How can I fall asleep without the nightly existential review?
May 13, 2008 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Every night when I get in bed I have an existential crisis that makes falling asleep difficult. What can I do?

Between the time I go to bed and fall asleep, I begin to think about things like when I will die, when the people I love will die, all the things I regret not doing, time I've wasted, the nature of God, the likelihood of heaven, and other big questions. They make it hard to fall asleep, or sometimes fill me with sadness.

Right now the only thing that works is listening to audiobooks until I pass out with my headphones on. But I'd like to find another way to fall asleep that doesn't take so long. I've had small bouts of depression and anxiety in the past, but I've taken care of them with regular exercise. I also have a very small prescription for Xanax for when I fly, but my health insurance doesn't cover mental health. I'm looking for tips, books/articles, or any anecdotal advice on how to conquer, or at least minimize these feelings. Question email is Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (44 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Stop drinking any coffee or soda so that you're more tired once you go to bed.

I think that the audiobooks solution works fine but you might want to add in meditation.
posted by k8t at 8:10 AM on May 13, 2008

When I was a child I used to stay up for nights, worried that the sun is going to burn out, the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger, people are becoming more and more violent - countless things that would keep me awake night after night. It started effecting my everyday life and my mother suggested I write down all of my worries/stresses as soon as something crosses my mind. It helped greatly, and after a few months I only had to mentally catalog my concerns, and now they barely bother me. When I have a "flare up" as I call them, I simply draw out a list of things that are worrying me, fold it in half, put it in my sidetable drawer, close the drawer and then breathe deeply, since they are out of my hands at that point.
posted by banannafish at 8:23 AM on May 13, 2008 [5 favorites]

Meditation works for me.
posted by tkolar at 8:23 AM on May 13, 2008

This used to happen to me all the time. I'm an atheist, and it was the pondering death that was freaking me out. It would make my heart race and upset me a lot. Are you about 25? This went away for me over time. I just had to push the thoughts out of my mind. Yes, that's denial, but the vast majority of humanity is walking around in a state of denial about death. We're all going to die, but if everyone constantly dwelled on it, we could not function.

Things that worked for me were little mantras: "I'll think about this later." Also, try generic things to help sleep in general - an eyemask, white noise or soft music, blackout curtains, a regular bedtime routine, a regular bedtime.

Caffeine can be an issue, but for me the bigger problem was chocolate. I think the deal is that theobromine's effects are milder but longer lasting, and I must be really sensitive to it. I definitely notice a different in my heart rate and ability to sleep when I've had dark chocolate or (real) cocoa in the late afternoon or evening.
posted by peep at 8:24 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by fixedgear at 8:30 AM on May 13, 2008

I too like to think myself to sleep rather than listen to audio, and thinking upsetting stuff can really keep me up.

One thing that works is to find a detailed positive topic to think about, the kind of thing that you can think about night after night and never be completely finished with. An example of this would be designing a dream house. I can think about this every night if I want, because it's impossible to decide whether it should be an open-plan loft or a crazy Victorian with secret passages. If you allow yourself to get really fanciful and think in detail about things like where the recycle bins should go (if recycling goes via chute to the basement, then how to solve getting the full bins out to the curb?), you can entertain yourself for hours.

Another thought that can work in place of upsetting topics is to review in detail interesting memories. I'll mentally walk through my childhood home and try to recall not just the colors and the furniture, but what was inside the drawers. Or run chronologically through a trip or the first day of college and see how much I can bring to life.

Another strategy is to read non-fiction books in bed till you feel yourself get drowsy. Science, art criticism, biography, whatever interests you but isn't so riveting that you'd want to stay up in spite of being tired.
posted by xo at 8:32 AM on May 13, 2008 [5 favorites]

Whenever I find myself plagued with life problems when I'm trying to sleep, I remind myself that problems like these are not solved by lying awake in bed, and are better tackled during waking hours. I make myself think of simpler things, things I enjoy doing (keyword SIMPLE. Small things). It relaxes me and helps me drift off.

If the bigger problems try to creep back in I wipe them out with static (picture a TV turned to no station, and white noise). Repeat as necessary. Works for me anyway ... good luck.
posted by Koko at 8:32 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps finding answers to some of the quandaries that are perplexing you will help you be more serene when trying to fall asleep.

Play along with me. For a moment, I want you to forget everything you have learned in your whole life. This is the beginning of a new understanding, a new dream. The dream you are living is YOUR creation. It is your perception of reality that you can change at any time. You have the power to create heaven or hell. Why not dream a different dream? Why not use your mind, your imagination, and your emotions to dream heaven?

Just use your imagination and a tremendous thing will happen. Imagine you have the ability to see the world with different eyes, whenever you choose. Each time you open your eyes, you see the world around you in a different way. Using your imagination and your new eyes of perception, see yourself living a new life, a new dream, a life where you don't need to justify your existence and you are free to be who you really are.

When you can do that, you will achieve serenity, and you will likely fall easily asleep.
posted by netbros at 8:34 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

No caffeine after noon. Limit sugar intake also (ice cream after dinner was a culprit for me!).

Exercise an hour a day, but not right before bed. At noon is best, or if you've got to do it in the evening, earlier.

Walk down a detailed path in memory - for example, I try to recall all the airports I've been to, or all the cities I've slept in, or try to remember the details of my childhood home (be careful with ending up thinking about your family, of course).

Or I just write science fiction plotlines in my head.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:48 AM on May 13, 2008

You are having those crises because you are tired at night. /stating the obvious

Whenever thoughts like that keep me awake, I remind myself that the things I'm worrying about don't worry me in the mornings when the sun is coming up. Ergo, they are only looming over me because it's dark and I'm tired, not because they are objectively worth worrying about.

Boom headshot, out like a light.
posted by bricoleur at 8:50 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

XO: that's exactly what my doctor recommended when I was having dreadful sleep difficulties from over-active thinking: design a house or a room in obsessive detail, along with all the other common sense stuff (exercise, no caffeine, white noise). It worked much better than the sleeping pills, which made me unbearably groggy the next day.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:59 AM on May 13, 2008

I can relate to this. Although I don't have trouble sleeping, I do spend a lot of time preoccupied with things I can't do anything about. Try to remain conscious of two things: 1) worrying about huge problems doesn't help to solve them. 2) There are actual things you can do within your abilities.
Thus your thought process could go something like:
"People are really mean to each other." Tomorrow I'll be nice to someone and make the world that tiny bit less meaner. It's a pathetic difference, sure, but it's all you can do.
"The world is getting buried under humanity's trash". OK, I'll start carrying my own mug around and never use another paper cup or plastic water bottle. An easy step, and although the difference made by one person doing it is microscopic, it's still a greater difference than just worrying about it.
"I'm going to die." Nothing you can do about it. Greater minds than mine and probably yours have addressed themselves to this. Reading Camus in bed might make this better or far, far worse.
If it helps at all, you're part of a distinguished line of thinkers that is as old as humanity, and worrying about these things implies that you're probably not vapid and shallow.
posted by crazylegs at 9:03 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do you have your life in order? Are your bills paid up, are you happy with your career, do you take care of your health? Is your house organized? Do you socialize with others? Anxiety, in my experience, is caused by a feeling of being out of control. The more I put my life in order, the better I feel.
posted by desjardins at 9:06 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

This might sound obvious: Accept death.

I think an existential crisis like this hits every thinking individual at some point in their lives. Problem is if you dont deal with it -- the fact of death, in this case -- head on, it will always be there for the rest of your life nagging you in a variety of ways (in this case, not letting you get enough sleep).

I certainly went through this myself. I tried a variety of escapes (thinking about something else, escapism, thinking about god/afterlife, etc). What worked for me in the end, what convinced me to move on in the end, was a philosophical resignation to the fact of death in the universe, in the life cycles of the universe, its inevitability, unavoidability, even that its a healthy thing for the universe, and a healthy thing for individuals to face and come to terms with as it teaches economy and humility. At this point I'm actually looking forward to my molecules feeding new life.

But thats what worked for me, a kind of "head on" facing of it. What helped me do that was a combination of philosophical studies, historical studies (both in order to see and recognize what a universal existential problem this has been throughout all the ages, throughtout all societies); and also what helped was reading up on religious or spiritual approaches that *dont* necessarily promise an eternal life (basically anything but the monotheisms, frankly). Zen Buddhism (or other varieties of Buddhism, varieties of paganism, varieties of non-dualist hinduism, ideas about reincarnation (life cycles) and the perpetual holistic connections in the universe (both in time as well as space) -- all this helped. Helped to philosophically shift my perspective from "what will happen to me?" to "whats happening in the big picture, in the universe, of which I am one localized part, and thats how it should be".

Everyone who chooses to reconcile their fear of death with the reality (as opposed to choosing some form of escapism (distracting oneself from thinking about it, imagining god has offered you eternal life, or whatever) comes to terms with it in their own way. You'll find you way soon as you decide to tackle it head on. It may take a year or two of thinking it through, but the advantage is that once you've come to peace with the inevitability of death, it doesnt bother you "in the abstract" like this anymore, at least not at this level of disruption; you'll acquire a series of orientations towards the question that help you put it to rest (by accepting it rather than by avoiding it) whenever it comes up. For me, that was the better way to handle it (head on), and its worked so far and freed up my mental energy to think about more practical things (how can I make the most productive and practical use of my time on earth).
posted by jak68 at 9:14 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've had this problem, too. What I typically do is deliberately think of other, more fun things. For me, I think about what I'm going to do win I win the lottery, because there's so many things I can do with that. For example: The list of people I'm going to take with me when I book a cruise ship for all my friends and family. The dream house I'm going to build. What I'll say when I quit work. All the places I'll visit. All the fun cars I'll own or will buy for my friends. The people I can help. The animals I can help. The list goes on an on. It's gotten to the point where I'm looking forward to bedtime, just so I can have some time to think of more cool stuff. The only drawback is that I've found I actually have to buy a lottery ticket each week, otherwise my brain goes crazy telling me that i'm thinking nonsense, because it's never going to happen. If I have the lottery ticket however, then there is the very minute, minuscule possibility that it just could happen. I consider the $4 spent weekly worth it, simply because it allows me to dream. Now if I could only control my subconscious as well...
posted by cgg at 9:19 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to get this all the time, and sometimes I still do if I have insomnia. Reading in bed, per xo's suggestion, helps a lot. It can be a book you've already read a few times but still enjoy, so you're not up all night wanting to know what happens next.

The existential panic often happened only when my room was dark, I was awake, and I had nothing to occupy my mind. Turning the light on and doing something always helped. If I have the mental energy to visualize all sorts of tragedies befalling my loved ones and humanity at large, it means I'm just not tired enough to be in bed.

Practicing good sleep hygiene in general would probably help; I wonder if your insurance would help out with sleep troubles.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:21 AM on May 13, 2008

This used to happen to me a lot and it still does sometimes. For years I solved the problem by getting drunk every night. I still usually drink a glass or two of red wine with dinner, and in all seriousness I would recommend trying this: one glass is good for you anyways, and it won't solve your problem entirely but it will put you into more of a retiring mood and it might also start to function as a psychological signal that your day is over and it's time to relax. Also make sure you're not drinking coffee after 1pm and as others have said, get some regular exercise. If you find yourself caught up in existential worries, rather than just lying there in bed, get up, get a book and read for an hour, and then try to go back to sleep. Don't read Sartre though. On preview: don't read Camus either. Yeah, and as others have said, I have a strong suspicion that you're under 30, and basically this problem will fade with time, and you'll start to become haunted by practical worries rather than existential ones.

Oh yeah, something else that works for me sometimes: I try to think exclusively about images rather than actual thoughts. If you let images pop into your head -- anything, a blob of color, a shape, anything -- and if you can force yourself to think nothing but that image and watch it evolve into other images, but cut off all non-image thoughts as soon as they emerge, then pretty soon you'll drift off. I imagine this is a lot like meditation, except that as I understand it you're not supposed to actually fall asleep during meditation.
posted by creasy boy at 9:25 AM on May 13, 2008

I used to worry about that sort of thing much more than I do now, which is infrequently. Especially about death and other people dying and such. I would stay sane by acknowledging that worrying about it doesn't change anything, and if I'm going to die and other people are going to die, then there's all the more imperative to make sure that I spend that time being happy. When those things actually happen, then you can be sad for a while and know that at least you didn't waste the time beforehand. So, for example, if you're worried about someone you love dying, tell yourself that you're not going to think about that right now, and you will let yourself be as sad as you need to be when it actually happens.

Sometimes it's harder than others to be rational about it, I know. It got a lot easier for me, though, when my dad died. He had heart problems for twelve years, and during this entire time all my mom did was worry. She worries about everything naturally and seems to be in a perpetual state of anxiety. Sometimes the worrying would stress her out so bad she would be in a hair-trigger mood and snap at us because she felt so overwhelmed by everything, or just start crying out of nowhere. I honestly wonder if she's ever truly happy because her worrying seems to take over everything. She's so scared of losing everyone that the feeling is always there when she should just be enjoying them.

Well, when my dad actually died, it was pretty much the culmination of everything she had spent twelve years worrying about. She's still sad but we find our ways to move past things like that. This was easier for me to do because once I matured a bit, I made a conscious effort not to worry about the fact that he was going to die, and instead enjoy his company. When he died, I did not feel any regret, and I had accepted it was going to happen. I started out feeling similarly to my mom, the constant panic and anxiety, but she never moved past that.

When I think about my mom, though... I can't help but know those twelve years leading up to his death were the most stressful, saddest years she's ever had. They didn't have to be that bad. She will never get them back or my dad back, she's never going to get a second chance to make her last years with him happy ones.

Knowing that really drove that idea home for me. Whenever I find myself crying myself to sleep because my fiance will die one day, that's all I need to remember. Precisely because he will die one day, maybe even tomorrow for all I know, it's so, so important that I'm enjoy being with him right now. If I want to live whatever time I have, or he has, to the fullest, there's no room for agonizing over things we can't change.

So if you find yourself worrying, do your best to internalize that. If someone is not yet dead, do not mourn them; it's time poorly spent, time you could have spent being happy, that you will never get back.
posted by Nattie at 9:30 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

This happens to me when I am excessively tired. Try going to bed a little earlier, before those thoughts start up. Also, try getting ready for the next day before going to bed - make a lunch, lay out your clothes, think a little bit about what the next day will be like. It helps a lot.

If troubling thoughts arise, try some simple meditation techniques/deep breathing. If you short circuit the anxiety response, the thoughts will stop.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:39 AM on May 13, 2008

Thoughts beget other thoughts of similar type. I've heard a theory somewhere that memories may be connected by emotional categories, and I've found this to be true. So when I start thinking negatively, I find that it's easy to remember other negative things, and this starts a long line of negative thinking in general.

It might be worth asking the question: why is it easy for the negative thinking to pull you away from the positive thinking? Why not the other way around? It could be because there are some habits in place that default toward that particular emotional response to life, which simply need to be retrained to concentrate on things that are emotionally more pleasing (and even true!). This can require a bit of effort (medication, journaling, time of concerted thinking), but from everyone that I've talked to about this, this can have a very positive effect.

I find that I do something very similarly, by the way. I deal with guilt and doubt about my relationships, past behavior, etc., when the lights go out. What's strange is that when I get up in the morning and during the day, I don't nearly feel the same way, and usually have a hard time figuring out why I was making such a big deal about things. One thing I've learned to do is give myself permission to have free space not to dwell on things while I'm trying to sleep. Usually this is a matter of agreeing to let my future self ponder these things in the morning, when I know I'm in a better state of mind to take them on. This may require writing down a reminder for myself to do so later, so that I buy into my own suggestion.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:41 AM on May 13, 2008

Also, perhaps some of these things that you are struggling to resolve at night simply need some effort to come to some conclusions (even if the conclusion is that it's not possible to come to a conclusion). Sleep is the time that unresolved issues typically come to the surface, which is often reflected in our dreams, as well.

It may simply be the fact that it would be helpful to figure out what you think about heaven, God, and what your life plans are. They are big questions, and pretty important regarding how other things play out in your life. Perhaps there's simply some psychological tension that needs to be worked out, such that you are tempted to do it while you sleep.

Again though, I'd give yourself permission to do it during the day. Perhaps you can even convince yourself that these issues which are so important that they keep you awake are better addressed on a full night's sleep.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:50 AM on May 13, 2008

NPR is my insomnia cure of choice.
posted by rhizome at 9:56 AM on May 13, 2008

Or read Ecclesiastes ;) Its short and fun and I think it addresses your main concern. ;)
posted by jak68 at 9:57 AM on May 13, 2008

(medication, journaling, time of concerted thinking)

Sheesh, I meant meditation, not medication. Although I'm sure medication works for some people.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:15 AM on May 13, 2008

The simplest form of meditation is simply counting backwards from 100. If you have a thought other than your counting, start over. This helps train your mind to shut out any negative thoughts you're having. I usually find I'm asleep by the time I get to 50.
posted by one_bean at 10:32 AM on May 13, 2008

Lots of good advice here. I don't have anything to say about existential life-or-death crises, but I have plenty of experience not being able to make my brain slow down enough to sleep, and I can pass on what I've read about falling asleep faster.

For me, the crises were more meta- than metaphysical (as in "If I don't stop worrying about falling asleep, I'll never fall asleep!", self-fulfilling prophecy kind of stuff). Ultimately, the most important thing I did was cut out the caffeine in the evenings. It's astonishing how much of a difference this made, and I can't believe how long it took me to figure this out. I just kept rationalizing it away, or not even realizing how late in the day I was consuming caffeine. But I occasionally still have problems (not nearly as severe as before), and I think this happens when my schedule is irregular and/or I'm changing up my sleep-time ritual.

This is what I've read: Try to get to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day, and whatever you do to relax (audiobooks, regular books, crosswords, meditation, etc.), do the same thing every night. The same goes for your pre-bedtime routine, all the way from checking your e-mail down to brushing your teeth. If you're doing the same sort of thing half an hour before bed that you do in the middle of the day, then change it up a bit (maybe put on your PJs before you go check Metafilter one last time). Your body will get used to the routine, and understand that PJs=sleeptime. It may take awhile (I've heard everything from 2 nights to a month), but the trick is to be consistent.
posted by ErWenn at 10:47 AM on May 13, 2008

I've been having a similar problem for the past couple of years; the best way I can describe it is that I can't turn my brain off when I get into bed. Lying there in the dark with no input just makes my mind cycle through all the bad things, though usually mine relate to life and circumstances, worries of the future, etc.

It's not the best approach, but I've been falling asleep with the television on. I know, bad sleep hygiene and all, but it's the right level of low mental engagement to be distracting enough to keep the demons away, yet not so engaging that I can't fall asleep with it going. Beats rolling over on your iPod during the night or waking up with an earbud jammed in your ear, which I've also done.

Before this, I used to read. That would often help, depending on what it was I was reading. Doesn't work so well now, as the layout of the room means I can't use a bedside light, and getting up to turn off the lights ruins any drowsy feelings that have been created. Sometimes the thoughts would creep in through the reading material, as well.

Someone above also mentioned wine; it may depend on how much you drink, or how your body reacts, but a glass of red wine a bit before bed can be a great way to kick-start the sleepiness. I almost never drink, though, so YMMV. (And make sure you've drunk enough water during the day so that the one glass of alcohol doesn't have a dehydrating effect.)
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 10:53 AM on May 13, 2008

Hey, this used to happen to me all the time and now happens on occasion. I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, too, as a way of dealing with it. But really, the best thing I've done is to tire myself out to the point where when I get into bed, I fall asleep almost immediately. Sometimes I have a glass of wine, which usually puts me right to sleep; other times I'm so tired because I've had a busy day - worked 10 hours, went to the gym for 1 hour, came home and made dinner and did the laundry and then read a book or knit in front of the TV for a few hours.

I find I worry a bit less about death and dying when I'm busy and when I'm exercising. I kind of hate the gym, but oh, the benefits of going are so good for me. I'm happier, I sleep better and I'm just better all around.

What has also helped is that I will not go to bed just because the clock says it's whatever time. I only get into bed now when I am absolutely exhausted. My bed is also nice and soft and I have a wonderfully puffy duvet. Sleeping is one of my greatest pleasures and I've tried to make my bedroom a peaceful sanctuary.
posted by sutel at 11:17 AM on May 13, 2008

Two words: Let go.

If you don't know what I mean by that, well...don't think about it too seriously....instead of reading books about living the happy life, rent a movie entitled "What About BoB?" and watch the part where Bob stays the night and gets over his fear about death.

Much more entertaining in my opinion.

Sure there's other ways to address this kind of anxiety, but I think by simply training yourself to accept the things that scare you at face value, you'll sleep better and more comfortably at night.
posted by samsara at 11:28 AM on May 13, 2008

I just tune the TV to Magnum, P.I., and put it on sleep timer. I am as prone to existential crises as any person who ever lived, but I practically never find out what happens at the end of Magnum because I'm snoring away by then. Seriously. Use whatever show you want, but the secret is to turn the volume down to where you really have to listen in order to make out what they're saying, and then try hard to follow the plot. If it's too easy to hear, your mind will go back to obsessing, but if you have to work a little, it will keep you occupied. If you wake up again later, repeat.
posted by HotToddy at 11:46 AM on May 13, 2008

When I was younger, I used to think a lot before bed time, and my mom says I would often talk myself to sleep late at night. It's gotten better for me, and here's some things I've tried:

1. No TV/computer at least 30 minutes (60 is better) before bed time. There have been studies on this, and I decided to give it a whirl, and it definitely helps calm my mind to pick up a book instead of surfing the web before turning the lights out. I've tried listening to music/audiobooks/podcasts just before bed time, and I find that a quiet environment is much more conducive to making my brain calm down. Try reading instead of soon as my eyes get droopy I know it is time to turn out the lights.

2. The only caffeine I have is at lunch time. I rarely have any with dinner or in the late afternoon.

3. Getting more exercise or doing strenuous yard/housework during the day makes me a lot more tired at night, so my body takes over and shuts things down instead of letting my mind rule the roost.

4. I am not super strict about getting up/going to bed at the same times, but I try to be fairly regular. If you make it a routine, your body may communicate with your mind a little better about when it is time for sleep.

If none of these work, you may want to try talk therapy for your anxiety issues.
posted by sararah at 12:12 PM on May 13, 2008

Explicit sexual fantasies and masturbation.
posted by herbaliser at 12:23 PM on May 13, 2008

Just look at the sidebar on AskMe- there are fewer religion and philosophy questions than any other category! Surely you too can come up with some non-religious, non-philosophical questions to ponder while laying in bed. p.s. this thread is awesome.
posted by proj08 at 12:36 PM on May 13, 2008

I like jak68's answer. Watch out for complex answers to this problem. The bottom line is to stop caring. About everything. Just stop giving a sh*t. I know it sounds like giving up, but I have found that this system allows me to really enjoy life. I am friendlier and more productive. Less frustrated. There are a lot of deep questions out there, but in the end, the sun goes red giant and it all goes back to dust. Knowing that it all ends and nothing matters has really freed me up to enjoy the little things. So accept death as inevitable, but take it a step further and let your "self" die.

If that doesn't work, choose herbaliser's answer. A little death can be just as good as a big one in the short term.

If you choose to persist on your current path, keep in mind you have only about five billion years to work it all out before he sun incinerates the Earth.
posted by Area Control at 12:59 PM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have had this same problem for as long as I can remember. Everyone else has suggested some really great ways to help keep your anxiety under control, but that twilight state between "awake" and "asleep" has a way of dismantling all the hard work you do, and all that same stuff comes floating to the top of your mind. Your brain is intent on talking to itself whether you want it to or not.

So yes, exercise, meditate, masturbate. But practically speaking, for those times when your brain won't turn itself off, I highly recommend making (emotionally neutral) lists in your head. The idea is to distract your brain so you can fall asleep without it noticing.

Here's what I do almost every night, laying in the dark with my eyes closed: start with some random, innocuous topic like US states, countries, professional sports teams, mammals, insects, appliances, anything. Then start at A naming all the ones you can think of. Armenia, Australia, Austria. When you run out of ideas, go to B. Bulgaria, Belgium, Bora Bora. Basically, I'm distracting my thinking brain so that the rest of my brain can sneak in and turn out the lights. I usually don't make it past F.
posted by ultraultraboomerang at 1:01 PM on May 13, 2008

Ha ha! I love it! My SO is so going to be "Why are you sleeping with a sock on your hand? With googlie eyes..and a moustache? Oh! And he has a friend too ...are those my socks?!"

As a lifetime thinker/non-sleeper - a 10 minute story you repeat over and over. It's fairly mundane, has no ending, tweak it until it's perfect. (Think good book that needs just a few.. more.. pages...) It's like the starter motor for my dreams is shot, but it will still work if you push the bastard.

As I got older I also found that um self... you know (ugh it's so polite in here I'm too shy to just say it) Anyway - that is good for when I can't sleep because I'm looking forward to the next day and I just can't. shut. my brain up!

And finally - I had crazy panic attacks that took root in this benign little habit, they still give me grief today BUT my most recent (and most helpful) step forward was to literally say to myself "Get some real problems."
Whatever coping mechanism it was - I think now - it's just a smoke screen.
I have real problems that should be of concern to me and so far it seems to be working. I think it's reconditioning me too. Such great lengths only to remind myself to think about what I was avoiding. Screw that. Those socks are lookin' pretty blunt and yet non-judgemental.

What I'm getting at is what's really bothering you? Or a better question might be what kind of thought process - would make this the logical answer? Tackle that while you're in the shower or something though. Sleep has it's own thinking that it needs to get through.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:32 PM on May 13, 2008

I have been dealing with this for the last six months or so. Sort of a damn-I'm-married-the-next-thing-is-death realization that I'll not exist at some point. Especially painful is my expectation that, someday, there will be a generation of humans who doesn't need to die until they want to. We might be it... but, maybe not.

One thing that seems to help is to remember that, if my life has finite length, then spending time worrying about its finite length cannot constitute a productivity. The Zen folks would tell us to spend time in the moment, to live now instead of worrying about demons. I plan what I'm going to do the next day. If I run out of tomorrow, I plan next week. I may change this plan, or throw it away upon waking. But, thinking about what I'm doing tomorrow, here, in the real world, which I can actually experience, makes it harder to worry about death.
Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. --Susan Ertz
posted by Netzapper at 4:08 PM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

NPR is my insomnia cure of choice.

same here.
posted by RockyChrysler at 8:23 PM on May 13, 2008

Consider how you feel after a big breakup. For weeks, it's all you can think about. The feeling of all consuming loss; regret, nostalgia, wistfulness, the sense of something great but slipped away, now unreachable. This is similar in my experience -- except you're on the other side of it: you regret that it's coming, not that it has happened. But the end result, for me at least, is the same -- with time, depression and anger turn into acceptance and, strangely, you feel OK about it.

Most of the time.
posted by BaxterG4 at 11:55 AM on May 14, 2008

I've had this problem before as well.

My solution was to limit my thinking to one topic per night. If i found myself getting away from it, i would consciously go back to it. This allowed my get past the overwhelming feeling and move into contemplation of options, which is a lot more soothing....
posted by spongeboy at 6:46 PM on May 14, 2008

I can crush just about anyone (myself, or others) with well-reasoned nihilistic arguments that will send them spiraling into existential depression. (Forget death; how about you're just a puppet of physical laws playing out?) So, yeah, sleep can sometimes be slow-in-coming due to anxiety over matters both grand (e.g., death) and mundane (e.g., debt).

My best coping strategies tend to be:

1) Fall asleep with someone next to you: this works nigh-perfectly; alas, my SO likes to keep much later hours than I can bear due to my job, so it's an infrequent solution.

2) Have sex or masturbate: as long as I'm already in bed and don't need to get up again for any reason, this is like a hammer over the head.

3) Wear earplugs: while I started doing this for more mundane reasons (as mentioned above, my SO likes to stay up late), I've found that the acoustic feedback in my ears is quite soothing and helps me both fall asleep and stay asleep.
posted by korpios at 10:50 AM on May 15, 2008

And as to everyone urging acceptance of one's death as a solution: I'm sorry, but I doubt I'd have any will to live if I accepted death. There's a nonzero chance of attaining medical immortality (i.e., no aging or disease) within our lifetimes, and the heat death of the universe is a problem we'd have a long time to ponder. ^_^
posted by korpios at 10:58 AM on May 15, 2008

Well, it's going to be different for everyone. Personally, since I accepted the inevitability of death, my will to live has gotten stronger. Something like the heart attack victim who survives and starts appreciating the little things in life more than he did before, simply because he recognizes that he's still there to enjoy them. I just stopped caring, and it made me enjoy caring more. Weird.
posted by Area Control at 2:59 PM on May 15, 2008

Things you regret not doing? Address them. I say this because my dad was sick when I was about 23, and i remember once bursting into tears at a restaraunt with a friend, because I was remembering he used to take me there, and I was sad that he was no longer mobile and that I hadn't appreciated the lunches more. She wiped my tears and comforted me, but I wish (and i know i should have known myself) she had said, "Well, just do stuff with him now" I mean i was doing stuff with him, but I oculd have done a little more. So if your "regrets' are addressable, address them, for goodness' sake. That will take away the anxiety right there.

Exercise I think can't be overstressed - find a new activity you like, maybe a group/team sport so you get your mind off stuff.

What happens when you die? Probably noone can convince you of that. You have to believe something yourself, whether it's plant-food, heaven, reincarnation, or some combination. : ) So maybe figure out what you think and lay it to rest.
posted by Penelope at 7:30 AM on August 1, 2008

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