A healthy bedtime routine can help you fall asleep faster. You can think about what you eat. You can put together the best bedroom. But there’s also one thing you can do earlier in the day that may prevent lying in bed wide awake as your mind flutters from thoughts of what to make for dinner tomorrow night to your parents’ health to an upcoming presentation at work. Experts call it “worry time.”
“You set aside time earlier in the day to sit down and let yourself think about what worries you and make a list of steps you can take to resolve anything if you need to,” explains Elaine Blank, PhD, a research health science specialist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. This helps reduce the chance that you’ll ruminate in bed later. “During the day, you’re going, going, going,” Blank says. “Then when you get into bed, you have nothing else to focus on, so the worries you’ve been successfully pushing away come out.”
By having worry time and practicing this technique consistently, those concerns are less likely to come out when you’re under the covers. And if they do, you can tell yourself, “I don’t need to worry about this now. I have time set aside at 5 p.m. tomorrow to worry about this.” This often can trick your mind into turning off so you can fall asleep, Blank says.
PLAN YOUR WORRY TIME
To make worry time work, pick a time at least 2–3 hours before bed so you can do other things after, and it’s not the last thing you think of before you hit the hay, recommends Michelle Drerup, PsyD, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.
Choose a spot where you won’t be distracted, grab a notepad and set a timer for 20–30 minutes. Ask yourself: Why am I worried? Why am I anxious? For five minutes, write down those thoughts. For the rest of the time, you can reflect or continue writing, perhaps noting the ways you could resolve the problem.
If there isn’t a solution, and it’s an ongoing issue, it’s still helpful to process those thoughts. “You learn, ‘OK, I’ve thought through it, and there’s nothing I can do to change it, so I have to let it go,’ ” Drerup says.
Avoid the temptation to jump up and take action as solutions come up. This is your worry time — focus on that, and work on solutions another time. Also, if you seem to run out of worries before your timer goes off, reflect on that. “Think about what it means that when you’re giving time to your worries, they’re not occurring,” Blank says. “Maybe you have fewer worries than you thought. Or if the same worries keep repeating, giving them this time can make them less intense.”
A LITTLE GRATITUDE GOES A LONG WAY
When time is up, Drerup suggests ending with some thoughts of gratitude. “Think about things you are thankful for or about something good that happened that day, so you end the practice in a positive manner,” she says.
The key with worry time is consistency. The more you do this and do it in the same spot, the more it helps establish a connection between worrying and your set time and space, which makes worrying less likely to happen at other times, Blank says. And the easier it is to convince yourself to let your worries go if they do come up in bed.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” Blank says. “It doesn’t mean you won’t ever worry again, and if you have full-blown insomnia, it won’t cure it.” But for many people, worry time can be the thing that helps stop the endless thoughts so you can say, “good night, brain,” and fall asleep soundly.