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The Insomniac’s Guide of Things To Do When Failing to Sleep

The Insomniac’s Guide of Things To Do When Failing to Sleep

So you’ve checked your clock for the third time in the last ten minutes. It just past two in the morning and you have to get up at seven to get to work. You’ve tried everything to get to sleep but something between life stresses and that fourth cup of coffee you had are keeping you up. What do you do?

Don’t give up. The problem is usually that you are preoccupied with something that is keeping you from relaxing. This could be a distracting sound, stress or even your own concern at how late it is. I’ve had moments like these and I’ve come up with different mental games to play to calm myself down and get to sleep.

Before that, here’s a list of things not to do:

  • Don’t leave the bed. Unless you can sleep standing up, moving around will only keep you awake longer.
  • Don’t read. Although a boring book can put you to sleep, reading will probably only delay any rest.
  • Lights off. Keep the lights off and put yourself in a position where you are ready to fall asleep.

This may seem obvious, but many cases of insomnia are the result of the person getting impatient when trying to fall asleep. Unless you’ve decided to pull an all-nighter and are prepared to feel like death the next morning, stay in bed.

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After removing all the fun activities, here are some things you can do to help you fall asleep:

1) Picture a Scene

Try focusing yourself to imagine you are in a familiar place. A good way to start is to visualize yourself moving around your room. See how much of it you can remember clearly. If this gets too easy, try creating your own room to walk through. You can spend a few minutes during each bout of restlessness building your own imaginary mansion you can improve on each time.

2) Breathing

Focus on your breathing. Try to consciously slow your breathing to a particular number of counts in and out. Not only does this focus your mind by counting, but it physically relaxes you. Slowing your heart rate down and forcing you to relax your body will make it easier to drift away.

3) Self Dialog

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Who says imaginary friends are just for kids? Make up a character and have a conversation with him. This can help you focus your normally random flow of thoughts. This can direct your thinking away from distractions or stresses that are keeping you awake.

4) Bodily Awareness

A good relaxation technique is to contract and release all the major muscles in your body. Start by tensing up your toes for a few seconds. Then relax them for another few. Then tense up the muscles in the arch of your foot. Go through your legs, arms and finish on your neck. This can help remove bodily tensions and make you more comfortable.

5) Daily Review

Spend your restlessness reviewing the past day. What accomplishments did you make? What would you like to improve on next time? Don’t do this if specific stresses are keeping you awake, but it can be a useful exercise if the day went normally.

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6) Plan Ahead

Visualize from start to finish your perfect day tomorrow. Imagine yourself waking up with energy and getting done all the things you want to do. It usually takes at least fifteen minutes to go through the entire day if you are specific enough. This can help calm your thinking while preparing you for a good tomorrow.

7) Visualize a Goal

Spend some time thinking about a goal you have. If you currently have problems with money or debt, spend a few minutes thinking about being wealthy. If you are looking for a new relationship, imagine the partner you want. Invest time in bringing out the details. Don’t just imagine writing a book, visualize the finished copy in your hand.

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If you are forced to stay awake, you might as well think about something that makes you feel good, right?

8 ) Sheep Squared

Counting sheep is a little too boring to occupy a restless mind. Try counting by powers of two instead. This means starting with the number 1 and continually doubling it. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16… 1024… 8388608. Eventually you are going to lose track of the digits and have to start over. Little math games can keep your mind occupied when distracting thoughts are keeping you awake.

9) Mental Studying

If you are a student or learning a new subject, use your insomnia to ace the next test. Start with a random piece of information in your subject. This could be the name of a muscle in your foot for an anatomy class or a major philosophical figure for your history paper. Now link this idea to another idea in your subject. With each new idea, find a new link in the chain. Socrates could lead to Aristotle, leading to Alexander the Great, leading to the Gupta Dynasty in India.

10) Keep Your Eyes Open

Blink when you have to but try to keep your eyes open. You can probably remember boring lectures or meetings where it was painful to keep your eyes open. Watching your ceiling fan will probably be a better sleep inducement than anything your high school math teacher could have come up with.

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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