You’ve probably had nights when you lie down to fall asleep, but instead of a peaceful slumber, you’re hit with what seems like every possible worry and existential struggle you can come up with. Suddenly, you are wide awake and sleep seems miles away. How can you calm your mind and get the rest you need?
If you are a worrier or coping with anxiety, you’re at a greater risk for experiencing insomnia, according to Sleep Health Foundation. A UC Berkeley study found that those coping with anxiety are more likely to be affected negatively by insufficient sleep.
In my therapy practice, many of my patients struggling with anxiety report difficulty falling asleep. They share with me how frustrating it is to want to fall asleep but to feel wide awake and worried instead. I’ve had my fair share of sleepless nights thanks to grad school, licensing exams, and job interviews, so I can certainly relate to how maddening it is.
Fortunately, there are proven methods backed by research to help you fall asleep faster so that you can get the sleep necessary for your health.
01. Recognize Worry
The first step to falling asleep despite a laundry list of worries is to recognize when you are worrying. Signs include ruminating on negative thoughts (e.g. thinking “I don’t have a good feeling about the meeting with my boss tomorrow” over and over), muscle tension (clenching your jaw, headaches, back and shoulder muscle tension), tossing and turning, a racing heart, and shortness of breath. Keep in mind that some of these symptoms could be signs of other medical problems, so be sure to discuss them with your doctor. When you notice you are worrying, remind yourself that it won’t accomplish anything positive and that your job right now is to go to sleep. Then consider using one (or more) of the stress-reducing strategies below.
02. Set Aside Time to Plan/Worry During the Day
Sleep Health Foundation reports that many people find it helpful to set aside time during the day to plan for and address any worries or concerns they might currently have. This allows you to give yourself uninterrupted time to address your concerns. And it means that you won’t be borrowing from your eight hours of sleep to spend time addressing them subconsciously. Others find it helpful to keep a paper and pen on their nightstand so that they can jot down their thoughts to deal with the next day. The physical act of writing down a concern and telling yourself you will deal with it in the morning can help alleviate some of the stress it is causing you.
03. Listen to Calming Music or White Noise
A Stanford University study found that listening to relaxing music and sounds serves as a highly effective stress reducer. The Sleep Council offers a series of “Nodcasts” with calming sounds such as birds, rain, and waves to help you fall asleep. Other people find that using a white noise machine can be helpful to drown out any sudden or sharp noises that might wake you up. The University of Nevada at Reno lists several YouTube resources for calming music. If you are having trouble falling asleep, turn on relaxing music and try to stay focused on listening to it instead of the worried thoughts filling your head. It might take some practice, but a full night’s sleep will be well worth the effort.
04. Try a Change of Scenery
If you just don’t feel tired, many sleep experts such as researchers at the University of Michigan Depression Center recommend getting out of bed and going to a different room with dim lighting. Try engaging in a quiet activity for ten to twenty minutes, such as reading a book (stay away from thrillers and crime topics) or sitting quietly until you start to feel sleepy. This should make it easier for you to go back to bed and fall asleep more quickly.
05. Try Deep Breathing
Research has shown that deep breathing directly counteracts the effects of stress on the body. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth. As you breathe, concentrate on the act of breathing, and notice the sensations you experience in your body. If you want more help, you can try a guided deep breathing exercise on YouTube.
06. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Similar to deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that also counteracts the effects of stress on the body and promotes relaxation. PMR consists of tensing and releasing your muscles to encourage a relaxed state. Use a guided PMR video or audio routine such as this sleep routine.
07. Avoid Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol
If you’ve had a stressful day or you’re anticipating a stressful day tomorrow, limit your caffeine and alcohol intake. Sleep Health Foundation advises avoiding caffeine and alcohol intake at least four hours before going to bed. Caffeine, a stimulant, will make it harder for your body to relax. Alcohol, which suppresses breathing and reduces rapid eye movement, or REM, will interrupt your sleep cycle. If your sleepless nights are happening frequently and causing you distress, be sure to talk to your doctor or a therapist about your concerns.
Use these strategies when you are worried or stressed to take an active role in determining your quality of sleep. Now that you have the tools you need to stop worrying at bedtime, say goodbye to sleepless nights and hello to sweet dreams.
Photo Credit: Belathée Photography