How do you shut your brain off when trying to sleep?

I love this topic. It is literally something everyone can relate to.

I love how the posts have "go to"s about something that apparently works for them over the ages, but I have found nothing. Well nothing without being dead tired or some sort of chemical help.

Constant dialog in my head, knowing a bunch of techniques to try and will start but will usually end up with me thinking about regrets in my past or a current project at work.

Something that might help: I have bought at least 5 sleeping headband headphones because the quality sucks and they don’t last, but I think it helps. I’ll put on an interesting, but not too interesting, podcast and have the volume just barely loud enough where I can understand the spoken words. This keeps my mind casually listening and from wandering over to dwelling on regretful or stressful stuff.

I count backwards from 100. If I loose track of the numbers, due to intervening thoughts, I start again at 100.

Another method I use is telling my body parts to go to sleep, starting with my toes and working upwards. I rarely last until my upper thigh, as I start with toes, then balls of my feet, heels, etc. I described this to someone and they mentioned this is similar to autogenic training (basics).

I’m another “stare into the backs of my eyelids and wait for the patterns” guy. Sometimes, if a colored point of light from a charger or some other device in my bedroom peeks through, my brain will start swirling it around in psychedelic patterns that will mesmerize my mind long enough to fall asleep. If that fails, I just ask Siri to play binaural delta wave beats. I know you’re supposed to use headphones for separation, but it works just fine in mono for me from my phone.

This is what I do, with the added exercise of visualizing each numeral to more fully focus my brain.

My dad taught me this many years ago. You have to start with your toes, as @Die_Capacitrix mentions, but it is important that you not proceed to the balls of your feet until you are convinced that your toes are fast asleep. Then don’t go to your ankle until both your toes and the balls of your feet are totally out.

The few times I have tried it, it really does work. You have to have some patience, though. It can be easy (for me, at least) to lose interest.

This is what Penn Jillette does: He visualizes an actual time and place from his past where he needed to stay awake but had a very difficult time doing so. An experience where he would have given anything to be able to snuggle down into a soft, warm bed. He lets that mental imagery occupy his mind until he drifts off.


The “tell your body parts to go to sleep, one by one” trick sometimes works for me, though it doesn’t always hold my attention well enough.

An exercise I have a bit more luck with is to start with a featureless landscape of a brilliant blue sky that soars above an endless expanse of fine white sand. I imagine how every detail feels - the brightness of the air that almost hurts my eyes, the squeaky dryness of the sand that on close inspection is pure white powder with tiny flecks of green jade and pink coral, the sense that the sky goes on forever and I could weightless swim through it and never reach an end.

Then I add one object - a shallow pool. I think about the coolness of the water, how deep and broad it is, how its still surface reflects the sky.

Then I add two objects - perhaps a stone bench on either side of the pool, feeling the heaviness of the stone, the rough edges, possibly ornate, mysterious carvings on the legs of each bench.

Then three objects - perhaps three palm trees behind the pool - with similar attention to how the details impact my senses.

Then four - maybe four huge seashells scattered in the pool …

etc. I think I’ve made it as far as 8 or 9 objects added to the tableau before falling asleep, but it gets harder and harder to hold the entire vision completely in mind as items get added.

I put on episodes of TV shows I’ve watched before. I’ll watch for a few minutes and then at the point I get naturally tired, I close my eyes and I’m usually familiar enough with the show that I can paint a mental picture from just the audio. A few minutes after that, I’m usually asleep. I like shows that are 6+ seasons long which I can burn through at a pace of a season every 2 -3 weeks or so. After I watch a show, it’ll be maybe 3 - 5 years before the details have faded enough that I can watch it again. It’s like, 80% of why I pay for a streaming service.

I fall asleep in minutes or seconds. But I do wake up in the middle of the night.

One thing that I do to get my mind off work or what I must do the next day is think about how to teach someone how to play chess. All the different moves of the different pieces.

^ This works for me. Usually, it’s a one-hour stand-up comedy show on Netflix (I want something positive, not doom-and-gloom).

If I’m in a house with other people I can fall asleep with just normal human noises as background. It’s living alone that causes me some issues.

Sometimes listening to a Youtube of a show that I essentially love, but also find soporific: Time Team, especially the older ones. There’s something about the music and the gentle discussions that zonks me out, even though I love the subject matter.

I’ll also do the ‘square breathing’ technique. It’s got several names and ways of doing it, but basically you breathe in gently for a count of 4, hold for 4, breath out 4, hold 4 … lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t think I’ve gotten past 5 rounds.

And yeah, the 3am thing is irritating. That I try and frame to myself as “Oh good! I can sleep for another 3 hours!” rather than get POed about being awake. That’s actually when resettling myself and doing the breathing routine is most helpful.

I have several fantasy worlds I go to, building a long-term story in that world. I’ve kept some going for years.

I slept in to 5am this morning. That’s pretty good. But my wife and I have always been early risers. My wife works 4 tens for her work schedule. So that’s fine. I don’t really need to be up until 6 or 7. I work from home. Nobody has a clock on me I just do my job.

I can rarely keep my eyes open past 8-9pm. That’s kind of irritating.

That sounds cool. Are you a writer? I never seem to know where to start.

Yes, though not making enough to quit my day job yet! Thanks for asking.

Me too. I count to one in the evening (never thought of doing that backwards, cool idea), but I may manage 20 or 25 in the middle of the night before I get bored and still not asleep. It seems to help if I pee. Not in bed, of course. I have the suspition it is the bladder that wakes me up.

I usually fall asleep almost immediately, but sometimes wake up during the night and need to use a trick to get back to sleep. A psych teacher once told me that he used a form of auto-hypnosis. He trained himself to visualize a number (one, in his case) and to just concentrate on the number. If he drifted to other thoughts, he’d just bring himself back to the number. I’ve used that with decent success.

I put a dimmer switch in our bathroom and set it as low as it will go before going to bed. At least you are not hit by blinding lights in the middle of the night.

See, that would make me feel the need to write. I often do write when I’m supposed to be sleeping. Something about the head hitting the pillow makes me start thinking about all kinds of things I want to do.

I don’t think my little worlds would make good stories - they’re more like ongoing narratives. For example, one of them is that I’m sent back to 6000 BC with seeds, livestock, and several hundred experts on various useful subjects (medicine, agriculture, construction, crafts, etc.), and with a chance to build a truly decent and lasting society from the ground up. How would I do it? How would I involve the humans who already exist at the time? I think those are interesting questions, but I don’t think it would make a good or very original story.