4 Ways to shut down a racing mind for better sleep

We all know the scenario: You’re trying to fall asleep at night, but no matter how tired you are, you’re suddenly made awake by the racing thoughts streaming through your mind.

You might feel an overwhelming rush of anxiety because you fear something that might happen in the future. You feel overwhelmed because you can’t seem to decide between multiple directions or decisions…

All of this creates what in Buddhism is called the monkey mind — and in the West is commonly referred to as a racing mind.

When the internal chatter is too much to handle or ceases to abate, it can cause mental fatigue, psychological distress and emotional breakdown. Today I’d like to share four ways that you can use to quiet the mind and find peace.

The monkey mind

The monkey mind is the Buddhist’s way of describing what we call a racing mind or racing thoughts. It refers to a mind that is overactive, unsettled, restless, confused, indecisive and uncontrollable.

In his teachings, the Buddha likened the collision of thoughts in an unsettled mind to a crazed monkey, or even dozens of them, jumping around, screeching and creating havoc. The more thoughts going on at the same time, the more monkeys making you crazy.

Meditation, the Buddha taught, was the means to quiet the mind and find stillness and clarity. He described techniques using mantras as well as those based purely on breath-work that overtime calmed the mind.

Benefits of a quiet mind

There are so many benefits to having a quiet mind that everyone should work toward one. On a basic level, we can talk about stress relief, decreased anxiety, clarity of thought, better decision-making processes, better sleep, less distraction, a greater sense of wellbeing.

Busy people, especially those who hold demanding jobs and also have a full family life after work, never seem to have enough time to decompress, to relax. I know I move from one thing to another and often juggle 10 or more items in my head at a time. And while I find it helpful to find time to read and exercise to relax, the mind can still be very active.

Some solutions

There are several solutions that are very helpful when dealing with too much information to process. These include:

  • Having someone to share the information with and seek advice from on difficult decisions, like a friend, partner or family member you trust.
  • Using a planner or calendar to mark appointments and notes, so you don’t have to keep them in your head.
  • Journaling your thoughts, desires, worries or opinions to “get them out” of your head.
  • Various forms of “detached focus,” as described below…

Detached focus is the answer

Finding a place to focus your attention, but being detached from it is the key to quieting the monkey mind or slowing down those racing thoughts.

Think of it like a glass of water with dirt in it. When you shake it up the direct is distributed throughout the water. Yet after a while of sitting unmoved on the counter, the dirt rests as mud at the bottom and the water is clear on top. This is what focused attention will do with your thoughts: rein them in to clear the mind.

Here are four ways to accomplish this; all of them requiring you remain still for a period of time as you do them.

Focus on the breath – Breathing is the basis of meditation and most modern approaches to calming down, reducing anxiety and nervousness. Here, you want to place your attention on your breath. You can count four breaths on inhalation and eight breath on exhalation. You can focus on how the body feels when inhaling and exhaling. Regardless of how you focus on the breath, it must not create a situation where you need to ‘think’ about it; like if you have lung issues. If breathing is difficult, try another method!

Focus on a feeling – This could be the feeling of your belly expanding and contracting as you inhale and exhale. It could be the feeling of air as is passes through your nostrils while breathing. It could be the feeling of your fingernail gently gliding over your finger. But whatever it is, the feeling must have no consequence to you so you can remain mentally unattached to it.

Focus on a sound – Sound is often used in meditation to quiet the mind by using an external sound to overcome the internal thought sounds. Sound can be used in many ways, including a mantra, or OM, or using singing bowls or listening to a fan whirling. The sound type is not as important as its monotone nature and that it does not trigger in your memories or thoughts associated with it. Music may not be the best choice for these reasons.

Focus on an object – Sight can also be used to quiet the mind. In fact, many ancient traditions use the staring at a candle flame as a means to induce trance-like states. You can stare at a candle flame or just a spec on the wall. It does not matter, as long as you are able to hold your gaze and focus on it to block out other distractions.

Additional thoughts

I find that meditating before sleep is a great way to help me sleep deeply and wake up refreshed. I also am fond of combining two of the above focus methods at once. For example, I might focus on my breathing in my body while focusing my eyes on an object. This allows two of the senses to be occupied at once, to help to overcome the chatter in my mind.

Getting on top of my schedule, trying not to overextend myself, and finding some “me time” also helps prevent too much internal chatter from taking hold. If you’re interested in a meditation, here is a great one: Meditation for a quiet mind and happy heart.

Good luck!

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.