7 Ways to Get Your Monkey Mind Back to Sleep

7 Ways to Get Your Monkey Mind Back to Sleep November 18, 2020

Alexandra Gornsmus via Unsplash

How did you sleep last night? Perhaps you’re like me—one of those people who has no trouble falling asleep, but who often wakes up at 3 or 4 in the morning feeling wide awake. I’ll then proceed to toss and turn for an hour, maybe two, before mercifully sleep again washes over me.

As I try to sleep, the monkey mind is on the loose.

The notion of the monkey mind comes from Buddhism and refers to the mind jumping from thought to thought, just like a monkey jumps from tree to tree. The author Elizabeth Gilbert admits that she too is burdened with monkey mind and explains its effect this way:

Thoughts swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined. You are, after all, what you think.

For anyone working in a creative field, or looking for answers to a complex problem, the monkey mind can be an asset. The ability to jump from one potential solution to another comes in very handy. But there are times, especially in the middle of the night, when you wish the monkey mind would just settle down and give it a rest. Only, as the name suggests, the monkey mind seems to have a mind of its own.

I went looking for a solution to monkey mind. Here’s what I found.

Searching online, I discovered a treasure trove of stories and tips on getting back to sleep. I noticed that most of these tips had something in common—a diversion, to get the monkey mind to focus on a single task or thought. It’s a way of calming the mind down, keeping it on a single track with guardrails instead of allowing it to pong-pong wildly in 1,001 directions.

These are not tips about getting to sleep. The solutions for falling asleep quickly are pretty well established. It starts with things like getting some exercise during the day and not eating too much or too late in the evening. It also involves a good nighttime routine, including turning off your TV and smartphone an hour before bedtime, dimming the lights as a prelude to sleep and making sure your bedroom is cool, by turning the heat down or keeping the AC on, depending on where you live and the time of year.

These are tips about falling back to sleep. They’re designed to help you should you wake up at some point during the night and then find sleep is elusive. During my search, I found a lot of overlap in ideas, with some recommendations popping up again and again. So while I may credit a tip to one source in the list below, others may have offered a version of the same idea. What follows are my 7 favorites, some I’m now using, others I’ll be trying in the future.

7 Ways to Get Your Monkey Mind Back to Sleep

From the website PureWow:

  1. Jot down your thoughts. Often what keeps us up at night is the fact we’re thinking about what we need to do tomorrow, next week or next year. To help soothe your overthinking brain, keep a pad next to your bed. If you find your mind racing, write down your thoughts. This can help clear your head by serving as a download, taking the thoughts from your brain and placing them on a notepad for safe keeping.
  2. Count your breaths. The recommendation here is a simple 1-2-3 count. Inhale as you silently say 1-2-3; exhale and say 1-2-3. Rest and repeat. Only using the numbers 1-2-3 keeps it simple, as this way you won’t lose count like you might do when counting sheep. You can also use a short meditation phrase to replace the 1-2-3. Think 3 syllables like “Rest in God” or “Peace and Love” repeated with each in and out breath.

From the Mayo Clinic:

  1. Put the clocks in your bedroom out of sight. This one might sound silly but if you’re a clock-watcher, it may help. The first time you look at a clock in the middle of the night, either turn it around, cover it or move it out of sight. After all, does it matter if it’s 2:13, 3:11 or 4:21? As the Mayo Clinic states, “clock-watching causes stress and makes it harder to go back to sleep if you wake up during the night.”

From Sound Sleep Health, a sleep clinic in Washington state:

  1. Use a guided visualization. Another idea that’s about giving the mind a singular thought, in this case a relaxing one. The site recommends you “close your eyes and use your imagination to place yourself somewhere calm and soothing. Perhaps you love the sound of a waterfall in the forest. Maybe you like to envision your troubles as leaves floating down a river, away from you.” My wife Laney likes to picture herself on a tropical beach and then colors in the details, from the sound of the surf to the color of the water to the swaying of nearby palm trees.

From John Hopkins University:

  1. Get up out of bed. “If you’re just not dozing off, get up after about 20 minutes have gone by.” This recco from an established medical authority surprised me as I’ll usually give it a full hour. The site goes on to suggest: “Sit in a comfortable chair in another room. Read a book, with just enough lights on so that you can see the print comfortably. If your mind is racing, distract yourself by listening to quiet music or a recorded book for a few minutes. Don’t do anything stressful like working or paying bills.” The key is DON’T STAY IN BED. “Doing this will lead your brain and body to associate your bed with wakefulness instead of with sleep.” Go back to bed when you start feeling sleepy.

From Carl LaFong, a commenter at the Tiny Buddha website:

  1. Do a full body scan. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the idea of a body scan, where “you simply become aware of your body and move through each body part.” Again, the objective is “diverting the attention away from thinking.” The body scan involves, in Kabat-Zinn’s words, “systematically sweeping through the body with the mind, bringing an affectionate, openhearted, interested attention to its various regions, customarily starting from the toes of the left foot and then moving to the sole, the heel, the top of the foot, the leg.” From there move on to the other leg and then gradually up the body to the neck, throat, and finally, the face and head.

From the Headspace meditation app:

  1. Try negative reinforcement. Here’s an interesting idea and it comes via an anecdote. A doctor named Dev Banerjee once asked a patient what he did to fall back asleep. “The guy said, ‘I say to myself, I must fall asleep, I must fall asleep!’” And of course, the result was the opposite. “So I suggested that he repeat silently to himself, ‘I must stay awake, I must stay awake.’ He tried it, and it actually worked.” It’s hard to make yourself go to sleep by simply wishing it—so reverse psychology might be worth a shot.

Here’s a bonus 8th idea, from the online pub Guideposts:

  1. Pray. This may seem obvious to some of you, but prayer is another way to focus the brain on something else besides trying to go to sleep. According to Pablo Diaz, “In these quiet times, I unload my worries and concerns, and seek His guidance. This is also a great time to pray for others who are battling their own issues. Nothing releases me of my worries more than praying for others.” If traditional prayer is not for you, simply consider all the good things present in your life and give the Universe thanks for them one-by-one.
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