To beat bedtime anxiety, think of your brain as a cassette deck

Pop one of these in the tape deck of your mind.
Pop one of these in the tape deck of your mind.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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Ever since I can remember, there have been occasional nights where sleep just refuses to settle into my bones. I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with these brief bouts of insomnia. If it’s cool weather I’ll open a window, then lie on the bed without any covers until I am very cold, then cover myself up and let the soothing warmth of the comforter pull me under. I get up and read on the couch and drink something warm and non-caffeinated until I feel drowsy. Or, I just accept my fate and get up and do something.

Those occasional random nights of sleeplessness stopped being a big deal when I made my peace with them. The other kind of insomnia I experience is a little tougher to shake. In moments of big change, stress, and pressure—say, just before getting married, just after publishing a big story, or while in the process of moving, or in the midst of an important decision—I get anxiety insomnia. Instead of drifting off to sleep, my chest gets tight and my breathing gets shallow. I can feel every heartbeat. I just can’t quiet my busy mind. (Apparently I’m not the only one.)

When I first experienced this, in college, a friend shared a trick that I still use. She was experiencing the same anxiety-driven sleeplessness, and her therapist offered up the following advice: Think of something relaxing and fun. Conceptualize that activity or narrative as a tape that you can pop into the cassette deck of your mind. Actively gather a couple at any given time. Then, when you’re in bed, watching the minutes tick by, just pick your tape and press play. (I’m old enough that evoking the era of mix tapes on cassette is a pleasantly nostalgic experience, but if “cassette tape” is an abstract concept to you, try thinking of it as a soothing playlist instead.)

It really works. Right now the “tapes” I have in heavy rotation include a bathroom remodel, and various ambitious cooking projects, including sourdough starter and the Zahav lamb shoulder. Sometimes I build a capsule wardrobe for myself in an alternate reality that doesn’t include my children or ketchup, or I plan ahead to next year’s garden. These tapes are generally very process-driven and free from serious emotional content, somewhere at the junction of things I will eventually do and fantasy hobbies that I wish I had time for.

This technique has some basis in brain science. It’s not unlike the technique known as “cognitive shuffling,” devised by a Canadian cognitive scientist. A growing body of research indicates that meditation and mindfulness can be effective treatment for chronic insomnia. A study published in the journal Sleep in 2014 found that meditation-based therapies significantly reduced the severity of chronic insomnia, echoing a study from decades earlier.

These studies were small, and more research needs to be done to prove the point. And of course, true meditation is far more intense than making a few mix tapes your mind. That’s part of the brilliance of the tape method, though. For occasional, topical insomnia, it’s a very easy way to quiet the mind and get a little more sleep—or at least feel less frantic about the sleep you’re not getting.