Picture this: You climb into bed, hoping to fall into a deep, sound sleep. But suddenly, worries and fears flood your head, and you feel anxious when you should feel calm and relaxed. You just want to stop overthinking and fall asleep.

First, know you’re not alone. As a neuroscientist and brain optimization consultant, many of my clients come to me struggling with overthinking at night. Known in neuroscience as pre-sleep cognitive activity, nighttime rumination has been shown to delay sleep onset and potentially contribute to insomnia.

It’s a frustrating (and near universal) phenomenon, but there are several research-backed strategies that can help prevent it from ruining your sleep.  

The Neuroscience Behind Overthinking at Night 

Overthinking at night, which can happen either before sleep or in the middle of the night, can be attributed to several factors, such as: 

  • Fewer distractions: At night, external stimuli decrease significantly, which means there are fewer distractions to occupy the mind. Your brain, in its idle state, may start to focus on unresolved issues, worries, or other thoughts that were pushed aside during the day.
  • Default mode network (DMN) activation: The default mode network, a network of interconnected brain regions, becomes more active when you are at rest.  This network is involved in self-referential thoughts, daydreaming, and reflecting on past experiences. Increased DMN activity at night can lead to more introspective and often ruminative thinking.
  • Circadian rhythm and hormone levels: The circadian rhythm regulates the sleep-wake cycle and influences the release of various hormones. At night, levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, should ideally decrease. However, if you’re stressed, cortisol levels might remain elevated, contributing to heightened alertness and an active mind.
  • Memory consolidation during sleep: The brain processes and consolidates memories during sleep, particularly in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. This process can sometimes bring unresolved issues or emotional experiences to the forefront, contributing to overthinking as your brain tries to make sense of these memories.

Unfortunately, all of these factors can also create a vicious cycle of poor sleep and high stress. This is because sleep and stress have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that a poor night’s sleep leads to more stress during the day, which in turn makes it harder to sleep that night.

5 Ways to Stop Overthinking at Night 

Now, for the good news: You don’t have to simply stare at the ceiling as you wait out another overthinking episode. Below are a few research-backed tips I suggest to my clients (and use for myself!) to put an end to overthinking and sleep better — starting tonight.

1. Have a wind-down ritual. 

To prepare your mind and body for a good night’s sleep, it’s crucial to take time to wind down before bed. This can help support your natural circadian rhythm, which signals to your body it’s time for sleep. 

A relaxing wind-down routine can also help lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Lower cortisol levels have been associated with better sleep quality, while higher cortisol levels can lead to frequent wakeups during the night, delayed latency, lower sleep efficiency, and less deep sleep.

Plenty of science-backed habits can help you to wind down in the evening — for instance, making a cup of herbal tea, reading a novel, or taking a warm bath. Experiment with different evening routines to find out which wind-down ritual works best for you. 

READ MORE: 14 Science-Backed Ways to Wind Down Before Bed

2. Get into bed when you’re sufficiently tired.

One of my clients was experiencing overthinking before sleep. As we reviewed her nighttime routine, it became clear she was getting into bed before she was tired.

When I asked why, she said, “Well, my husband goes to sleep then, and I like going to bed with him.” The issue was that while he slept soundly, she lay next to him in dread, tossing and turning. It’s common for couples to have mismatched sleep schedules or needs, which can complicate organizing your sleep routine.

When you get into bed before you’re tired enough to sleep, that energy has to go somewhere, often manifesting as overthinking, particularly if you’re trying to fall asleep when you’re not tired yet. I recommend getting into bed only when you’re tired enough to fall asleep to help offset this idle time.

Member Tip: Oura provides you with a personalized recommended bedtime, based on such as what time you went to bed on nights with the highest Sleep Scores and which nights had the lowest resting heart rates.

3. Meditate to stay present. 

Practicing mindfulness meditation helps train your brain to shift focus to the present moment. Overthinking tends to center around past events or future worries, so focusing on the present can help redirect your thoughts.

A mindfulness practice such as a guided meditation or a meditation practice of your choice before sleep can help direct your thoughts and prevent them from running wild.

4. Breathe to calm your nervous system. 

Your nervous system can’t always distinguish between real and perceived threats. Overthinking can activate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), your fight or flight response, making it nearly impossible to fall asleep under such conditions.

To calm this stress response, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes rest and digestion. Specific breathing patterns can activate your PNS, helping you calm down. Slowing your breath also slows your heart rate, reducing your stress response and calming your mind. Focus on physically calming down first, which will help you gain control over your thoughts.

Member Tip: Oura’s Explore content contains a library of guided breathing exercises and meditations. You’ll also receive real-time feedback on how these exercises impact your biometrics like HRV and heart rate after a session ends. 

5. Get out of bed and go to another room. 

If you’ve tried all the above and it’s still not working, try getting out of bed and going to another room. Fun fact: Research shows that passing through a doorway can serve as an event boundary in the mind, compartmentalizing your thoughts and even helping you forget what you were just thinking about.

There, try one of your favorite wind-down rituals, meditate, or breathe deeply. Return to bed when you feel more tired, hopefully sidestepping more overthinking. 

RELATED: Why You Wake Up at 3am — And How to Go Back To Sleep