Seven Methods to Quiet Busy Brain

My sleep has suffered the last few weeks for a variety of reasons so it’s a topic that’s been on the forefront for me. I did a post recently about ways to help regulate and improve our sleep cycles, and I wanted to follow that up with some ways to help get to sleep on those nights where the best sleep routine just doesn’t make a difference.

The reality is, we can relax and do all the right things, but there will be times that just isn’t enough. And I know I’ve had many nights where all I can think is “I just need to shut my brain off!”

Without further ado, these are the techniques I’ve discovered over time that have helped me. I hope it can help you, too.

Ways to Distract Busy Brain

Cerebral Escape

  • Ahhh the days of falling asleep in class. Just kidding, I never did that. Wink wink. ANYWAY, same idea here.
  • Non-fiction audiobooks are a great option
  • provides access to TONS of free lectures

Fictional/Inspirational Escape

  • Perhaps you want something to absorb attention rather than, ahem, bore you.
  • Fictional audiobooks also work here
  • TED talks
  • Storytelling apps like Relax Melodies a Cond Calm app

Well-Known Comfort Spot Visualization

  • I love this method for inducing a feeling of comfort within the distraction, which can be helpful for unknown causes of busy brain.
  • All you have to do is visualize a place that has always made you feel safe and warm, and you know very well. Start at entering the destination and visualize every. Little. Detail. Try to even imagine the scents. You’ll eventually get lost in the warmth and drift off.
  • Some examples of this may be your childhood bedroom, your child’s bedroom, family vacation spot, personal nature spot, etc.

Morning Routine Visualization

  • This is a great one when anxiety is partially caused by something that we have to do the following day like an interview, medical or legal appointment, etc.
  • I like to visualize every step of my morning routine and, if I get far enough, visualize everything up to whatever the stressful event is. Truthfully, I don’t usually get too far past preparing the morning coffee when I do this one.

Alphabetic Affirmations

  • This is a fun one if you’ve also been feeling a little blue lately and want to get creative.
  • The idea is to give yourself a positive affirmation that starts with each letter of the alphabet. What better way to eventually drift to sleep than by pumping ourselves up?!


  • Sometimes we need the heavy equipment… time to call in the numbers. I like this method for times that I’m having recurring thought patterns and am trying to interrupt them by eliminating that type of thought process and switching to calculation mode.
  • This can be anything you want it to be. Sometimes I just add a certain number repeatedly (1+7=8+7=15+7=22+7=29) or just keep multiplying something by 2.

Breathing Techniques

  • Probably the most well-known on this list, but that’s because it can certainly work. I love breathing techniques when I’ve got busy brain, but my body is also wired. Make sure to breathe through the nose when possible, and belly breathe!! Don’t let that chest do the work – get that diaphragm involved.
  • 4-7-8 is the most commonly-talked about method. Inhale 4 seconds, hold 7 seconds, exhale slowly for 8 seconds.
  • 4-4 is another method. Inhale 4 seconds, exhale 4 seconds.
  • Scent visualization – imagine inhaling a scent you love and exhaling a scent you hate – the idea is to inhale the good and exhale the bad.

Problems Related to Chronic Lack of Sleep

Weight gain

  • Ghrelin is a hormone that increases the appetite and can spike after a single night of poor sleep. Consistent increases in ghrelin levels will lead to consistent feelings of increased hunger and will likely lead to weight gain by trying to satisfy that hormonal hunger.
    • Side bar – can we please stop beating ourselves up about cravings when we are exhausted? This isn’t just a little bit of willpower, okay. Hormones are no joke. So you know what? Eat the freaking cookie and focus attention on getting rest and improving sleep, not every little thing going into our mouths.
  • Weight gain can also be caused by increased levels of another hormone – cortisol – which is elevated during times of stress and can lead to stress eating.

Cognitive Disorders / Dementia

  • Recent research has found connections between lack of sleep and disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Current theories relate to the brain cleansing process that occurs during sleep – that’s right – the brain literally cleans itself while we sleep.
    • Brain shrinks by up to 60% to create space between neurons where cerebrospinal and interstitial fluid get together and flush harmful substances.
    • Of these harmful substances flushed are amyloid proteins; buildup of these proteins has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease and may indicate levels of future cognitive decline.

Depression / Anxiety

  • Sleep disorders and depression/anxiety can have a negative round-robin effect where the presence of one increases the odds for the presence of the other.
  • As indicated under the weight gain section, an increase in time spent in the sympathetic nervous system – adrenaline/fight-or-flight mode – increases hormonal imbalances that can also result in sleep disruptions and disorders.


  • This one is easily overlooked. The body needs more rest to repair as exercise increases. When the body lacks sleep, but is tasked with exercise it’s not ready for, the result is overtraining. Athletes sleep a ton for a reason!
  • Often one of the first indications of overtraining is trouble sleeping. Exercise absolutely helps us sleep better, but too much isn’t a good thing. If you are exercising regularly, but suddenly have more issues sleeping without any other potential contributing factors (nutrition, new routines/meds, etc.), please consider reducing training intensity a bit and see if your sleep improves.

Cardiovascular Disease

  • 6 or less hours of sleep per night has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke for people over 45-years old.
  • Blood pressure decreases during quality, restorative sleep; prolonged periods of lack of sleep also means prolonged periods of increased blood pressure. Basically, the heart also needs a break to rest and perform at its best.

Type 2 Diabetes

  • Without proper rest, the heart can struggle to regulate blood sugar eventually leading to insulin resistance – the key cause of type 2 diabetes.
  • Quality sleep is also important for those already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes for these same reasons. Luckily, working to regulate blood sugar in other ways like diet and exercise also have a positive effect on sleep.

Immune System

  • Lack of sleep typically results in inflammation. Cytokines are molecules that our immune systems release to help it do its job by creating a low level of inflammation as protection. Lack of sleep can result in elevated levels of cytokines being released, leading to *too much* inflammation, which has the opposite effect and can begin to then attack the healthy immune system. Again, too much of a good thing isn’t… good.
  • Sleep deprivation is also correlated with an increased risk of susceptibility to infectious diseases and decreased response to immunizations (just got my flu shot woohoo!).

It can be so easy for forego sleep for other things in life, but it really is our foundation, and is so important.

Did you find this information helpful?

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