At the end of the day, when you’re winding down from hours of stimulation – work, friends, family, even your television – is when nothing sounds better than a warm bed and soft pillow. And yet, if you have anxiety, the end of the day may also mark the point at which your mind kicks into overdrive. Hello, obsession!
Anxiety and Sleep
Before you learn how to sleep when you have anxiety, it’s important to learn how anxiety and sleep are related.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 40 million adults have anxiety within US borders. Anxiety by itself is not necessarily dangerous or even a disorder, as it’s a natural response to fear and stress. The disorder begins when you’re plagued by persistent, obsessional thoughts and the inability to emotionally move beyond stressful events. This may lead to a racing heart, high blood pressure, and the feeling that you need to run – or an inability to move at all (this is your fight or flight response).
At night when you’re trying to sleep, however, there are usually far fewer stressful events to kick off your anxiety. Instead, your anxiety shifts into overdrive because of a lack of events – which allows us time to obsess over our day. In fact, there’s evidence that anxiety and insomnia go hand-in-hand in a vicious cycle. The more you worry, the less you sleep, the more you worry about not being able to sleep, the less you’re able to sleep…
If you’re a nighttime worrier, it’s important to learn how to sleep when you have anxiety. But if you don’t know where to start, we can help.
De-Stress from Your Day
When you think about learning how to sleep when you have anxiety, relaxation exercises probably top the list. There are several ways to go about destressing from your day – the key is finding the right one for you.
Breathing exercises are a common destressing activity. Lying still and taking several deep, measured breaths helps relax our bodies and let our minds know it’s time to calm down. It may also help to be “in the present.” Concentrating on what’s around you, such as sights, sounds, and smells can force your mind to focus on the here and now.
If your nighttime anxiety still causes you to obsess, you may find it helpful to use a “filing” method. In these exercises, you sort all your thoughts into boxes, files, etc. Then, one at a time, you “file” each thought away. These may include worries about your relationships, traumatic events, or even that fight you had in third grade. At the end of this process, you should be able to recognize that all of your anxious thoughts have been addressed.
Build a Sleep Routine
Sleep routines are personal to every individual but building and sticking to one can help reduce your nighttime anxiety overall. In turn, they can also teach you more about how to sleep when you have anxiety.
Sleep routines often – but not always – include taking a long, hot shower or bath before bed. You may read a book, light candles or incense, or sit in front of a fireplace. For many, stepping away from sources of news and blue light – such as the television and your phone – is an essential component of the process. You may also find that you like to:
- Color or draw
- Put together puzzles
- Play with Legos
- Pet your dog or cat
- Listen to the radio or soft music
Additionally, your sleep routine should involve a rough timeline – including when to go to bed. Keeping to a consistent bedtime allows your body to maintain a consistent rhythm, which may also help reduce anxiety throughout your days. Furthermore, you should also maintain a normal wake up period, within 30 minutes or so, to help stick to your rhythm. (Even on the weekends!)
If you notice that your routine typically works, but you still have a night or two where you can’t sleep, it’s important to not lie in bed awake. This will reinforce a pattern of worrying when you slide between the sheets. Instead, turn on a small light and take a few more minutes on a low-stress activity, such as getting a glass of warm milk. This can help you reset your thought process and get to sleep faster.
Get Professional Help
Depending on the reason you have anxiety, it may be beneficial to start with a therapist or psychiatrist. If your worries are precipitated by trauma, working through those events with a trained professional may afford you a sense of peace. For those with rampant obsessional thoughts, learning new techniques to shut down your mind is a valuable skill.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common way to help ease anxiety disorders. This talk therapy can help redirect negative thoughts to have positive outcomes. CBT therapy may help reduce your anxiety overall, which leads to better sleep at night.
There are also treatments a therapist may recommend to help you sleep, such as sensorimotor psychotherapy. This process helps “reset” your nerves and calm your amygdala, which may be responsible for your anxiety. A therapist may also suggest EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing if you have PTSD or a history of trauma.
Consider Medication or Supplements
It’s not always easy building a consistent process that lets you learn how to sleep when you have anxiety. If the above tricks still don’t work, it may be time to consider medication. Pharmaceutical drugs such as beta-blockers or benzodiazepines may help ease the symptoms of anxiety so you can sleep.
If drugs aren’t your thing, you may consider melatonin or another supplement. According to research by Johns Hopkins, taking 1 to 3 milligrams of melatonin two hours before bedtime can help you relax and sleep better. Your doctor may be able to recommend other supplements, as well, if melatonin doesn’t work for you.