Why a 'Pre-Bed Brain Dump' Is My Favorite Sleep Hack
From childhood through teenagedom, falling asleep felt like the easiest thing in the world. It was a miracle that I even made it to my bed, so quick was I to drift off.
But as I rolled into my twenties, something started to shift. I found myself staring at the ceiling as I tried to sleep, running through my mental list of Stuff I Hadn’t Done Yet.
When I did start to nod off, I’d jerk awake in panic, remembering the one thing I’d left off that list. If I had a bad day, I’d replay awkward conversations in my head. If I’d had a good day, I’d be hopped up on enough endorphins to keep me fueled until morning.
At first, I didn’t mind it. I liked the extra time to process things. I came up with ideas, solved problems that had been nagging at me. But after a while, my insomnia started to grate. I just wanted (and needed) to sleep—why couldn’t my brain let me?
So when I first heard about morning pages, that practice of rolling out of bed and putting pen to paper for a quick free-writing session, I had an idea. What if I tried the same thing at night? What if, rather than writing to jump-start my creativity, I wrote to tamp it down? Not permanently, of course, but enough that I’d be able to get some good shut-eye before whatever excitement came the next morning.
That night, I pulled out my trusty notebook and began what I now call my “pre-bed brain dump”—a chance to move all those worries and thoughts from my head to a physical sheet of paper.
Sometimes I make lists of things I need to do the next day, or week.
Sometimes I write about my weird vibes after a confusing meeting, or my frustration at something my boyfriend texted me earlier that day.
I might write for 2 minutes or 20—whatever it takes to get me to what feels like a stopping point.
Then, I pack it up and hit the sheets.
It’s not a cure-all (I still spend more time than I’d like staring at the back of my eyelids), but it does noticeably take me down a notch. I’m less fidgety, and my mind feels more at ease now that it’s not frantically trying to remember what I keep meaning to tell my friend about her party next Friday.
I’ve thought of it as my own quirky method, one of those things that works for me but might not for others. But according to sleep therapist Ginger Houghton, L.M.S.W., my pre-sleep writeathon is a totally legitimate way of getting into a good state for slumber.
Pre-bed journaling “can help with the anxious thoughts that keep us from falling asleep or staying asleep,” she tells Shine. “Studies show that expressive writing can be a really powerful tool in reducing anxiety and depression by helping shift perspective and let go of worry.”
If a passive-aggressive interaction with a colleague leaves me stewing, for example, writing about it can help me release some of that anger—and even start to see it from their perspective. And while my list-making and conflict-parsing works for me, Houghton says that pretty much anything goes—with a few limits.
“One helpful tip for pre-bed journaling is to keep your writing focused on one topic to help get the greatest benefit,” she says. “For example: Focus either on a stressful situation or a specific person you’re grateful for.”
If you find yourself with writers’ block, she suggests, “try creating a to-do list to help your brain let go of worry and stress.”
Journaling not your jam? It’s worth thinking through how you spend your last waking hour anyway. “Nighttime routines can be either really helpful or hurtful to our sleep: Activities like gratitude (practices), meditation, deep breathing, reading, and self-care all set us up to be in a calm, comfortable space before we drift off,” explains Houghton. “Netflix binges, Candy Crush, and late-night laptop sessions for work can all limit our ability to get quality sleep.”
The same goes for jotting things down on your phone rather than a journal—that notes app might be handy, but the light coming from your screen can trick your brain into staying alert and overriding sleepy signals. Instead, focus on patterns that cues your body to prepare to power off.
“It’s important to remember that all the associations we create help our brains and bodies recognize routines, in the same way Pavlov’s dogs linked a bell ringing to food,” Houghton says.
For me, just reaching for my notebook helps bring on the sleepy vibes.
What might do it for you?