Once in awhile I can't sleep. Throughout my childhood, ADHD kept me up for hours after everyone else had slipped off to dreamland. I remember one family get-together in which my cousin John and I (roughly the same age) pretended our beds were trampolines, with our careless little feet landing inches from the face of John's older sister Pat, who we later discovered was really sleeping, and not pretending.
I'm extremely thankful that over time, I developed Pat's tendencies. Actually, I probably need to be grateful to my son. As any parent knows, your child's hyperactivity (clinical or otherwise) will banish yours forever. You will spend the first 10 years of your kid's life wishing for sleep (yours or theirs, doesn't matter). Before you know it, you will adopt Jack Reacher's philosophy on sleep: Anytime you can get it, take it! He says the same thing about food, but Jack Reacher has never had kids -- otherwise, he'd know that sleep is much more important.
My husband finds it fascinating how quickly I achieve sleep (or what he calls "snoring" for some unexplained reason...). Just lucky, maybe. Or perhaps I've trained my body and brain to understand that if I'm sitting at the computer or the steering wheel, awake is good. Anyplace else, awake is pointless. So bed = sleep. Doesn't get much simpler.
But every now and then it doesn't happen that way. I'll drift toward sleep, but then something will awaken me. The cat has a knack for this. She doesn't want to "disturb" me, so she waits until her whiskers or whatever cats use tell her that I'm asleep, and then she jumps up. Most of the time I can get back to sleep very easily -- she's actually fun to sleep with. She "makes biscuits" and occasionally burrows under the covers. Other things might interrupt sleep. The phone ringing, loud cars or pedestrians, occasional gunshots on the next block, followed fairly quickly by sirens. That type of thing, which I call "outside" stuff. It wakes you up, but once you deal with it or determine that it isn't specifically directed toward you, sleep can resume.
It's the "inside" stuff that really messes up sleep. Your thoughts. Usually worries, but occasionally more positive things like brilliant snatches of dialogue for your novel, or anticipating the wonderful day you're going to have, starting the next morning. Or a great memory from the day that's now ending. It doesn't matter whether your thoughts are good or bad, if they're keeping you awake. If you discriminate between the good and bad thoughts, you're extending the problem. The only thing that matters is getting to sleep. So...
Here is a technique I came up with spontaneously a few months ago, and I can tell you, it works.
First, get yourself as physically comfortable as you can (bathroom, stomach, temperature, linens, etc.). Again, if your mind is working overtime, it's going to enlist the aid of your physical environment and try to convince you that the pecan pie in the fridge will be gone if you don't eat it right now, so if pecan pie will make you feel that much more relaxed and content, go have yourself a slice. If you can eliminate the "outside" stuff, half the problem is solved, and all you have to do is concentrate on what's between your ears.
Lie there, all comfy, and let the thoughts come. Whatever they are. Imagine that they are encapsulated in soap bubbles and the wind is carrying them toward you. They all have identifiers, which can probably be reduced to one name or word: Bank, car, [name of spouse], [name of boss], report, lump, [name of extended family member], deadline, etc. etc. You know what they are. They're in your head, and they want your attention.
As those bubbles get closer, you just say "I will not think about the bank. I will not think about the car. I will not think about Egbert. I will not think about Ms. Soprano. I will not think about the report. I will not think about the lump in my [body part]. I will not think about Miley. I will not think about deadlines." Accompanying your articulated resolve not to think about any of these particular items should come the visualized popping of the bubble that they are floating in. Pop - it's gone. Do it fast. It doesn't matter if the same item shows up more than once. And it doesn't matter what it is -- that earworm you've had since you heard it on the radio is fair game -- "I will not think about Timber." If the cat is grooming herself six inches away from you "I will not think about Fluffy." Here comes a bubble with the name of the item you just realized you forgot at the grocery store: "I will not think about cream of chicken soup." Bam. It's gone. Keep popping the bubbles. Yes, this is the same principle involved in counting sheep, except they're your sheep, and you don't care how many there are. You already know how many there are, and the objective is to make them vanish.
It works because the mental activity is just repetitive enough to crowd out any actual thinking. I suspect that acknowledging these things by name is enough -- they want your attention, but just in a superficial way. It is not necessary to take them out of their bubbles, sit them on your desk and have a conversation with them. They know that you know they exist, and that's all they require. Of course they'll jump back into your head the next day, if they're really pressing, important problems. But at least tomorrow you will have a decent amount of sleep in your favor, and chances are, your sleeping brain will have come up with some pretty creative ideas for dealing with Egbert, Miley, Ms. Soprano and that report you didn't write yet.
My friend Linda's variation on this technique is to imagine grabbing each unwanted thought and stuffing it into her freezer. Great! But the important thing is to monotonously resolve with words that you will not think about whatever those things are as you envision their banishment.
Wishing you sweet and thoughtless dreams.