It’s one thing to get enough sleep, but for many people, making full use of that window is another thing altogether. Maybe you’ve set aside the recommended seven or eight hours, but when bedtime rolls around, you find yourself putting off going to bed with a habit called “revenge bedtime procrastination.” Even if it seems silly, this is often a way to take control of your time if your daytime hours seem to be set by someone else. In a similar way, you might even make it to bed on time at night, only to feel like you can’t stop scrolling on your phone. That thumb-to-screen reflection is likely what’s more tied to control, according to therapist Meg Josephson, MSW, but in this case, by way of escapism.
“This nighttime scrolling often happens when something during the day, like at work or in a relationship, feels so out of control, so at night, the mind tries to control those emotions by pushing them away,” Josephson shared in a recent Instagram post. To do this, the brain latches on to social media and its never-ending stream of unrelated content as a way to keep it from thinking about scary things.
Below, Josephson explains why this is and what you can do about it to preserve your dream and its holiness, both now and over time.
Why you may feel like you can’t stop scrolling on your phone at night
Most of the time, scrolling through your social media feed is a nice way to get away from the things in life that make you feel anxious. It’s like a never-ending carousel of content and chances to be validated. Plus, it’s an exhaust that you have full control over whenever you want. This can make the habit particularly appealing at night, after the day’s obligations have been done and when uncomfortable emotions might surface, says Josephson.
Often you may not even be aware of these distressing emotions in the first place because the tendency to move (and move and move) keeps them repressed. “What’s key to understanding is that our brain’s main job is to protect us,” says Josephson. “When an uncomfortable emotion arises, our brain wants to remove that discomfort as soon as possible, even if feeling the emotion is actually harmless.” Cue: The feeling that you can’t stop browsing your phone at night.
The problem is that turning to a distraction like scrolling every time a hard feeling comes up makes it harder to feel and deal with the emotion. And “when numbing these emotions becomes your option, the escapism routine feels familiar and therefore body-safe,” Josephson says, making it more likely you’ll do it before bed.
But even though it feels good on the surface, scrolling before bed is probably not good for you in the long run. Not only are you potentially numbing a feeling that needs to be confronted and, on a tangible level, delaying much-needed sleep, but you’re also putting yourself at risk of being agitated or irritated by the 24-hour news cycle (room scrolling, anyone? ?), as well as exposure to ample blue light, both of which can make it more difficult to fall asleep afterward. And again, that just means less sleep in general, which isn’t good for your mental or physical health.
How to stop mid-scroll?
At first, breaking the pattern of scrolling before bed will require that it be literally impossible to do: Try charging your phone in another room and putting it away for at least an hour before bed, if possible, Josephson suggests. (And if you can leave it there overnight and use a real alarm clock to wake up, even better.)
Meanwhile, without a phone to get around, you’ll have the space and time to create a nightly ritual that feels just as comforting and safe at the moment but has a more effective end result. Josephson suggests doing some gentle stretching or deep breathing, reading a book, or writing in a journal, but anything that helps you relax personally can be part of this “arc of sleep” or pre-bed ritual.
“Start small and be consistent,” says Josephson. “Over time, your brain will begin to associate the activities you choose with a good night’s sleep.” And that will make falling asleep when the time comes that much easier. “Remember, this is nothing to be perfect about either,” he adds. “It must feel like a treat for the mind and body after a long day.”
How to Break a Pre-Bed Shifting Pattern Over Time?
Because choosing to move, like choosing to delay bedtime, can provide a sense of control and agency, it is often a sense of lack of control that triggers this behavior in the first place. As a result, it can be helpful to reflect during the day on what is really in your control and what is outside of it, so that when night comes, you are less likely to find yourself worrying about things that are out of your control. and self-soothing by scrolling.
To do this, create a checklist of what can and cannot be controlled by carefully classifying the swirling concerns in your mind into one bucket or another. For example, you can’t control how your boss acts at work, but you can control the boundaries he sets between work and life. You can’t control whether the rain prevents you from walking in the afternoon, but you can control whether you decide to take a mental break from your computer anyway.
“The fearful part of yourself may have trouble distinguishing between these two categories,” says Josephson. So he suggests asking yourself an even more specific question if everything you’re writing seems to fall into the “uncontrollable” category: “Is there anything I can do today to make this feel less overwhelming tomorrow?” You can come up with small, doable steps to feel more in control of almost any situation this way. “When we start out too big, it just overwhelms us more and leads us to freeze up even more,” she says.
If you identify something troubling that is out of your control—for example, the health of a sick family member, or a partner’s misbehavior—practice noticing when your mind obsesses over that thing, and then refocus on what is true in the future. explains Josephson “That might mean turning your attention to your breathing, any sounds in the room, or the color of the wall,” she says. “When we slowly and gently practice shifting our focus, we are re-teaching ourselves to return to the safety of now.”
Making this a regular habit can help you feel more in control of your emotions at night and less likely to fall asleep at the expense of your sleep.