Pure math isn't even fun.
June 14, 2012 3:36 AM   Subscribe

I have a very serious problem: I can't stop thinking about mathematics and it's interfering heavily with my sleep.

Let me start off by telling you that I'm an EE student undergrad. I'm currently taking 10 hours over this summer.

I'll go to bed, fall asleep within an hour or two, but then wake up at 2 or 3am to go pee or something. When I get back, it is *so damn hard* to actually fall back asleep.

Here's my problem, and it's driving me absolutely nuts - I'll try to do problems or proofs in my head while I'm in bed, and it's a god damn nightmare. For some reason, my brain thinks that successfully getting all these problems or proofs correct will "unlock" sleep for me or something. I hate it. This has been a problem before, but lately it's just gotten ridiculous.

The main issue is that I can't seem to get my brain out of this mental state. My feet will twitch and curl on eachother while I just wish I could fall asleep. So since I found nothing by googleing "can't stop doing math sleep", I'm asking for input on how to handle this.

(And sorry for how hastily this is written, I'm currently up at 5am and very annoyed.)
posted by Evernix to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm neither a mathematician nor a medical professional, but googling "Invasive thoughts about maths" suggests you're not the only person to have this problem - and that CBT might help you to deal with it.

It's been studied at least once:
posted by Ted Maul at 3:40 AM on June 14, 2012

Do you stop studying a couple of hours before going to bed, or do you go straight from studying/reading about maths to trying to sleep? I find just about any activity with repetitive or obsessive elements to it can get into autodrive in my brain at bedtime if I didn't stop a good while earlier in the evening.
posted by lollusc at 3:46 AM on June 14, 2012

Do you stop studying a couple of hours before going to bed, or do you go straight from studying/reading about maths to trying to sleep? I find just about any activity with repetitive or obsessive elements to it can get into autodrive in my brain at bedtime if I didn't stop a good while earlier in the evening.

I usually make it a rule to be done with everything before 10:00pm. Before settling down, I'll read metafilter or listen to music for a while. I go to bed around 11:30pm.
posted by Evernix at 3:51 AM on June 14, 2012

This has actually happened to me! Haha. I was also an engineering student.

Let me explain, though. I never found myself lying in bed, totally alert, thinking clearly about mathematics. No, it was more like I was half-asleep, exhausted, and math problems were running through my brain in a foggy, semi-unconscious way. I would always have the funny feeling that I was supposed to be doing this while I was asleep, and that I "had to" finish these problems to be allowed the privilege of sleeping. It was a very convincing feeling of necessity and urgency, but once I fully woke up - this is key!! - the feeling would immediately vanish and I was able to see what a strange state of mind I was in. There is no need to do math to be allowed to sleep! None at all!

(Interesting - I find I'm struggling to convey the particular state of mind that I'm in that makes me believe I have to do math to sleep. It's hard to put in to words because it's totally irrational!)

This has also happened to me with designing experiments (I'm now a Ph.D. student). It can happen with anything, provided you have been focusing very hard on it during the daytime.

As I've said, in my case, this issue always occurs when I'm semi-asleep. I don't feel semi-asleep at the time but it's super obvious after waking up. So, if it's the same for you, then...

1. The minute you realize what is happening (and if you're like me it could be a while, but maybe not), get out of bed.
2. Turn on lights (if that doesn't disturb your sleep too much), walk around, get a drink of water, listen to a little song - do SOMETHING that requires you to come out the strange state of mind.
3. You will be very tired, and you will desperately want to just roll over and go to sleep instead, but try getting up for a few minutes anyway.
4. Sit on the couch, sip some tea for 15 minutes, and simply observe the quiet night around you. Dark room, night noises, whatever. Just feel the quietness and restfulness and try to leave behind the urgency and clamor and obsessive activity of your mind.
5. Go back to bed. Lie back down, notice how soft your pillow is, and just lie there. Do not TRY to sleep. You will probably fall asleep soon.

I hope this works for you! The hardest part is remembering to get out of bed rather than just tossing and turning all night long. Good luck.
posted by Cygnet at 4:25 AM on June 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

At one point last year my brain was trying to "search google" during that almost asleep/barely awake phase for answers to some complex network engineering tasks I was facing at work. It was so frustrating. I was not sleeping well at all.

I finally started finding humor in it and would laugh like a kid laughs, I mean really giggling at myself when my silly brain started acting like that. Once I was able to find the humor of the situation my head gradually ceased doing that thing.

Also if you drink alcohol, stop for a couple of months and see if that helps. that helped me tremendously. In the past few months my alcohol intake has gone up to 4-5 beers per week and my sleep patterns are getting off again.

These are things I'm working through in myself right now, so I don't have a solid answer, really, only things that I've been picking up on as I've tried to learn better sleep habits this past year.
posted by roboton666 at 4:28 AM on June 14, 2012

This happened to me when I was taking organic chem. Its awful. Meditation stuff has helped me--specifically guided meditations--that way I can focus on someone's voice telling me what to do. You could look for body scan meditations. I find them dreadfully boring, but I also almost always fall asleep while doing them. They really do help to quiet the mind and help you focus on things other than problem-solving.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 4:30 AM on June 14, 2012

It's not about math, but I sometimes have obsessive thoughts in the middle of the night. My brain will not shut the hell up and let me sleep, it has to figure something out .. it's quite frustrating.

I put something on my headphones that's just interesting enough to get my brain's attention away from whatever it's working on. Sitcoms, radio shows - nothing too intense or too loud, certainly nothing interesting or thrilling. And then I'm usually able to fall asleep.
posted by bunderful at 4:39 AM on June 14, 2012

Melatonin works great for me in these situations. Good luck!
posted by dawkins_7 at 4:59 AM on June 14, 2012

I often get these dreams, and I've noticed that they are either an innocuous continuation of the work I was doing while awake, or an exhausting barrage of nonsensical actions, ideas, and knowledge. I've had dreams where I'm innocently sitting in front of a matlab console watching the numbers go by after having successfully completed whatever I was working on (quite the opposite of a nightmare!) , and I've had dreams where I'm frustrating over why matlab won't let me multiply a matrix by chocolate.

Stress and the amount of caffeine in my bloodstream appear to be good indicators of which dream I'll have. Reducing my workload and getting to bed at a consistent, early hour (9-10pm tops) has helped the most, and in situations where I find myself unable to sleep because of a racing mind, I find getting up and actually working on the problem for an hour or two to be quite helpful.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:24 AM on June 14, 2012

This happens when I take too much Adderall (legitimate prescription) or caffeine. Anything like that going on? I used to get confused, because I'd erroneously believe that if I was taking too much of it, I wouldn't be able to fall asleep. But that's not 100% correct- if you are exhausted enough, you will fall asleep. It just won't be good sleep, or for very long. You'll wake up at 3am and whatever amount of the stimulant is still in your system will seem almost like you've taken a fresh dose.
posted by gjc at 6:01 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have been in your situation before. Try listening to an engaging but non-math-related radio program like This American Life. You need something that you care about enough to attract your brain, but not so much that it will keep you awake. You could also try math lectures for material that you already know.
posted by scose at 6:39 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

This happens to my husband sometimes, but in his case it's code. Do you have a sound machine? It helps him to have the wave noise going.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:43 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

And agree that listening to radio shows (I like BBC dramas) is great for insomnia.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:45 AM on June 14, 2012

Are you reading anything? This has been a big problem in our house recently, not math, but waking up and being unable to stop thinking about the stuff on deck. I'm reading some really engaging genre fiction with nothing to further trigger my desire to work through my problems at 3AM. Getting up and reading for a little while can break the cycle. Maybe you don't want to get up and read for half an hour at 2, but it's better to be able to fall back to sleep by 3 than to have to pitch it all and get up and make coffee (which is the sort of thing that had been happening in our house.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:46 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would guess the math obsession is a symptom of your insomnia, rather than the cause. I have a similar problem with getting bits of songs or phrases stuck in my head in a torturous endless loop when I can't sleep. (Beyonce's "Single Ladies," for instance, almost drove me to middle-of-the-night insanity when it first came out.) The only thing that has fixed this problem for me is prescription sleep medication. I went to the doctor and was prescribed Trazodone, and now my mind is quiet and I get good sleep again.
posted by something something at 6:49 AM on June 14, 2012

Hoo yeah, me too for my work (animation shots that run frame.. by frame.. by frame.. in front of my eyes in an endless loop.. aaaaaaah!). Strongly second laying off the caffine, and also alcohol, late at night. A glass of wine makes this much much worse.

Also second sounds. White noise, wave sounds, nature sounds, together with visualising a place; or audiobooks where absolutely nothing happens. Librivox is a great source of dull 19th century novels.

Do you do any kind of meditation or yoga? Slow breathing and deep stretches for 20 minutes before bed help a lot. Especially if you are waking up in the middle of the night, it's better to get up and move gently around a bit rather than agonising in bed getting tenser.
posted by Erasmouse at 6:56 AM on June 14, 2012

This has occcured to me as well, not with math, but with different concepts and ideas.
I've learned not to fight it. Instead I foster it with a walk to contemplate or writing down whats on my mind. Yes, I will be tired as hell the next day (thats my normal anyways) but I will allow the idea to exhaust itself and give it the attention it is craving. Meditation works well too, as does medicating yourself to sleep (not recommmended, but sometimes it is a great way to silence the brain).

Not to get all meta, but sometimes the mind gets fixated and just needs to do its thing. This is regardless of what an individual may desire.
posted by handbanana at 6:57 AM on June 14, 2012

Make your bedroom a space exclusively for sleep; do your work outside the home if at all possible, so that your body gets into the habit of thinking of the sleeping space as just for sleep, and th eoutside spaces as work-spaces. And yeah, cut caffeine after about 3 or 4pm; its effects can linger for up to 8 hours or so...
posted by kaibutsu at 7:09 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there are actually two phenomena being discussed here. In one case, you find yourself preoccupied by a large or difficult issue/problem that you are facing in your real life. It's a tricky issue and there are no easy answers. In that case, it might help to get up and write your thoughts down. Those thoughts might be useful. That's one kind of insomnia.

In the other case - and this is what I have experienced and expect that Evernix is experiencing - the thoughts you find yourself having aren't "real" - they aren't the actual math problems you have to solve, and perhaps they aren't even real math problems that have real solutions. There's absolutely nothing helpful or productive in thinking about them because they are just ghostly remnants or sleepy approximations of the real math problems you've been doing all day. In this case, it is impossible to write these thoughts down, and if it wasn't impossible, it would be useless. I'm guessing that Evernix is not facing unsolveable math problems during the day; it's just that the brain gets so used to solving math problems all day long that it tries to continue all night.
posted by Cygnet at 7:20 AM on June 14, 2012

I would question the framing of your problem. I think about mathematics when I'm trying to sleep and sometimes I fall asleep and sometimes I don't The mathematics isn't what's keeping me awake. It's just what's there so it gets the blame. Chances are there's anxiety about something keeping you up, or else it's comforting to think about mathematics and there's a lurking discomfort keeping you up. I can't tell you what your actual situation is, but you'll have to solve it (only not as a math problem, and not while trying to sleep.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2012

Consider trying:
Having a beer.
Going for a jog.
Getting up and doing homework.
Getting up and reading something that does not interest you.
Taking naps during the day.
Throw on some headphones, listen to music and try to sleep.
Make sure to pee before going to bed.

I find that getting up and doing anything at the computer doesn't make me sleepy where reading a book does.
posted by bdc34 at 7:59 AM on June 14, 2012

I put on an audio book or a podcast when this kind of thing happens to me. Crowds out my internal monologue. Generally the drier the better, history and philosophy podcasts work the best for me. The key is finding something just barely interesting enough to get my attention, but not being so interesting that it's exciting.
posted by empath at 8:53 AM on June 14, 2012

This very thing happens to me occasionally, and I don't want it to, because the first time it happened I was so fascinated by it that I just let it run its course for weeks on end and ended up so sleep-deprived as to experience an actual psychotic break. So when it happens now, I go "OK, it's Ānāpānasati time!" and start concentrating on observing my breathing. And as soon as I notice that I've stopped doing that (which naturally happens quite frequently) I simply start doing it again. Over, and over, and over.

This technique sounds boring as batshit, and it would indeed be were it not for the fact that the sheer difficulty of doing nothing but paying attention to the breath is interesting, as is the fact that repeated practice makes it both easier and more interesting.

One of the things they taught me at the Vipassana retreat was that lying down while observing the breath was best avoided, because you'd just end up falling asleep. Well, at least they got the second part right :-)
posted by flabdablet at 9:05 AM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, staring at a computer or any other brightly lit or self-lit thing is not helpful when you're trying to sleep, as light suppresses melatonin production.
posted by flabdablet at 9:07 AM on June 14, 2012

Play Tetris. Right before bed. For a good block of time.

And then you will be lulled to sleep by falling blocks. It gives you something to occupy the parts of your head currently being obsessed by math.

Sounds stupid, but seriously. There's thought that we use Tetris to treat PTSD for the same sort of reasons - it occupies the right parts of your brain to prevent unwanted memory retrieval. Both the math thing you describe and Tetris use the same neural pathway. Gum it up with something lulling and hey, sleeptime.

You could also use Bejewled or Chuzzles, something heavy on the visual cortex and light on the long term planning or data retrieval bits of the brain. Just so long as it's engaging, repetitive and not dependant on what's already in your head, it'll help.

/crackpot advice, out.
posted by Jilder at 9:14 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let the questions pop into your head. The key is to control your reaction to them. Let the problems come but work to NOT solve them. By trying to find "solutions" you are legitimizing these questions in your head and as such, teaching your brain that these kinds of thoughts need to be addressed with solutions and reason. Accept that these problems will pop in your head; accept the uncertainty that comes by not "solving" them.

This is much easier said than done (been there). The end goal is to get treat these thoughts as background noise, not to eliminate them completely (pink elephant conundrum).
posted by Katine at 10:53 AM on June 14, 2012

Organic and physical chemistry did this to me. I handled it with vigorous exercise.
posted by pullayup at 11:29 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you get like this, get up. Don't stay in bed. Maybe do some dishes, fold some laundry, or something, but don't stay in bed. After about 15 minutes, go back, and hopefully you won't feel frustrated.
posted by OrangeDrink at 2:03 PM on June 14, 2012

I had something like this frequently for awhile in college when money was really tight and I was anxious about it. My sleeping brain would try to log on to my bank website to check my balance and balance my checkbook in my dreams. I'd wake up feeling terribly frustrated at not being able to log on or to make sense of the numbers on the screen.

The closest thing I've ever had to a lucid dream was when I realized that even if I could log on to the website in my dream, the numbers would not be correct because I was dreaming. Somehow accepting that any numbers I was able to "read" in my sleep would not correspond to reality allowed me to stop trying so hard to make sense of them. After that, whenever the dream came back, I would wake up enough to tell myself "This is only a dream. It doesn't matter and no matter how hard I try, I'm not going to accomplish any actual accounting in my sleep."

Of course what really stopped that problem was when I was able to sort out my finances and stop feeling so anxious about money.

I still occasionally find myself half-awake in the night and freaking out about something I need to do. I try to imagine a box and visualize myself packing my worries carefully into the box and closing it up until morning. It sounds silly but the practice of deliberately visualizing that helps me to calm down and relax enough to go back to sleep. If half an hour goes by and I'm still laying there awake and anxious, I give myself permission to get up and read a book for a little while.
posted by beandip at 4:47 PM on June 14, 2012

This happened to me all the time in undergrad, and still happens when I'm wound up about a difficult design or bug. I can tell you that it does get better when the stress of undergrad is behind you, and that caffeine/work late in the day make it much worse.
Are you getting regular exercise? This is much worse for me when I spend all day with my butt in a chair. Exercise really does help tire me out and sleep much better.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:28 PM on June 14, 2012

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