they affect us.

Deciding who you let into your life and intentionally surrounding yourself with people who uplift you, add value to your existence, support you, and genuinely care about you is one of the best ways to ensure your mental, emotional, and psychological well-being. Putting boundaries in place for people who cause us stress and anxiety is vital.

8. Focus On The Physical And The Now

I remember reading about a technique ostensibly taught by the military to help you fall asleep in under two minutes. I was skeptical, so I spent a few nights trying it out. While it didn’t necessarily work the way I expected, I found a way of physically forcing myself to be grounded, calm, in tune with my body, and much more relaxed.

Focusing on the now – your current physical experience as you’re in bed – is an excellent way of redirecting your thoughts away from the problematic ones disrupting your sleep. Learning some calming breathing techniques can help center you while you focus on each part of your body, from your head working your way down your arms and torso to your legs, feet, and toes. 

For kids and younger people struggling with overthinking at night, a white noise machine has proven helpful in practice. The soothing frequency helps to lull you off to sleep.

9. Challenge And Reframe The Negative

This is not always an easy trick to learn. It involves a level of self-awareness that some may struggle with naturally. It’s mostly effective if you’ve already identified triggers and can identify the thoughts for what they are.

The point of reframing a negative thought is to take it captive, and turn it into a positive one (or, at the very least, a neutral one) that no longer has the power to cause the type of anxiety that results in a bad night. 

For example, if you find yourself overthinking a decision you made at work, try reframing it within context.

Did you make the best decision with the information you had? Can you change it if you didn’t? For many, this may be enough to set the matter to rest.

Although it’s worth noting that some clients report that feeling like they couldn’t effectively reframe caused them more worry.

10. Speak To An Expert

Following the above, sometimes there isn’t much more we can do alone. Seeking help and guidance from a professional isn’t just recommended for yielding the most effective results. It will also help you to identify any underlying causes of the overthinking that is causing your sleep disturbance issue.  

We’re also very pro debriefing from stressful situations and trauma that could likely be part of your anxiety. And, of course, developing a workable action plan with a professional is worth its weight in gold. There are also some types of therapies that can help you retrain your brain/body interactions. On example is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has proven to be an effective therapy for insomnia. 

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Overthinking at Night in Early Sobriety

The relationship between alcohol and sleep is a convoluted one. When we drink, the chemicals in alcohol interact with those in our brains responsible for regulating stress. This is one of the many reasons why people drink in the first place as a means of self-medicating or dealing with stress

However, if you’re on a sobriety journey, you may find that you are experiencing insomnia, nighttime anxiety, and overthinking, especially if you’re still new to trying to quit. One of the challenges in early sobriety is withdrawal symptoms, which often include sleep disturbances that can last from days to a few weeks.

Another challenge is that with sobriety comes an increase in anxiety and feelings of depression. This is a normal physical response to quitting alcohol, which we know changes your brain circuitry and neurochemistry in ways that affect your mood and stress levels. This makes it very difficult to stick with sobriety since these unpleasant feelings make you want to drown them out again.

In such situations, it’s even more critical that you partner with a knowledgeable professional who can journey with you. This will not only to improve your overall health and well-being but to help you form healthy coping mechanisms that will allow you to have good, peaceful sleep at night.

Infographics on How to Stop Overthinking At Night
This is an infographic that gives ten ways to stop overthinking at night
How To Stop Overthinking At Night – Infographic

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