“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.
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).
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.
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.
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
- Download: Your Free Guide to Sleeping Better
- Learn: Bedtime Rituals to Calm Racing Minds and Fall Asleep Faster
- Watch: Why People with ADHD Can’t Sleep and What You Can Do About It
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
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Updated on February 5, 2021