Excitement and sleep

too excited to sleep?

It's a common problem, though not necessarily caused by anything negative. Emotional or physiological excitement can frequently lead to difficulties winding down in order to sleep.

Physiological excitement

Activating your body physically—with, say, a strenuous workout—within a few hours of trying to go to sleep can be a frequent source of difficulty. While regular exercise during the day is a very positive factor in sleep quality, exercising within one to two hours prior to bedtime can overstimulate your metabolism, releasing endorphins and raising your body temperature.

According to Johns Hopkins:

  • Aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins. These chemicals can create a level of activity in the brain that keeps some people awake. These individuals should exercise at least 1 to 2 hours before going to bed, giving endorphin levels time to wash out and “the brain time to wind down,” she says.
  • Exercise also raises your core body temperature. “The effect of exercise in some people is like taking a hot shower that wakes you up in the morning,” says Gamaldo. Elevation in core body temperature signals the body clock that it’s time to be awake. After about 30 to 90 minutes, the core body temperature starts to fall. The decline helps to facilitate sleepiness.

Mental or emotional excitement

We've all experienced this. We're physically exhausted, but our mind is racing with plans, dreams, thoughts, ideas to the point that sleepiness remains a distant goal. We run through our plans for the next day, or—consciously or unconsciously—focus on trying to solve that tricky issue at work, or think about what ingredients to put in that batch of exotic vegan cupcakes we're planning to bake, or any of a nearly infinite palette of mental distractions that will keep sleep at bay. What to do?

There's no silver bullet to getting to sleep with a racing brain, but there are a few common recommendations:

  • Perhaps the most important is to practice the full range of techniques in CBT-I, particularly maintaining a regular bedtime routine and a high sleep efficiency. This will, over time, train your brain to recognize that bedtime is for sleep, not buzzing mental activity.
  • Try to avoid dwelling on anything that you can't do anything about at this moment. Instead, make a mental note (or jot down a physical note) to continue that train of thought in the morning when you wake up. The opportunity, brilliant insight or intractable problem will still be there for you in the morning.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or other forms of meditation. These techniques tend to focus your thoughts on the present, the here and now, rather than the myriad, tantalizing possibilities of an uncertain future.
  • Practice physical relaxation techniques, such as a stretching, light yoga, or alternately tensing and relaxing muscles.

Here are some more thoughts from the Amherst medical center:

  • Unwind before bedtime. Consider stretching, visualization, meditation or breathing exercises. If your mind is racing, jotting your thoughts or “to do list” down before going to bed can help.
  • Develop a sleep routine: go to bed and get up at approximately the same time each day, even on weekends. Do the same thing before bed each night, e.g. reading for 15 minutes.
  • Exercise on a regular basis but avoid strenuous activity within 4 hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid substances with caffeine and alcohol within a few hours of bedtime. Caffeine is a stimulant with a half life of about 5 hours, meaning it can take 10 or more hours to be fully metabolized. Alcohol acts as a temporary sedative, but once the alcohol is processed it stimulates the brain causing sleep problems later in the night.
  • Limit late night electronics: TV and video games can be over-stimulating, making it difficult to fall asleep. In addition, the glow from electronic devices can inhibit natural sleep cycles.
  • Keep it quiet and dark: if your room is loud, consider using earplugs. You also can use a sleep mask to cover your eyes if your roommate leaves the light on. If noise is an on-going problem, it may warrant a conversation with your suite-mates or RC.
  • Preserve the sanctity of your bed: try to study, socialize etc. in other locations so that your bed is associated with sleep and relaxation. If you have insomnia, try getting up and doing something else, then return to bed when you feel tired.
  • Exercise and exposure to natural light, such as a walk outside in the morning, will help you wake up and feel alert.