In 2017, cartoonist Hannah Hillam published a comic for BuzzFeed about her brain keeping her awake with all the ways she could get murdered. The premise was later reappropriated in memes across Reddit: Pesky brains preventing exhausted bodies from getting a good night’s sleep by running through critical thoughts like, “Farts are just the ghosts of our food,” and “When he turns 60, Snoop Dog will be 420 in dog years.”
It’s clearly a universal experience — the time when you desperately need a solid night’s sleep, but your brain won’t shut up about the dumbest shit. Even though you can barely keep your eyes open, a stressful task lingering in the future or an embarrassing thing you said years ago pops up, refusing to let you rest.
It can feel like your brain is willfully working against you, but experts say that, in fact, the opposite is true. When you’re in a state of what neuropsychologist Patrick Porter describes as rumination — when you’re bombarded by racing, intrusive and relatively useless thoughts over and over again — it’s because your brain thinks you’re in danger and that ceaseless thinking somehow will help. “The brain states that are needed for rumination have a high level of alpha and beta brainwave activity,” Porter tells me. “What’s happening is the brain is a survival mechanism, meaning it’s a goal-striving organism.”
When you’re exhausted, stressed or not taking the steps to wind down for a good night’s sleep, the brain thinks you’re presenting it with a problem. “The brain is going to want to solve that problem, and depending on how motivated you are to get out of pain or run toward pleasure, those problems will keep you awake,” Porter explains.
Rumination is also very difficult to stop once it’s started because the brain negatively reinforces this process. “When an individual worries about an event that’s yet to happen, that individual falsely believes that that worry is somehow positively serving them or protecting them from that potential threat,” psychiatrist Paul Poulakos points out. When the perceived threat doesn’t occur, the individual “often will mistakenly deduce that it was their worry that stopped the threat from occurring,” Poulakos continues. “This is learned, repeated and integrated into the daily coping style of that individual.”
In other words, when stress and exhaustion is high, it’s that much easier for the “survivor brain” to turn on and stay on, as opposed to the “thriving brain.” And when this happens, the sympathetic nervous system is activated — even though the parasympathetic nervous system should be taking over instead — leaving you in a state of a low-grade fight-or-flight mode for most of the night. As much as your thriving brain absolutely understands that it needs to power-down to allow the body to rest and repair, your survivor brain thinks if it turns off, you’re going to die.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways to shut the survivor brain up. Most notably…
Pay Attention to What You’re Eating and Drinking
When you’ve already had a long day, eating too close to bedtime can keep your survivor brain active. “You want to eliminate eating solid foods two to three hours before sleep because our bodies can’t enter deep sleep until all food in our system has been digested,” Porter explains. “That means if you eat too close to bedtime, you can’t get deep, restful sleep because the body is busy processing the food you’ve eaten.”
Likewise, caffeine and alcohol consumption all give the survivor brain reason to stay active, which is why Porter recommends “discontinuing drinking alcohol several hours before bed,” as well as not drinking caffeine for six to eight hours before sleep “because that’s the half-life of caffeine.”
Get Better at Unplugging
Sure, we’re all tired of being told to put our phones away in the name of better sleep. But that’s for good reason, since our phones are constantly exposing us to stimuli that can make it feel like it’s impossible to turn off. Plus, the light exposure from screens alone is enough to keep your survivor brain active and annoying. “If there’s too much light — and especially the wrong types of light — this can cause us to stay awake and alert,” Porter says.
Look Out for What You’re Watching on TV
Probably more often than you’d think, the survivor brain is triggered by something you think is winding you down, like an exciting TV show, suspenseful novel or “something that causes you to really think before bedtime.” This is why Porter recommends sticking to light reading that’s not too challenging before bedtime.
If you insist on watching TV before bed, Porter suggests sticking to comedy. “In fact, discontinue watching news two to three hours before bedtime,” he says. In most cases, you’re learning about things you have no control over, but “the brain will still ruminate about them which causes anxiety in the body and keeps you awake.”
Stop Trying to Sleep
Focusing on trying to get to sleep almost always keeps our brains from calming down because, again, we’re presenting an issue that our survivor brain wants to solve. “That’s why it’s so important that we don’t consciously try to sleep, but we allow our brains to settle in and remember how to sleep,” Porter explains. “One of the biggest problems people have when they’re falling asleep is that they’re trying to do something that our body does naturally because it’s tired.”
Simply put, when your brain just won’t seem to turn off, it’s because it’s trying to micromanage a task that’s ultimately the body’s job — sleep. And since the survivor brain isn’t cut out for that gig, it stays busy pulling out memories, anxieties and useless thoughts, thinking that will help.
As an antidote, Poulakos recommends giving your survivor brain something more productive to do, like journaling. “Getting thoughts down on paper can also be helpful to face these thoughts more directly rather than allowing them to expand without borders in your brain,” he suggests. You can use this exercise to identify any irrational stresses or beliefs and then “reframe these thoughts in a way that proves much more beneficial.”
In doing so, you shift your perspective from “I can’t sleep because my brain won’t turn off,” to “this is why my brain won’t turn off and what I can do about it.” Eventually, you’ll be able to convince your brain that you’re not trying to survive, you’re just trying to get some goddamn sleep.