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Why We Toss and Turn, and How to Stop

by BetterSleep
Jan 12 • 4 min read

Most people know the frustration of tossing and turning in bed at night. You can’t get comfortable, and you often can’t break your cycle of anxious thoughts. For some, this is an occasional issue. For others, it happens every night. For anyone, tossing and turning when you should be sleeping is stressful and is part of a cycle that can be tough to break.

Why Do We Toss and Turn?

Sleep restlessness is annoying and disruptive. It can keep you from falling asleep at a sensible bedtime, and it may also might wake you up in the night. For many people, tossing and turning is the physical manifestation of anxiety, stress, fear, and troubling thoughts. There are several potential causes:

  • Anxiety. Nerves make it difficult to fall asleep. During the day, there are distractions, but the mind is free to race at night as you try to drift off to sleep.
  • Stress. Stress has a similar effect while also leading to more physical symptoms that can cause you to move around while trying to sleep.
  • Overstimulation. Anything that stimulates your senses before bed or as you try to fall asleep can make you restless. This includes light, sounds, and using mobile devices too close to bedtime.
  • Disrupted sleep schedule. If you don’t have a regular bedtime, or if you nap during the day, you may feel more restless at night.
  • Medical conditions. In some cases, tossing and turning is caused by a real medical condition, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.

The Rumination Cycle

Stress and anxiety are among the most common reasons for tossing and turning. They bring negative thoughts that trigger rumination and a self-feeding cycle disruptive to sleep. Rumination is a destructive pattern of thought that focuses on the negative and causes distress. Rumination is typical in depression and anxiety disorders.

Rumination is bad for sleep. It starts with negative thoughts, like worrying about tomorrow’s tasks. This causes restlessness and tossing and turning. As you realize the late hour and how long you’ve been awake, anxiety about sleeping builds. This worsens the rumination, and the cycle continues.

How to Break the Cycle

If your mind races at night, preventing you from sleeping, you need to break the rumination cycle. The more tired you can get by bedtime, the better. Try working out during the day and spending some time outside to get sunlight and fresh air.

Avoid anything that may disrupt your sleep at night, including caffeine, naps after noon, alcohol, and heavy meals before bed. Try to turn off screens a couple hours before bed and do something relaxing instead. Take a hot bath or read a book to unwind.

Physical exhaustion and relaxation are helpful, but you also need to relax your mind. Try a guided meditation for anxiety and sleep before bed. A relaxed mind is a sleepy mind, which is what meditation can provide.

If you still find your brain stewing at night, try to set those thoughts aside with a designated worry time. Spend 15 to 30 minutes at the end of the day journaling your worries and anxieties. Getting them down on paper, followed by a meditation session prepares your mind to go blank and drift off to sleep.

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