We’ve all been there. You have a big presentation at work tomorrow or a scary doctor’s appointment or something else that causes you to worry. You know that getting a good night’s sleep is important for you to be able to focus on the big event tomorrow. And yet. All that worrying is keeping you up. And then you find yourself worrying about the fact that you’re not going to get enough sleep which leads to an even harder time falling asleep. The next morning, you feel tired, cranky, and anxious. Nobody enjoys that feeling but for some folks, this isn’t just a once-in-a-while event; some people experience anxiety like that nightly.
There are some things you can try to help manage the anxiety at night. First, remember some of the behaviors to try to help with insonia:
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex. If you do anything else in bed, such as watch TV, check your phone, or lay awake worrying, you are training your body to be awake when in bed.
- If you have a hard time falling asleep at night or after a middle-of-the-night wake up, get out of bed! If you aren’t asleep after 20 minutes, you want to get out of bed, go into another room, and do something calm and quiet. Return to bed when you feel sleepy. Repeat this process until you fall back to sleep.
- Maintain the same bedtime and wake up time every day – even weekends. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help your body learn when to go to sleep and when it’s okay to wake up.
But if you find that your anxiety is keeping you awake at night, just targeting the insomnia probably won’t be enough. Instead, you want to try to manage the anxiety too – and some people find they need to manage the anxiety BEFORE they can address their sleep. Some things to try include:
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t for everyone but if it is something you enjoy or think you could enjoy, it can be very effective at calming the mind and body, particularly at a time when you need to quiet things down. One of my favorite exercises to do at bedtime is the Body Scan which is easy to do while laying down.
- Try a breathing exercise. Exercises like focused breathing and diaphragmatic breathing can be especially helpful for calming the body both physically and psychologically. My favorite breathing exercise as bedtime is 4-7-8 breathing. Take a slow deep breath in for the count of 4, hold it for the count of 7, and release it for the count of 8. Repeat this several times and you’ll find your whole self calm down a bit.
- Set aside some worry time. If you find that bedtime is your brain’s favorite time to stay awake, working over time, then scheduling in some worry time may be helpful. I recommend doing this at the end of the day but not too close to bedtime; often right after dinner is a good time to try it. You want to set aside about 20 minutes where you allow yourself to worry. In that time, sit quietly and think about the things that are causing you concern; this can give you the space you need to problem-solve too. While this won’t make it so you don’t worry outside of that designated worry time, it can be effective at reducing your worrying at other times, particularly if you practice this daily.
- Write your worries down. Similar to setting aside worry time, setting aside time to write down your worries before you get into bed can help clear them out of your mind when it’s time to sleep. Keep a small notebook or journal and spend 10-20 minutes each day just writing your worries down. For some people, the act of writing them out and getting them out of their head can help reduce the amount of time they spend worry, particularly at bedtime.
These are some tricks to try to help you manage your anxiety and help your sleep. They have all been well researched and shown to work. However, sometimes just making a few changes here and there isn’t enough or you may need someone to help you with these changes. If so, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be incredibly effective. Both insomnia and anxiety can be treated effectively with CBT.