Sometimes life is wonderful, and sometimes life is challenging. At times it’s a mix of both. But for those of us with anxiety, life can seem worrisome more often than not. Ironically, even though quality sleep is vital for better mental health, anxiety can often get in the way, keeping us awake with a mind full of anxious thoughts.
If you spend most of your nights tossing and turning, with the same worries whirling around in your brain, you’ll know what we’re talking about. It isn’t fun, but there are ways to stop these thoughts from ruining your sleep. Yes you could fire up a meditation app and listen to soothing sounds, with other steps you can take outside of the bedroom too.
Johanna Scheutzow, MSc in Organizational Psychiatry and Psychology, King's College London, and a psychologist for mental health app Thrive, has some go-to techniques for curbing anxious thoughts at night. These include dedicating specific time early in your day to focus on your worries. Why? So that they don’t enter the bedroom with you when it’s time to sleep.
Here Scheutzow, who recently spoke to us in-depth about how to manage anxiety in its different forms, reveals her go-to techniques for stopping anxious thoughts from affecting your sleep and preventing you from dropping off…
Schedule worry time
1. Set aside time to worry, but early in the day
“Anxiety triggers our flight or fight system, which involves body responses such as adrenaline and cortisol release,” Scheutzow explains. “The body uses these to prepare us for a threat and thus makes us more alert, stopping us from being able to fall asleep. When it works as intended, this system can help us find solutions to threats, but in many cases, it may keep us stuck going around and around in circles.
“To ensure better sleep, it may be helpful to schedule in ‘worry time’, which could be 15 minutes two times per day, preferably well before bedtime,” advises Scheutzow. “During this time you can worry about anything. It’s best to write down your worries and do one of three things: do something about them, delay them, or delete them.
“Some worries are important, can be solved and are urgent, so schedule time to solve them. Some worries are important but don’t need to be solved right away, so you can delay them. Some are not important, so you can delete them.”
Learn to let go
2. Free yourself of the things you can't control
What about the worries in your ‘delete’ column? “Some worries are unsolvable or outside of your control,” says Scheutzow, “in which case you can reflect on the fact that you simply cannot do anything about them, so why should you spend time worrying about them?
“If any of these types of worries crop up at bedtime, reflect on the fact that you have decided to delete them. This may not solve all your worries but, with practice, it may help you to not feel overwhelmed by them.”
On a piece of paper, make three columns, one titled ‘Solve’, one titled ‘Delay’, and one titled ‘Delete’. Write your worries into each of those columns so that you can see at a glance what is solvable, so you can make a plan to tackle them and therefore ease the worry, and which ones you can put away for now.
If you need help sorting your worries into these three groups, work with a trusted friend or family member, or speak with a mental health professional.
3. Try deep belly breathing for instant calm
When we’re anxious we tend to take shallow breaths, which is the opposite of what we need. Deep belly breathing helps us gain control over our bodily sensations, which in turn helps manage anxiety’s mind-body connection, and helps us relax enough to drift off. This makes it a win-win for managing anxiety at night.
"Daily breathing exercises can be helpful as they activate our calming-down system, also called the parasympathetic nervous system. This system does the opposite thing of our flight or fight system, also called the sympathetic nervous system.”
According to psychologist Scheutzow you should, "Breathe deeply for five seconds, making sure we’re breathing not just with our chest, but with our belly. Then hold our breath for five seconds, then breathe out slowly for another five seconds, before finally holding our breath again without air in our lungs for five seconds.”
Learning how to optimize your bedroom for sleep might also help you re-associate your bedroom with relaxation and rest, and that includes ensuring you have the best mattress and the best pillow for your preferred sleep style.
4. Create a wind-down routine
“There are great sleep techniques which can help you sleep better. For example, it may help to stick to a sleep schedule as much as possible, and to create a wind-down routine to form a link between that routine and sleep,” continues Scheutzow. “For example, tea, a warm shower before bed, and so on.
“Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, as well as alcohol in general, as they may activate anxiety even more. Relaxation techniques like calm breathing, muscle relaxation or meditation, and using a sleep diary also help.”
Your ideal wind-down routine will naturally differ to the next person’s, but could involve putting all gadgets away an hour before bedtime, and using that time each night to do something that relaxes you. Perhaps it’s a soothing bath, self-massage with a handheld massager or reading a book. Make sure the activity is relaxing for your brain and body, and is something you can do every night - you’re trying to create a routine that signals to your mind that it’s time to sleep, not to worry.
“If nothing helps, maybe getting up and repeating the pre-sleep routine, can help distract and create a new association between sleep and your wind-down routine.” There’s nothing worse than lying in bed, trying to wrestle with your worries, so if this happens to you tonight, consider getting up for a little while and reading (keep the lights dim). Then when you’re feeling sleepy again, head back to bed.
Talk about it
5. Know when to get help for anxiety and sleep
If your sleep continues to be affected by anxiety, it’s time to seek help. “Sleep is the central pillar of health,” says Scheutzow, “and if you are struggling you should not hesitate to make an appointment.”
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, teletherapy (therapy via computer or phone) is one way to seek faster professional mental health advice without having to leave home. Getting the help you need is an important part of nourishing your mental wellbeing, and there are free resources available to you.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has a comprehensive guide to teletherapy for mental health treatment and support, including where to find a licensed therapist. It also lists support groups for free peer support from people who are currently living with anxiety, and who will understand what you are going through. Simply knowing you’re not alone in this can help.