Written by Ellen Scott
The next time you’re having a tough time drifting off, don’t bother counting sheep. Try this instead.
Your mind is racing, you can’t get comfortable despite your Muji sheets, and not even your usual lavender mist is sending you to snooze-town. What now? How can you finally drift off to sleep?
The answer is certainly not counting sheep, says sleep expert and author Matthew Walker on the latest episode of the Zoe Science And Nutrition podcast. Nope, it doesn’t work – and doing it might even mean you take even longer to finally rest.
What Walker recommends instead is something called a ‘mental walk’. “Think about a walk you know really well,” he says. “Maybe it’s a walk in the woods or a hike or a walk on the beach, and then try to really visualise that. Focus to the point of thinking ‘this is me leaving my front door, I’m walking down the steps, off I go’.
“If you do it in granular detail, the next thing you’ll remember is your alarm going off the next morning because you’ve fallen asleep.”
Joanna Shurety, a health and wellbeing coach, backs Walker up on this. “When our brains are affecting our sleep it’s often because we are ‘tired but mentally wired’,” she tells Stylist. This, she says, is “a sure sign of our stress response being switched on too much”.
“A mental walk is worth trying as it’s very similar to mindfulness and meditation,” Shurety continues. “Taking our brains to a place of safety, calm and relaxation is an incredibly powerful tool in switching off the chatter and bringing our bodies to a place where it can give in to sleep.”
Why does going on a mental walk help to relax us so much? Tania Taylor, a hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and psychotherapist, explains that it gives us all the mental benefits of going out for a stroll in nature, without us actually having to get up and about.
“Whether something is happening in reality, or in our mind’s eye, the part of our brain that regulates our hormones doesn’t really know the difference,” Taylor explains.
“Have you ever found yourself wearing a VR set and walking the plank? The intellectual part of your brain knows you are absolutely safe. However, your protection centre that helps to regulate your hormones and neurotransmitters has no clue. So it responds by pumping you with adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones that assist you in times of stress, and before you know it, your heart is beating 10 to the dozen and your legs are more wobbly than jelly.
Another example might be watching a horror movie or reading a psychological thriller, says Taylor. “These are a few relatable examples of how powerful our mind can be when it fears we are under attack or undue stress. The incredible reality is that we can work this skill in our own favour. So if we can provoke stress hormones being released by using our imagination, we can also promote the release of calming, soothing, and relaxing hormones too. This is where the mental walk comes in.”
Sounds good to us. So, how can we create a mental walk that helps to ease us into sleep? The experts share their tips ahead.
How to do a great ‘mental walk’ and finally get to sleep
Choose a walk you’ve actually done
No matter how brilliant your imagination, it’s much easier to go for a mental walk with the detail Walker suggests if you’ve already done it IRL.
“Choose a walk that you enjoy and are familiar with,” Taylor suggests. “It can be local, but it can also be a favourite walk you discovered on holiday, or some stunning gardens you visited once.”
Don’t have a favourite walk that’s coming to mind? Great news – now you have a reason to go for a stroll this weekend and enjoy all the benefits.
Pause at your starting point
Before you start visualising your stroll, take a moment to mentally stand still, breath some deep, slow breaths and take in your imagined surroundings.
Focus on your senses
Shurety advises: “Focus on the surroundings, what it smells like, how it feels. It can be a walk on a beach, with the sound of waves and heat on your skin, or maybe a walk in the woods with the sounds of birds. What feels good for you?”
Dig into the details
This is why choosing a walk you’ve done while awake is key.
“Perhaps you might like to explore your five senses in this moment,” says Taylor. “What would you be able to hear if you were in your desired destination right now? Perhaps you can smell the fresh country air or the salty sea breeze.
“If you were to reach out and touch something, what would you touch, how might it feel? If you were to really look and pay close attention, what might you see that you hadn’t quite spent much time looking at previously? Can you taste the salty sea air? Perhaps you have a refreshing drink in your hand or backpack?”
Slow it down
“When we recollect something or imagine a moment in time, we often find ourselves going at far faster speed than we would if the event was happening in real time,” Taylor notes. “So, another top tip is to slow it right down. This can help you absorb and focus on the beautiful scenery you find yourself attracted to.”
Don’t be afraid to use tools to help you out
Some of us find it tricky to visualise in this much depth – and that’s OK. Try using some additional tools to get your mind into that soothing stroll. You could download a hypnotherapy audio, read a book or look at photos of nature before bed, or play some pink noise to make it sound like you’re on the beach.
Do the same mental walk every night
In your waking hours, it might sound boring to amble along the same route day in, day out. But that’s exactly what you need when it comes to sleep.
“Try to keep to the same walk each night,” Taylor tells us. “You might notice different items on your walk and sometimes focus more on one moment than another, but keeping to the same journey helps your brain to enter relaxation. If there is one thing we all love as humans to help us to really relax, it’s familiarity.”
Don’t give up on the first try
“Consistency is king,” says Shurety. “This may not be a quick fix or work straight off the bat.Give it a chance, you need your mind to have the opportunity to get used to this new routine and recognise that this mental walk means sleep.”
Main image: Getty/Stylist.co.uk
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