It’s close to midnight, and you’re exhausted after dragging your feet through a busy day. You can’t wait to get some sleep and expect to doze off quickly, so you crawl into bed and turn off the light, but as soon as your head hits the pillow, something changes. First, you’re just casually replaying the events of your day as you drift off to sleep, but then you’re listing everything you’d like to accomplish tomorrow, and soon enough, your thoughts have spiraled. You’re imagining worst-case scenarios that could go down the next day and how you might handle them, and then move on to dissecting your greatest unresolved questions about the meaning of life, the future of your relationships, and where you’ll be in ten years.
Before you even realize what a mental hole you’ve dug yourself into, you’re imagining your biggest fears in such vivid detail that you start reacting emotionally as if they’re actually happening. By the time you snap yourself out of it, there’s a knot in your chest, your blood pressure is through the roof, and your mind is wide awake no matter how much your body is begging for rest, which just sets the worry spiral off again because now you’re worried about how you’ll ever get any sleep tonight.
Any of this sound familiar?
This may be an extreme example, but we’ve all been in this scenario once or twice, and some experience it regularly. Life is so busy that sometimes getting into bed for the evening is the first time we have alone with our thoughts all day. Having an anxiety disorder can increase the odds of this happening, but anyone facing typical everyday stressors can struggle to fall asleep due to overactive thoughts. We consulted a few pros on steps that can be taken to find more peaceful evenings and get to the root of the problem. Here’s what they suggest!
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1. Practice prevention with before-bed routines.
“Anxiety can be a major cause of difficult with sleep for people. Our anxious brain can make it very easy to get on what I call the hamster wheel of worry as we are trying to fall asleep. Good sleep hygiene, a great nighttime routine, is imperative to this,” says therapist, self-care expert and author Justine Brooks Froelker.
- Make a to-do list for the next day. “If you have a mental list of things you still need to finish up from the day, it will haunt you all night. Get what you can done, and if not, jot down a list so you aren’t struggling all night to remember what you need to do,” says Missy Tannen, president of fair trade bedding brand Boll & Branch.
- Adjust the temperature. According to Tannen, “Experts say that you’ll sleep longer and deeper in a cooler (not cold!) room, while keeping your body temperature warm. According to a study by Dr. Eus van Someren from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, cooler room temperatures of about 65-68 degrees at bedtime flips your brain and body’s ‘time for bed’ switch which helps you fall asleep faster. But, be careful, Dr. Someren also points out that they key to great sleep is keeping your body at about 90-degrees, so pay attention to the layers of clothing, sheets, blankets and duvets that you use. They all help maintain the toasty body temperature that you can’t set with a thermostat!”
- Avoid technology. Froelker advises stepping away from glowing screens. “No technology at least 20-30 minutes prior to sleep. Putting our phone on airplane mode the minute we are in our bedroom helps with our tech addictions. No light helps our brain to release melatonin which helps us become drowsy. Also, it is amazing to wake up in the morning to a clean phone and not a thousand messages.” Tannen also suggests putting your digital clock someplace where you can’t see it. “Anyone that has had trouble sleeping can tell you that watching the clock is a great way to stress yourself out. Stress and sleep do not go hand-in-hand. So, hide the clock and stop calculating how many minutes you’ve been trying to fall asleep in your head. Don’t worry, you can hide your clock… but you can’t hide from your alarm!”
- Develop rituals. “The same thing in the same order every single night prepares both our brains and our bodies for rest,” Froelker says. She suggests you take on a simple practice like brushing teeth and washing your face in the same way each night, “stretch or nighttime yoga, devotionals (religious or not),” “read (an actual book),” and “journal (especially a gratitude journal.)”
- Relaxing calming beverages. “A warm cup of naturally decaffeinated herbal tea can be an excellent way to help you relax before bed,” says Tannen. “We suggest Chamomile, Jasmine or Lavender, all of which are considered natural relaxants, for the perfect pre-snooze cocktail…If a warm cup of tea isn’t your, well, ‘cup of tea’ then perhaps a nice glass of red wine will do the trick!” Believe it or not, according to the University of Milan the skins of the grapes used in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti contain Melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate our body clocks.
2. Stop anxious thoughts in their tracks.
If you still find yourself laying awake, take action right then and there to shut anxious thoughts down. Dr. Lisa Hartwell, clinical psychologist, author, and owner Hartwell Therapy & Consulting suggests a three-step approach.
Step One: “Breathe. Deep breathing. Seriously. Sounds so simple, but watch the next time your mind is racing and I bet you are breathing very shallow or sometimes even holding your breath. When we do this, we are depriving our brains of oxygen and puts us in a bit of ‘panic’ mode. When we panic, our mind races. So the first step is to slow down the breathing, breathe deeply 5-10 times, then move on to step two.”
Step Two: “Get out of Bed! Yep. The worst thing you can do is lay there and let your mind have a field day with your thoughts. We need to train our minds and bodies that our beds are only for sleep and sex. You never want to associate anxiety with being in bed. Bedtime is only associated with relaxation, sleep, and again, sex.”
Step Three: “If your mind is racing about nonsense, it is time to use the skill of distraction. Very light reading (think: flipping through a magazine or reading an article about insomnia) and under very low lighting. No bright lights, no TV and no phones/iPad. Bright light gives the receptors in our eyes the signal to our brains it’s time to wake up. That’s why the morning sun wakes us up. If you don’t want to read something light, you could doodle or draw. The key is to only do this for 15 minutes or so. Then get back in bed after your mind has calmed. Rinse and repeat: if afterward you are not relaxed/asleep in 15 minutes, get up and repeat. Usually this takes about 4 cycles. It is literally retraining the brain and body so it may take a few attempts. “
3. Dig deeper into the problem.
Dr. Hartwell advises that anxious sleepers can take the process a step further and make for easier nights in the future by “listening to what your anxiety is offering you so you can actually grow and move on.” Perhaps you’re anxious because there’s something you need to learn from it!
”I am of the notion that we all have some level of anxiety. It is meant to keep us awake, alert, ready for action if need be so we can grow and learn from that moment in our lives. Most people get so caught up in the distracting physical symptoms of anxiety (mind racing, heart racing, shortness of breath, headaches, body aches, feeling prickly skin), they just want medication to knock them out. However, when anxiety leading to insomnia takes on a life of its own, most of the time it is related to the need for us to focus on something in our lives. Maybe there is a decision you need to make, or an emotional hurt you need to work through, or an upcoming fear that haunts you (financial, sickness, parenting worries, etc). Doesn’t matter what it is, it is your mind’s only way of getting you to essentially hyper-focus on something to work through it. That’s why it feels as if your head is spinning. If you really pay attention to each thought you’ll start to notice repetitive thoughts and themes that are popping up.
That’s great! Embrace it! But not all night! It’s best to keep a journal or notebook of your thoughts and do not try to edit as you write. Just write. Any time of the day, but I always say it’s best to do in the morning or evening in your quiet times. Or if you’re a talker, talk into your voice recorder on your phone. Either way. Just get your thoughts out of your head. It’s best not to engage in conversation with someone as these are your thoughts trying to sort out what is best for you to propel you forward to whatever needs to be solved or help you grow. You do not have to do this every day, but of course I recommend jotting down at least your goals, gratitude, and gifts daily. Then on the days when your anxiety keeps you up at night, free-writing journaling is a short term intervention and solution-focused and doesn’t carry over very long. When you have your ah-ha or solution, you can move on or take action with a plan!”
4. Be open to making adjustments.
Dr. Hartwell also considers that repetitive anxious thoughts may be a sign that some aspect of your life is not lining up with your values or that you’re meant to experience growth.
“This may relate to the bigger picture that it’s time to refocus on your values and how they are being played out throughout the day…if you value integrity, financial stability, and self-worth and yet something happened that day or week to trigger those values not being upheld for you, your mind will want to spend time making you think about the incident until you figure out it was actually a particular values was being squashed. Ask yourself, once you figure out which value it was, how you can realign with yourself or others to make sure your values are being honored and aligned again with who you are…
…What I have noticed, is when we are working through a developmental stage in our lives, we tend to have “growing pains.” This may be in the form of actual physical pain or grumpiness (kids’ growth looks like this) or as an adult, it seems we are met with the same ‘theme’ when it’s time for us to develop and grow into our next stage of life. This may be working through the same type of (perceived) ‘difficult’ person, same conflicts with your spouse or kids, or tested with your integrity to your spiritual and faith development. It is when we spend more time on seeing what these external events mean and how they keep arising in our lives, that we can focus on a new goal of anxiety symptom question of ‘what do I need to do to grow from this?’ not ‘I wish there was something to do to stop my mind from racing so I could sleep.’ Think of your mind as a developmentally on-target toddler: it will ‘tantrum’ until it gets its ‘need’ met. Our minds and bodies and spirits are amazing in my view, with its focus on only our overall growth and development in mind.”
READ MORE: How To Know If Your Anxiety Is Normal