I have terrible insomnia.
I inherited it from my mother: she’d wait to go to bed until we were all asleep, even if that meant staying up into the wee hours of the night. My father works late, usually until one or two in the morning. And she has stayed awake until he comes home for thirty years of marriage.
Her habit stems from her anxiety, and so does mine. Yes, major worries like where your family of four will live in six months could cause some to toss and turn. But most of the questions that keep me up at night are either trivial or too complicated to solve in those few minutes before I fall asleep. Did I miss an email at work? What will I make for breakfast, lunch, and dinner tomorrow? Do we have enough diapers? How am I going to handle all the summer travel with two babies? It’s incessant. And it’s unhealthy.
Worry is our most common response to stress. Mind you, not all worry is unhealthy. “Good” stress pushes us to problem solve: It can motivate and inspire us to become better versions of ourselves, and it can make us feel happy and excited about life. Conversely, what physicians call “acute” stress is what we think of as typical stress, the sort that can stem from an unfulfilling job or an unhealthy home life. Unfortunately, good stress can turn into acute stress if you experience too much of it, and our body’s responses are triggered in similar ways whether the tension we feel is caused by good or acute stressors.
You feel an adrenaline rush when you’re about to do something new and exciting, but your body responds in the same way when you’re about to tackle something that has been making you feel anxious. The physiological effects I get from being on a roller coaster are similar to those I feel when I’m about to give a speech in a crowded room: My heart rate goes up, my palms sweat, and my stomach drops. You know the drill. But the effects of chronic stress on our mental health include depression, memory loss, and decreased cognitive ability. And the buck doesn’t stop there.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research supports the hypothesis that prolonged worry, rumination (focusing compulsively on what's stressing us out), and anticipatory stress are associated with the activation of physical diseases of the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, and neurovisceral systems. We can, in fact, worry ourselves to death.
It can be easy to fool ourselves into believing that “thinking things over” during the night is productive, but when we spoke with Dr. Mary Ann Juliano, a clinical psychologist in New York City, she said: “Even thinking about the situation can cause chronic worriers great distress and disability. It’s best to save your anxieties for times when you have the energy and clarity of mind to address them.” Here are her tips on how to prevent late-night worrying from encroaching on a peaceful sleep.
01. Make a date to think about it. If something is bothering you before bed, mentally schedule a time the next day to think about the situation. “You’ll feel better knowing that even if you can’t solve it now, you will address the issue at a later time,” Dr. Juliano says.
02. Limit your worry time. Set a timer for five to ten minutes to allow you to have some of the satisfaction of ruminating. This will help you avoid thinking for longer than necessary about the subject and can help you escape another sleepless night.
03. Think of something else. Dr. Juliano shares, “Worrying puts your body into anxiety mode very quickly.” Instead, think of something you can look forward to the next day. Or start a list of things that you are grateful for.
04. Pray. It will quiet your neurons. In one study, a helpfulness of prayer scale was issued to a hundred subjects before cardiac surgery. Of these, ninety-six subjects indicated prayer as a coping mechanism in dealing with the stress. Of these, seventy subjects gave it the highest possible rating. According to the study, “Findings suggest that prayer is perceived as a helpful, direct-action coping mechanism and warrants support by health personnel.”
05. Let go of “last thoughts.” “No one will sleep if there’s any danger—even perceived danger—going on,” Dr. Juliano notes. If something is causing you to worry, your body perceives your thoughts as a danger in the same way it would react to the presence of a physical danger. Before we even know we're afraid, a pair of structures deep in our brain, known as the amygdalae, orchestrates the fear response. The heart pumps blood faster and more forcefully. Your breathing picks up. Adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream, triggering a host of defensive behaviors including goosebumps, sweaty palms and clammy hands to cool us down, and a rush of muscles to the legs to prep for a potential getaway. All these symptoms cause great tension in the body—not a comfortable position to be in when you'd like to be as relaxed as possible before you sleep. Instead of allowing your worries to cause you physical stress, briefly acknowledge the thought, and then imagine it leaving your mind.
06. “I can’t think about this right now.” Just recognizing that you can’t ruminate on certain thoughts before bed can be enough for you to dismiss them. Repeat that line each time a stressful thought enters your mind. “You need to protect the time before you fall asleep from anxieties,” Dr. Juliano advises. “If you fall asleep agitated, you are more likely to have a restless sleep. And you risk waking up feeling worse about the situation in the morning. It’s just not helpful. You have to convince yourself it isn’t helpful.”
07. If worse comes to worst, try a sleep aid. “Using valerian tea, melatonin, or Tylenol PM to help you fall asleep on occasion won’t hurt you,” Dr. Juliano says. Try small doses an hour before you plan to fall asleep. It’s best to sample sleep aids on nights when you know you don’t have anywhere pressing to be the next day so that you can observe their effects on your body and make adjustments as needed.
08. Meditate. A University of California, Davis study indicates that mindfulness resulting from quiet meditation helps reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Rather than focusing on what you’re thinking, Dr. Juliano advises to “lie in silence and focus on your breathing instead.”