Guest Blogs

“This Simple Sleep Formula Calms My Racing ADHD Brain”

“The struggle is real but getting a good night’s sleep is possible if you have ADHD. I know this because I studied my own sleeping habits and those of the many individuals with ADHD whom I coach, and I came up with an ADHD-proof formula for getting to bed.”

It is almost universally understood that those of us with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) simply have a harder time going to sleep at night. The ADHD brain feels almost innately incapable of rest. When it should be asleep, the ADHD mind starts racing and thinking about all sorts of things — none of which are actually conducive to sleep. This predictably leads to frustration and more trouble falling asleep. We wake up tired the next day, which exacerbates our ADHD symptoms. It is a vicious cycle.

I have spent countless hours lying in bed, unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep. For me, nighttime has always been a time to think, which is part of the problem. As a child, I’d often lie awake and ponder life’s mysteries, like what would happen if you drilled a hole from one side of the Earth to the other side, and dropped a rock down the hole.

My mom didn’t know how to help me then. She’d often try to calm me down, but was less patient with me other times. “You haven’t even tried yet!” she yelled at me one night. That made no sense to me. How could I have tried harder to fall asleep? It seemed the more I tried to sleep, the less likely I was to do so. I soon resigned myself to the fact that I was just someone who would always struggle to fall asleep.

The struggle is real but getting a good night’s sleep is possible if you have ADHD. I know this because I studied my own sleeping habits and those of the many individuals with ADHD whom I coach, and I came up with an ADHD-proof formula for getting to bed.

The ADHD Sleep Formula

In Bed + Feeling Tired + A Calm Mind = Sleep
Let’s break this down.

“In Bed”

It’s obvious, but you have to be physically in your bed to get the sleep signals going. Getting into bed, however, is harder than it seems for those of us with ADHD – you have to force yourself to stop what you are doing (often something attention-grabbing) and then force yourself to physically climb into bed (something not-so attention-grabbing).

[Read: Tired of Feeling Tired? How to Solve Common Sleep Problems]

There are a few ways to facilitate getting physically into bed on time:

  • Set a “get ready for bed” alarm on your watch or on your phone. Notice I said “get ready for bed,” not “go to bed.” This alarm should signal that it’s time to start your wind-down routine, which will help tremendously with the other parts of the sleep formula.
  • Get more stuff done during the day. Those of us with ADHD tend to push everything off until the last minute, which means we may stay up later than we should to get these things done – you see where I’m going here? If you really want to improve your sleep, you need to get everything (or at least the important stuff) done during the day. Having hard stops (reinforced by alarms) can help you get organized, but you still might need additional help, perhaps by working with an ADHD coach or another professional. Moreover, by getting to bed on time, you’ll be better able to get stuff done the next day, leading to an easier time getting into bed the next night.
  • Make some sacrifices. I know this sounds awful, but if you want to improve your sleep, you are going to have to set your priorities straight. That may mean cutting down on some of the day’s more enjoyable activities. I am a huge hockey fan, for example. I love watching the Minnesota Wild play. But I have a rule: I don’t watch live games that take place on the West Coast (several time zones away from me). As you probably guessed, these games are starting right around the time I start getting ready for bed. It sucks to miss the game, but it also sucks to feel really tired the next day. Besides, I would rather wake up well-rested than tired after having watched my team potentially lose.
  • Be honest with yourself – what is really preventing you from getting to bed on time? Getting an outside perspective can be beneficial in this case.

“Feeling Tired”

Moving on to the second part of the formula – you need to actually feel tired to fall asleep. Sleep will not happen if you are completely wired. How do you make sure this happens?

  • Get some exercise during the day. Exercising less than an hour before bedtime is generally not a good idea, as it might end up energizing you. Some people, however, claim that exercising close to bed time helps them fall asleep easier. The bottom line is know your body and get exercise in at some point during the day to regulate sleep and energy levels.
  • Avoid caffeine after a certain time. Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong with having a cup of coffee in the morning or an iced tea with lunch. But having caffeine later in the day can definitely disrupt your sleep. Some studies show that caffeine consumed after morning hours – way before bed time – can reduce our sleep by more than an hour.
  • Get sunlight during the day and have your environment be dark in the evening. Daytime sunlight is going to make you feel awake and energized throughout the day, while dimming the lights at night will help the body know that bedtime is drawing near. Having that light during the day and being in relative darkness in the evening is going to help you regulate your circadian rhythm, helping you feel tired when you need to feel tired.
  • Avoid screens in the hour before bed. The blue light from electronic devices can interfere with sleep patterns and keep you up at night. If you must look at screens close to bedtime, keep some blue-light-blocking glasses around.

“A Calm Mind”

This is probably the most important part of my sleep formula, especially when the night hours seem to make the ADHD brain go wild. In these hours, exterior hyperactivity is replaced with interior hyperactivity.

[Click to Read: How to Quiet a Buzzing ADHD Brain]

To calm our minds, we can:

  • De-stress. Stress is terrible for sleep. None of us sleep well when we’re under lots of stress, so finding ways to better manage life’s stressors is a must. This can be accomplished through many activities, including mediation, prayer, deep breathing, laughter, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Avoid ruminating. I’ll admit, this is not easy. One of the best ways to stop ruminating, however, is to externalize your thoughts – get them out of your brain! Try doing a brain dump, or talk through those thoughts with somebody you trust. Writing them down also helps to prevents that interior swirling that keeps you awake.
  • Focus on the “right” things. Find something you can focus on just enough to keep your thoughts preoccupied, but not something so exciting that it energizes you. For example, I listen to a podcast while I fall asleep. As I lie in bed, I have the host of the podcast talking to me, telling me stories that are entertaining enough to get my attention, but not so entertaining that it keeps me awake and on the edge of my seat. In other words, I do not get revved up by this podcast – instead, it’s a calm and soothing part of my nightly routine. Most importantly, it is something I can focus my brain on other than my own thoughts.

I recommend listening to something you have heard before so that it doesn’t have you wondering what is going to happen next. There’s also the option of listening to soothing voices – video clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross are popular choices for helping to induce sleep. Guided meditations can also help.

ADHD Sleep Issues: Next Steps

More Sleep Strategies from ADDitude Readers

ADDitude readers answer the question: what are your best strategies for getting a good night’s sleep?

I like to take a shower right before going to bed. It’s very relaxing.”
— Jessica, Palo Verdes, California

I hung two sets of blackout curtains, and I open the window to get fresh air and cool the bedroom. I read a book before turning in.”
— Camilla, Norway

Plenty of intense exercise, limiting sugar and caffeine consumption, and sticking to a consistent bedtime routine.”
— Julie Naperville, Illinois

I don’t drink coffee, tea, or other caffeinated drinks after midday. I take a walk in the evening to wind down, and have one glass of wine three or four hours before bedtime. Getting seven hours of sleep instead of four has changed my life. I feel like a new person.”
— Tania, Norfolk, England

As soon as I feel tired, I go to bed. I pay attention to my body and let it do the work.”
— Rachel McGill, Bellingham, Washington

I stay away from negative thoughts and behaviors at night.”
— Robin, Indianapolis, Indiana

No screens before bedtime. I watch caffeine intake after noon. I write down my worries and to-dos before bed.”
— Lisa, Wisconsin

Getting some exercise during the day, using a blue screen filter on my devices, and keeping my stress down.”
— Meredith, Little Rock, Arkansas

I put lavender oil in an ultrasonic humidifier/diffuser and play isochronic tones. All of that nudges my brain toward sleep.”
— Erin Blount, Wildomar, California

“I read a bit in bed with a special Phillips clock that has a light sensor on it that gradually decreases over 20 minutes.”
— An ADDitude Reader

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. My ADHD is on the “extra” side, (so they say) so I feel extremely lucky to have been introduced to something that has helped me fall asleep within 5-10mins almost every night.

    When I was young (maybe 13 or 14 yrs old) I went on a week-long vacation with a friend. Apparently, he had an issue with getting to sleep and his Dad had given him a tape that he would listen to help him fall asleep, or just relax when my friend was stressed out. We listened to this thing every night and at the end of the week – it was ingrained and has been ever since. Many, many years later I came to realize it was what is now call “Progressive Body Relaxation”.

    I think giving my brain an active target or directed path of thoughts all the way to the edge of consciousness is the key. Instead of just letting it go hog-wild in thought (it’s default behavior) it has a set path of engagement that’s now, after decades of repeating the script, a habit.

    Hopefully, this will help at least one person.

  2. LOL, I’m reading this article at 11:30 pm. About an hour ago (or was it two hours ago?) my husband yelled from the other room “aren’t you tired?? I’m going to bed.”. My response is always ‘in a minute’ or ‘I’ll be in soon.” This is basically what my marriage has been like for a decade, but up until my recent diagnosis, I had no idea how to explain this other than “I’m a night time person” and he is a “morning person”. What sucks is that I’M the one who always has to tiptoe quietly into bed each night with a flashlight and thus cannot ‘wind down’ IN bed by reading a book or listening to a podcast. But, in recent months I’ve tried doing a short “night time yoga” routine for 10-20 minutes and that seems to help me relax and wind down — the trick is to get into my pajamas and brush my teeth BEFORE doing yoga. Just search YouTube for “bed time yoga” or “relaxation yoga” and there’s many to choose from (but then of course try to refrain from also binge watching music reaction and gardening how-to videos also!) Good night…..

  3. I used to calm my mind at night by trying to imagine the scenario in which I would meet my perfect partner. I ALWAYS fell asleep before I actually ‘met’ him – literally every time! 😀

  4. Thank you for this helpful post Alex. The way in which you described your mother trying to help you sleep resonated with me as I have an eight year-old girl with ADHD, and helping her with her sleep issues is something that I am all-too familiar with. Ashamedly, I too have shouted down the hall to “just try!” when my daughter said she couldn’t sleep. I am certain my daughter felt just like you did¬¬––that she couldn’t sleep because her mind was racing. Your honest, first-hand account of this is a real eye-opener for me and I will remember this the next time I lose patience at bedtime.
    In relation to managing your ADHD, I agree with your belief that a calm mind can be created through exercise. Can I ask that you elaborate further on which type of exercise works best for you and why you think that it calms your mind? I have been successful in helping to promote a calm mind for my daughter through dance and recommend that you give it ago. Like yourself on days that you do not exercise, I too find that on days that my daughter doesn’t dance her mind isn’t as calm and as such she has trouble sleeping. I invite you to read my blog about ADHD and exercise as I feel that this will resonate with you. Thanks again for sharing, I hope that your calm mind continues. Rachel.

  5. Sleep has been a big issue for me for most of my life. Knowing that my own body-clock seems to be “set” to a later bedtime has helped, but the “later” bedtime often can run away to the wee-wee hours of the early morning, instead of being just “close to midnight”. In addition, I used to work either a late-evening work shift or “midnights” (3rd shift, from 11 PM or midnight ’til around 7 or 8 in the mornings. I had little trouble with shift work, though it was a challenge to feel restedn “enough” after 2 separate sleep sessions in the daytime or early evening, averaging around 8 hours total, but usually 4-6 hrs at a stretch.

    I began to recognize my natural affinity with staying up late after becoming a parent to 2 young children. My husband could easily retire for the night around 10:00 PM, but I felt the most un-distracted and focused (especially on “housework) after everyone else in the family was quietly sleeping. So, my home-life also took on a “night shift” aura, as well.

    Getting diagnosed with ADHD didn’t actually clarify my sleep issues, but revealed a facet to their cause. Now, in my mid-60s, I still am struggling with keeping a more “regular, earlier” bedtime. Realistically, i shoot for any time before midnight, and, ideally, before or BY 11:00 PM (23:00).

    The hardest part for me, now, is that, in the evenings, I like to share time with my husband, who likes to watch a couple of TV programs between about 8:00 and 10:00 PM. Afterward, Husband will usually get up and say, “I’m tired; I’m going to bed.” I suddenly realize that, late though it is, I am NOT “tired” and my mind is full of ideas of things I can, might, or “should” do BEFORE I let myself “shut down” for the night. The “right thing” for me to do (sleep-wise) would be to stop my frantic mental and physical activity and get my bath (nice and relaxing, always!), and do a BRIEF pre-bed preparation routine. I could be IN bed, that way, by 11:00 PM or before. Sometimes this works. So often, I get waylaid by my impulsive, ADHD brain.

    After all, there is NOTHING much I can do to quell the impulsive, distracting (and “time-blind”) mental activity at that time of day. Stimulant (caffeine) helps me relax & focus, but I don’t think that is generally appropriate for me at NIGHT!

    The worst part is that I don’t “think” I FEEL tired until I am nearly staggering, literally FALLING into bed and almost passing out from exhaustion! When I used to stay up REALLY late, that was my only “signal” that I was truly “ready” to sleep!

    On some nights, I manage to do what I aim–get to bed by 11:00-12 midnight. On other nights, I fail miserably and vow to do better the next day/night, It’s a never-ending battle, it seems!

  6. I use (or used to use) a technique that appears to be a variant of autogenic training. From verywellmind, “Autogenic training works through a series of self-statements about heaviness and warmth in different parts of the body.” The technique that I was taught involved feeling warmth in different parts of the body, starting with the toes and working my way up. I tried to teach it to my oldest once but she was found it kind of gross, because the statement that I was taught to use was “Feel the blood, like a warm stream, flowing through my toes.” I guess you could substitute “feel the warmth spreading through my toes.”

    So it starts with me mentally telling myself, in a calm, soothing voice “breath slowly and deeply, listening only to my voice. Allow the sounds outside this room slowly fade away, listening only to my voice. Allow the other sounds in this room to fade away, listening only to my voice.” (I wasn’t so good at allowing other sounds to fade away, but could mostly focus on my voice.) Next move to the statement about the toes. If you use the longer one, say it twice, if you use the shorter one, I’d go with saying it three times. Then move to the ankles, lower legs, knees, upper legs, hips, etc. When I first started, I would fall asleep somewhere around my shoulders, but I’d be out by my upper legs or hips. After several years of doing this, I got to where I could just breath slowly and deeply to relax an be asleep in about 5 minutes.

    Then I got a cat who would pay/dig at my hair and lick my eyelids to wake me up to pet her. So I started wrapping a light weight blanket around my head and shoulders, leaving an opening for my mount and nose. I would pet her for a few minutes, then don my “head blanket”, which she eventually realized meant that pettings were over for the night, and she needed to just curl up by my head and go to sleep. She passed away a few years ago, but I still need my “head blanket” to fall asleep quickly. I can fall asleep without it, but it takes a lot longer.

Leave a Reply