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The Connection Between Writing & Sleep

Hayley Dawes
4 July 2022

Worry keeps us awake. The most common reason we have difficulty falling asleep with is the inability to stop thinking about… whatever it is you can’t stop thinking about. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests an easy and effective solution: write in a journal for five minutes before bed. But critically, what helps most is not writing about what you accomplished during the day but writing out your to-do list for tomorrow. 

As a child, did you ever keep a journal or a diary? Well, sleep journaling is something a little different. We may have used journaling in the past to write about our everyday lives and experiences, including our dreams, goals, and worries. Perhaps it gave you some peace of mind to internalise what you were thinking and helped you make sense of things as you grew older. Even now, we often struggle with anxiety, worry, and racing thoughts. These thoughts can be overwhelming and may inhibit our day-to-day lives as well as negatively impact our sleep.

Writing your thoughts in a journal can be a very effective way of processing your feelings. Not only that, but journaling can help you recognise unproductive or negative thoughts and behaviours. The result – when you handle life’s stresses in a positive way, it’s much easier to sleep well at night.

 

What is sleep journaling?

Sleep journaling is simply the act of recording your thoughts and feelings a few hours before you fall asleep. There is no right or wrong way to approach bedtime writing – if you’re able to practice mindfulness and write what you feel, you’re off to a great start. 

Even if you don’t have a specific concern in mind that you need to overcome, writing can be a natural outlet for any feelings of tension you might have. It’s a way to focus your brain on something creative and allow any excess energy to flow out of you onto the page before you go to sleep. You might find that you come up with some of you best ideas just before you drift off.

 

What do you write in a sleep journal?

Each person’s circumstances are unique, so it’s important to write about your specific experiences and be as open and thorough as possible. If you’re not sure what to write, try some of these suggestions:

Vent your day’s worries and frustrations

Anger, worry, and frustration are natural and healthy responses to life’s stresses, but it’s important to release them in a healthy way. Journaling is a great way to let go of some of the anger you may be feeling. Writing down your angry or unpleasant thoughts can help you make sense of them, as well as provide a sense of catharsis you can’t get from bottling up your emotions.

Keep a gratitude journal

On the opposite end, you can keep track of things that make you happy. Reflecting on what brings you joy can help put you in a more positive mood, which can also benefit your physical and mental health, leading to better sleep. Some extra positivity in your life can really go a long way in helping you get a better night’s sleep.

Make a to-do list

Writing out a to-do list may seem overwhelming if you’ve got a lot on your plate, but it really is helpful for quieting anxious thoughts and helping you clear your head each night. Begin by compiling the unfinished tasks you need to address tomorrow, big, or small. This provides both a clear list of intentions for the following day, and helps you keep track of your progress, thus removing the anxiety of thinking about all these tasks while you’re trying to unwind for bedtime.

 

Why is a to-do list more helpful than a list of completed tasks? 

When you have a task that’s unfinished, it’s on your mind more than tasks you have completed. It seems that unfinished tasks rest at what is known as a heightened level of cognitive activation. We think that’s the key ingredient. With our day-to-day lives and work schedules, unfinished tasks pile on top of each other and create this cognitive activation that’s difficult to set aside – unless, of course, you write about it.

 

Why does writing at bedtime help you get to sleep?

Throughout the day, we have all these things cycling through our heads. Some of them seem to continue to cycle. There’s something about the act of writing – physically writing something on paper – that tends to offload it a little bit; or at least help us hit the pause button on it. The outcome seems to be that you decrease cognitive arousal, and that you decrease rumination and worry. If you decrease those two things, it makes sense that you’re going to fall asleep faster, because having things on your mind is one of the main barriers to falling asleep at night.

The thoughts your brain focuses on as you sleep could inspire creative solutions to problems that you would never think of when awake. Just be careful that you’re not focusing too heavily on any one issue in particular. While it’s fine to write down your problems so you can understand them a little better before bed, you don’t want to get stuck in a state of stress because you’re nervous about an issue that you don’t know how to fix.

*DREEM TIP* If you are making a list of things to remember or a gratitude list, you can do that in bed or right before bed. If you practice journaling, try to do it right after dinner or 2-3 hours before going to bed so you have plenty of time to process.

Having a routine before you go to bed is one of the best ways to encourage a good night’s sleep. When you get into the practice of writing before bed, you’re less likely to want to do other, more detrimental things that could detract from your quality of sleep.

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