Last updated: April 1, 2017
When you have anxiety at night, you get caught in a vicious cycle. You can’t sleep because you are anxious about something. Then, you get even more anxious because you can’t sleep. Anxiety can ruin the quality of your life especially when it keeps you from sleeping. Overcoming your anxiety at night will help you get your sleep back and dramatically improve your life.
There are times in your life when you have a concern that presents itself front and center in your mind when you really just need to sleep. Usually, it is short lived. What about when your worries become constant preoccupations? When your anxiety leads to insomnia? When you not only can’t fall asleep, but when you do, you awake in a panic in the middle of the night?
That anxiety can be overcome with some helpful tips. Reclaim your sleep and your life with some easy to implement changes to your routine. Sometimes, calming anxiety is simply a matter of creating a positive set of habits. It should go without saying that this is not psychiatric advice. If you have serious mental health issues, there is no substitute to following up with a professional.
What Is Sleep Anxiety
Usually people who have sleep anxiety have some form of anxiety in general. It is not typical that their anxiety only shows itself at night. Most people also have anxiety during the day; it is just more manageable since you have more distractions during the day to keep your mind off of your worries. Sometimes it's also referred to as fear of sleep.
Anxiety appears at night because you don’t have those distractions. You might be able to avoid the source of your worries all day, but when you get into bed, they come roaring into your mind.
At night, it is quiet, it is dark, and you may be alone. These are the moments that worry turns to anxiety and anxiety turns to panic. It’s this inability to wind down from your stresses from your life. Whether it is a stressful job, a rough relationship, or simply that you tend you focus on the “what ifs” too much, anxiety can interfere with your sleep.
How to prevent sleep anxiety
The best way to deal with nighttime anxiety is to prevent it from occurring to begin with. Knowing that your brain will wake up and churn through all your worries and frustrations when you hit the sack can cause you to dread going to bed. This adds even more anxiety into the mix.
Here are some tips to develop habits that will keep your anxiety at bay.
Post Work Exercise
Exercise is a natural mood booster. It gets the juices flowing, and endorphins give you a slight feeling of euphoria. Making this a daily or semi daily habit can vastly improve your physical and mental well being. It is also a great way to work through your frustrations and worries in a proactive way. Instead of allowing your brain to run wild with negative thoughts, you can let those thoughts take themselves out on the gym equipment.
Be careful not to work out too close to bedtime, though. You don’t want the natural high of working out keep you from falling asleep. A good rule of thumb is to complete your workout three hours before bed.
Don’t drink any alcohol or caffeine
You may need your caffeine fix to be able to get through the day. That is just fine; however, don’t drink any caffeine after 3 p.m. Caffeine can get you worked up, and your thoughts can sometimes go off the rails because of it. If you have anxiety, caffeine is like pouring gas on the fire. That might be alright in the morning when you have time to wind down, but not in the afternoon leading to bed.
A glass of wine might seem like just the thing to help you fall asleep. The problem is that it is a depressant. Any negative thoughts will take on some legs after that glass of wine which may lead to another and another. Getting drunk has never solved anybody’s problems. Even though that one glass of wine may help you fall asleep faster, it has been shown that drinking before bed will usually cause you to wake up more often during the night.
Make a nighttime routine
Start a routine about an hour before bed that helps set the mood for sleep and to clear your mind of worries. Shut off all electronics such as your computer, phone, and TV. These devices might be nice distractions to keep your worries at bay, but they also keep your mind alert and awake. When you get to bed with an alert brain, your anxiety may kick in making it hard to sleep.
Read a book or do a puzzle to keep your mind off of the things that cause you to worry.Writing about your anxieties in a journal also helps as long as you aren’t trying to solve your problems. Just write them down and think about the worry as an observation. Writing things out may actually help to desensitize you to your worries and anxieties. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Make sure it is a time when you are naturally sleepy. Training your brain to know that bedtime is approaching will help you fall asleep faster.
Set up a bedtime atmosphere
Making your house cozy before bed can get the melatonin flowing in your brain. Melatonin is the hormone that causes you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Putting on some dim lights or candles will alert your brain that it is time to start working on sleep. Try using some aromatherapy. Essential oils will not only make your room smell nice, they will also help to calm your brain. Oils like lavender and chamomile work wonders when used in a diffuser or sprayed onto your linens.
How to deal with sleep anxiety when it occurs
Even when you have practiced good habits to prevent your anxiety from keeping you from sleeping, there will be times when you have an anxiety attack. The more good habits you have to prevent the anxiety combined with the tools to help beat it will put you on a path to healthy sleep. Once your sleep improves, you may find that your worries are easy to manage.
Don’t lie there awake
If you go to bed and aren’t asleep in 20 minutes because your mind is racing, then it is time to get up. You need a healthy distraction. Don’t go turn on the TV or look at your phone. That will cause you to become more wide awake.You can go take a warm bath with some essential oils and candles, or have a puzzle ready to distract you from your problems. Read a book or listen to some calming music. If, after 5-10 minutes, you are still wound up and anxious, you need to try something else. Keep going until you find the thing that will calm your brain. Fold some laundry. get your lunch ready for the next day, or even do a mundane task; it might be just the ticket.
Put on some calming music
Classical music is naturally calming. If you can’t keep your thoughts together and in a healthy place, try some music, but nothing too loud or upbeat. It should be loud enough to hear and focus on without waking you up further. Listening to somebody talking is also good. A podcast may do the trick as long as it isn’t political or anything to cause you to think too much. I had a bout with insomnia that had me listening to Dylan Thomas reading poetry for hours. Usually, after hearing the rhythmic speech, I would drift off in a few minutes.
Use some relaxation techniques
Practicing mindfulness is a centering technique that can benefit anyone, but people with anxiety issues can benefit the most. Being mindful keeps you in the present so you don’t end up with thoughts that have you spiraling down.
You can lay in bed and try to think about your worries in a nonjudgemental way. This is a form of mindfulness. Don’t try to solve the problems. Just identify them and acknowledge them. Literally think of each problem, and sound it out in your mind. If your anxiety is centered around being lonely, for instance, you can think to yourself “I feel lonely most of the time and worry that I will always be lonely." Don’t think about why you are lonely or what will happen if you will always be lonely. Just identify it and let the thought pass.If you wake up in the middle of the night with a bout of anxiety, try to use some centering techniques.
If you are too awake, or thinking about these things is causing you to stress, it’s time to be mindful about something else. Go to another room and just listen to your breathing. Think about each breath and how it feels or what it sounds like. This isn’t just a distraction from your worries as outlined earlier. It is a way to bring you back to your present and not think about the “what ifs” that might be plaguing your thoughts.
Try progressive muscle relaxation
This is another form of mindfulness or even meditation. To do it, you need to lie on the floor. Starting with your toes, you will tense your body and then relax each set of muscles until you make it all the way to your head. Curl your toes and flex them. Think about the muscles and then release and relax them. Then do the same in your calf muscles. Tense them, think about the muscles, and then relax them.Then, the thighs, hips, abs, and so on. By the time you are tensing your forehead, you should have your mind focused on your body and the present.
What to do when these techniques don’t work
The most important thing you can do if you are still having problems is to not give up. If you find that these distractions only get you so far, then try some other habits.
Create a worry time
If you feel that these worries are something you need to work out so you can find some closure, then you will want to devote some time to their thought. If you are awake in the middle of the night, it might come as a relief that you give yourself permission to actually worry about your issues. You may feel better knowing that you have a time scheduled the next day that is strictly time to try to solve a set of problems that is causing you stress.
Embrace your feelings
How does it make you feel when you worry too much? Do you feel bad about yourself? Embrace that feeling. Don’t wallow in it. Just realize that life isn’t always a field of wildflowers and puppies. Let yourself feel whatever negative feeling you have without any judgement, and then try to move on. Suppressing your feelings may actually be at the root of why you have anxiety. Take some time to yourself and, instead of distracting from your thoughts, let them go. You may feel a sense of catharsis and feel like you are ready to get back to sleep.
Tell your doctor about any medications you are taking
If your anxiety is new, and you are not usually someone who worries too much, you may just have some medications that are not playing nicely with each other. Your doctor can help you identify some problem areas with your prescriptions or even herbal remedies that you have have started recently. If they see a problem with drug interaction, then they can decide to change your prescriptions and see if it works.They may also prescribe something that helps ease your anxieties or racing thoughts that will help you begin to get some sleep. Once you are rested, you may feel ready to tackle your issues on your own.
Final Thoughts on Overcoming Sleep Anxiety
Sleep is so instrumental to our physical and mental health. Finding a way to work through your fears, worries, or anxieties can only happen when you are rested.
If you can tackle your sleep issue, then many of your other problems will solve themselves. Hopefully, you have learned some ways to reduce your anxiety by practicing some positive habits. Don’t assume that these things will go away on their own. You have to be proactive in this endeavor and actually implement a plan of attack.
Once you do this, you will see that your sleep, and your life in general, improve dramatically.