There’s a lot going on in the critical moments when you lie in your bed with your eyes closed. As you slowly fall asleep, your brain goes through the gradual process of disengaging from the external world, and quieting your normal train of thoughts. At first, the brain exhibits increased alpha activity, and you start to relax. As you continue to let go, alpha waves slowly makes way to theta waves, with small bursts of alpha activity still connecting you the real world, until finally – you sleep. What makes this process tricky is that it involves letting go of all thoughts and intentions, so “intending” or “trying” to fall asleep only keeps you awake.
Clearing your mind in this way could be difficult. Lying down with your eyes closed, having little input from the senses, the brain naturally turns inside to process thoughts, worries, and concerns that surface. These thoughts are an attempt to summarize your day and to make sense of it. The only way to abolish them is to recap the day in a positive way, so you can let it go. Here are three routines you can practice each night before going to sleep, that will shift your attention away from negative thoughts, and allow you to comfortably package the day and shelf it, moving gracefully into sleep.
1. Pause to express your gratitude
Positive psychologists like Martin Seligman have long advocated the practice of writing “three good things” before going to bed . In this exercise, you write down three things that went well in the day, along with a reason or an explanation. This simple habit of keeping a daily “gratitude journal”, or “counting your blessings” [2, 3] has been shown to have staying power, resulting in a noticeable increase in well-being that lasts for weeks and even months. Identifying the good things that take place during the day, the things for which you are grateful, helps you shift away from the natural inclination to go in circles while focusing on the negative [4, 5]. To remember counting to count your blessings each night, you can keep a notepad at your bedside, or even use a mobile app that helps you log your daily good things [6, 7, 8].
2. Recall Your Micro Moments of Connection
Social relationships and interactions have a critical impact on your well-being and health. Negative interactions during the day form bedtime ruminating thoughts at night, that hinder the delicate process of falling asleep. On the other hand, recalling positive interaction with others, even if it was composed of fleeting moments, could be a powerful antidote to bedtime negative thoughts. These “micro moments”  when you’ve shared a smile with someone, engaged in conversation, or experienced compassion and kindness, are characterized by a unique phenomenon when your brain and the other person’s brain mirror each other’s patterns of activity . This phenomenon, often referred to as “positivity resonance”, has a powerful positive impact on the brain, and recalling it at bedtime helps to “download” these moments of connection and to re-experience them.
Lying in your bed, try to summon these micro-moments of connection by identifying interactions where you felt close and “in-tune” to the people around you.
3. Acknowledge the Bad Things
Moving your attention to the good things and away from the bad helps counter the natural tendency to ruminate and worry. Still, bad things do happen. If you don’t acknowledge them at all, you are risking going into denial, and not being able to let them go. A few years ago, while working on a joint project with the Huffington Post, I started working with coach, author, and psychologist Russell Bishop. For decades, Bishop has been helping individuals and organizations transform for the better, and I was eager to hear his advice. When I asked him about the single, most effective and broad intervention he would suggest, he suggested the following: “If you do one thing only, a single thing every day that can make a difference in your life, ask yourself these three questions each night when you go to bed:
1. What is one good thing that happened to me today?
2. What is one bad thing that happened to me today?
3. Can I forgive myself and let it go?”
Since then, I’ve been trying to ask myself these questions each night. I have also been asking my children, who seem to respond by falling fast asleep.
One of the key functions of sleep is to process the events of the past day. Tonight, when you go to bed, allow yourself to spend a few moments to reflect on your day and prepare it for this processing. Acknowledge your good fortune, remember the smiles and the connections, and recognize the negative things, so you can let them go. Not only will you sleep better, but you may also wake up with new insights, making sense of your life one day at a time.