Everyone has negative thoughts. This is a natural result of millions of years of evolution.
Our brains are wired for survival, which means they automatically look for negative signals to warn us of what might happen if we’re not careful. For example, hearing a rustling in some nearby bushes might provoke feelings of anxiety that cause us to run or find a place to hide.
This was very useful for our ancestors, who had to watch out for attacks from predators. Without a negative bias to help warn us of potential threats, we might not have survived. However, we don’t have the same concerns in our contemporary lives. Yet NIH research shows
that, of the 60,000 thoughts we have per day, about 80 percent of them are negative. These negative thoughts are no longer helping us survive – in fact, they frequently hold us back from becoming happy and successful. One major way negative thoughts impact us is our sleep.
Just a week ago I presented new Peak Performance Mindset tools to a team of salespeople and one of them mentioned that the constant flow of negative thoughts prevented him from getting enough sleep. He said, “For example, last night I went to bed at 10:30 p.m. and I found myself wide awake two and a half hours later. I could not shut off my mind.” I asked him, “What have you tried to get yourself to sleep in the past?” I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Nyquil, Ambien, or red wine.” Did it work? No, he always felt groggy the next morning.
According to experts who study brain science and neuropsychology, we can hack our mindset to dramatically reduce the impact of negative thoughts. Here are four things I recommend doing before going to sleep.
- Carve out a one-hour window without electronics before going to bed. No TV, no video games, no smartphone, no tablet. Remove the temptation of overstimulation. Make the last 60 minutes of your day agenda-free.
- Keep a journal next to your bed. When you are feeling restless, open your journal and create two columns. On the left side, write your thoughts about the past; on the right side, write your thoughts (worries) about the future. As you write, your negative thoughts will lose their sting, the nagging voice will subside, and your worries about the future will start to fade. Writing will also expose your automatic thoughts to the more objective voice of your “Inner CEO,” aka the executive function of the brain.
- Practice gratitude. Write down three things for which you are grateful. Describe in detail what happened and enjoy reliving moments of gratitude.
- Progressive relaxation. Focus on contracting and relaxing every muscle you can think of in your body. Start by wiggling your toes on the left foot and work your way up to your left glutes until the left leg is completely relaxed. Feel the tension flowing out of your left leg. Then direct your mind to your right foot and repeat the progressive muscle contraction and relaxation. Continue your way up to your head. You can complete this exercise in less than five minutes and fall asleep completely relaxed.
Another useful tool to help you fall asleep easily at night is to practice mindfulness throughout the day. After you complete a task, take three deep breaths and shift your mental focus from thinking and doing to the state of being. That state is not always easy to get into, since our minds tend to ignore the present moment. Focusing on the present moment for three breaths acts like a reset button in your mind. It will remind you that you are not a “human doing,” but a human being. Learn to savor the present moment and you’ll enjoy a more mindful life.
Today I got a report back from the salesperson, saying, “I cut out all self-medication and followed the steps. For the first time in years I got eight hours of sleep every night for a week.” His energy was higher, his motivation grew stronger, and his resilience was higher than ever before.
What would you be able to achieve if you had more energy during the day, because your mind has received the rest it needed? You can give yourself that gift today.