Sleep Delayed by a Traffic Jam of Thoughts?

A Better Place Consulting, meditation

Recently, I was listening to a Headspace meditation, and the meditation referenced the “traffic jam” in our minds. As one who practices meditation regularly, I’ve heard this phrase used before to describe the mind’s unending flow of thoughts. But as I suddenly realized how frequently I’d heard the expression, my mind slowed, circled back, and focused in, ironically creating a little “traffic jam” in my mind. 

Though you may not be into meditation yourself, if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s likely you’ve experienced your own mental traffic jams. You know what it’s like to battle swirling thoughts on an unending loop. Maybe you’re even fighting traffic in your head right now.

While head traffic can hit at any time, for many of us, mental congestion is especially bad at night. Dutifully, you go to bed at a decent hour. You know you need to sleep – and want to! – but you lay there wide awake, your extended to-do list running through your mind. You worry over everything you didn’t accomplish today. Your mind keeps spinning, churning out a hundred more things to add to your to-do list tomorrow. You feel frustration, agitation, and even anger… just as if you were stuck in a real-life traffic jam. And if the nighttime traffic jam of your thoughts is loud enough, you may even get out of bed, sacrificing precious rest time to your never-ending to-do list. 

In 2014, that was me. Every night when I lay down to sleep, my mind spun, often spurring me to get back out of bed and spend another two, three, sometimes four more hours at the computer. I would finally crash, usually well after midnight. Sometimes I was up until 3 AM. 

Following my late-night work binges, I was useless the next day. Yet I repeated that cycle at least three times a week. Once I noticed the pattern, I started to wonder how many work nights every month I was sacrificing in this way. So I tracked it… and found that, in a 20-day work month, I had gone to bed, gotten back up, worked some more, and then went back to bed after midnight 19 times. I had only gotten sufficient sleep, according to the average 8-hour recommendation, one night that month. I was shocked. How much damage was I doing to my own health? And how useful could I possibly be to my clients, my family, and myself, constantly running on empty like that?

I was repeatedly sacrificing everything I was working to achieve the traffic jam of thoughts congesting my mind every night. 

In the real world, there is nothing one lone driver can do to undo a traffic jam. Once you are stuck in traffic, you’re stuck – no matter how agitated you get about it. In the same way, when I lay down at night and tune in to the traffic jam of my to-dos, actions, and deadlines, I feel the same frantic agitation as when I’m stuck in traffic. Just like trying to veer off course to get out of traffic, I roll out of bed, desperate to find a better resolution, one that will quiet my mind. But just like veering off course to try and avoid real-life traffic often causes its own delays, burning the midnight oil rarely results in actual progress. 

The good news is I can plan for traffic. And, I can also plan for mental congestion at bedtime. I can put my needs first when the traffic occurs, which it will. I can take a deep breath, relax, and know that I will safely arrive at my destination, exactly when I am meant to. It may not be in the time I believe it should, but I will get there. The best thing I can do is to practice self-care and release the frustration, guilt, and agitation the traffic makes me feel. Whether that means listening to another episode of my favorite podcast, calling a friend I have been meaning to catch up with, rolling over and snuggling my Great Dane, or having Headspace play me a sleep meditation, I know my self-care makes me more valuable. Whenever I arrive at my destination, be it the far side of a traffic jam or a bright new morning, I will be the best possible version of me. 

So the next time you hit nighttime head traffic, take a deep breath and allow yourself to practice patience. Your to-do list will still be there when you wake up. Nothing is changing between now and tomorrow morning, so release your worry, agitation, and frustration. Focus on restoration instead. You will be much better equipped to positively impact the world around you if you intentionally allow yourself to rest and clear your mind. 

Sweet Dreams!

Bonus Sleep Tips provided by Sleep Expert Lisa Hazelgrove:

  1. Get 30-40 minutes of outside morning light, without sunglasses, every day. Doing so is critical to setting your circadian clock.
  2. Meditate every day (did we mention Headspace!). Cultivation of mindful awareness puts our body’s daily biorhythms back into balance.
  3. EMF’s have been directly linked to melatonin depletion and sleep disorders. At night, all devices (except those used for health purposes) should be unplugged from the wall outlet. It’s not enough to just turn them off – unplug them!
  4. Sleep disrupted by hunger? One glass of water shut down midnight hunger pangs for almost 100% of dieters in a University of Washington study.
  5. Grounding (or “earthing”) reconnects our body to the Earth’s surface. Simply standing barefoot on the earth has been found to promote better sleep.

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