You’ve had a long day and you’re tired. You get into bed ready for eight hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. But as soon as your head makes contact with the pillow, your mind comes alive. And not just alive, but it’s racing like you just had a triple shot of espresso. You start rehashing the day, the year, your life, and every item that was ever on your to do list. You go over the day’s interactions, reworking what you should have said. You worry about the stuff you have to do tomorrow, and the next day and the next and…wait! You’re trying to get some sleep–remember?
If this happens to you, you have a case of what’s called Monkey Mind in Chinese medicine. It”s when your mind jumps from thought to thought, and as much as you want it to stop, it just won’t settle down. It seems to be worse at night, getting between you and a restful night’s sleep. It’s frustrating because the harder you try to make it stop, the worse it seems. The good news is that your Monkey Mind tells your practitioner a little about what’s going on with you, and in most cases, that monkey can be calmed down.
In Chinese medicine, a racing mind is usually a sign if some kind of heat in your body. Heat is racy; it speeds things up, makes you irritable, and makes you actually feel hot. In the case of a racing mind, that heat is almost always coming from stress and strong emotions which makes you want to rehash things over and over. Think about it–the more stressed you are, the more uptight you get, and frequently the hotter and more restless you feel, a bit like a car engine that’s seizing up and overheating.
In addition, your Monkey Mind always seems to be worse at night because it’s occurring against the backdrop of the coolest, quietest time of the day. From a physiological standpoint, a mind that doesn’t quiet comes from over-activating the Fight or Flight response in the form of stress, anxiety, and endless worry. And when you try to slow down at the end of the day, your body is still doing the Fight or Flight thing–it won’t turn off.
If your mind is jumping around like a monkey from tree to tree, what can you do to calm it down and get to sleep? First, what you shouldn’t do. You have already found that resisting the racing in your mind only makes it worse. The more you let it frustrate you, the more it will race. So start by letting go and accepting what is. The awareness that you’re distracted or stressed is a good starting place in calming yourself. Beyond self-awareness, here are a few things that might help:
-As a way to get out of your head, anchor yourself to something physical. For example, concentrate on how your back feels against the surface of your bed or focus on how the covers feel against your toes. Really focus on the physical sensations for as long and as deeply as you can.
-Pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing. This is also moving from the cerebral to the physical, but the pattern of your breath is both hypnotic and relaxing.
-Meditate. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy or formal. You can just choose a word such as “calm” or “relax” and slowly repeat it in your mind.
-Empty your mind. This one works really well for me. Think to yourself, “What’s my next thought?” Given the pressure to stop for a second and come up with an important, coherent thought, your mind will empty like a wastebasket on trash day. Seriously, try it and see how long you can keep your mind empty.
-Enlist the help of an acupuncturist. Chinese medicine can be incredibly effective for relieving stress and calming your mind. Physiologically, a few pokes can alter your brain chemistry to bring calm to even the jumpiest minds. If you’re struggling with heat (you’re irritable, restless, hot, and thirsty) a combination of acupuncture and a Chinese herbal formula can cool you off and calm you down. Often, patients who come to me for some other complaint tell me that a side effect of the acupuncture is a calmer mind and improved sleep. Give it a try!