What to Do When Worrying Keeps You Awake

Advice from experts on pushing away those anxiety-inducing thoughts when you're trying to fall asleep.

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Aug 27 2018, 4:39pm

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Insomnia can become a vicious self-perpetuating cycle. The more tormented sleepless nights you have, the more you come to dread going to bed, and the harder falling asleep becomes. How are you supposed to slip into a calm, blissful slumber when you’re anxious about not sleeping—or about anything else, for that matter?

“Whenever someone is experiencing anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight/flight response is activated, and in this state, you can’t sleep,” says neuropsychologist Amy Serin, co-founder and chief science officer of The TouchPoint Solution, a healthcare tech company. “This is why many people lay in bed night after night with racing thoughts going through their minds, watching the clock time progress.” They know they are desperate for sleep, they truly want to sleep, but it’s just not happening. But sleep requires calm and, unfortunately, trying to outwit anxiety by the many so-called sleep solutions—positive thinking, essential oils, counting backward—isn’t always effective, Serin tells me, because the brain just won’t shut off the stress switch.

The cruel thing is, the more you worry, the less you sleep—and the less you sleep, the more you worry. “Insomnia can be one of the most devastating outcomes of anxiety, seeing that a lack of restful sleep contributes directly to an increase in anxiety as well as other mood disturbances,” says Marissa Long, a Southern California-based clinical psychologist. “Fortunately, an effective combination of practices, behavioral changes, and at times medication or other physiological support can get the body back on track for most.”

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We asked experts how to push away those anxiety-inducing thoughts that have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Do a “brain dump” before bed.

Jotting down all your worries will get them out of your head so that they won’t interrupt your sleep, Long says. She suggests spending five minutes before bed writing down every thought that’s been eating away at you. You can also underline or circle the items you need to worry about the next day so your brain won’t feel the need to remind you of them while you’re trying to turn it off.

Don’t keep checking the time.

If your issue is worrying about lack of sleep, don’t even let your mind go there. Helen Odessky, a Chicago-based psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You, suggests reducing stress over how disgruntled you’ll be the next morning by removing all clocks from sight and turning your cell phone face down (which you should be doing anyway so that the light doesn’t wake you up).

Leave the room if you can’t sleep.

It might seem counterintuitive, but there comes a point where trying to sleep actually hurts your chances of sleeping. “The longer you lie in bed, trying unsuccessfully to sleep, the greater anxiety you will feel,” says Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “Furthermore, this has compounding effects because the next time you go to sleep, you will be reminded of the stressful situation you had the prior night.” So by staying in bed, what you’re essentially doing is creating an association between your bed and anxiety. Once you’ve made 20 minutes of futile effort, Fenn recommends leaving the room and doing something else until you feel like you can sleep.

Don’t climb into bed unless you’re actually ready to sleep.

For the same reason, you’ll want to avoid getting into bed before you actually have a good shot at sleeping, Fenn says. Going to bed early will probably just mean more hours of inner turmoil, since your body gets used to falling asleep and waking up at specific times. If you wake up early one day and can’t make it until your usual bedtime, Fenn recommends going to bed half an hour early at most. The more tired you can get, the greater your chances of falling asleep, and the more you’ll come to associate your bed with sleeping instead of worrying.

Try a meditation app.

Establishing a relaxing nighttime routine will cue your brain to go to sleep whenever that routine takes place, Fenn says. You could try one of the usual things like taking a bath and reading a book, but Odessky recommends enlisting the help of a meditation app with guided relaxation exercises like Calm or Headspace. “Meditation works by activating the body's parasympathetic nervous system, our built-in calming mechanism,” she explains. “When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, which suppresses melatonin production. Melatonin helps us go to sleep. Meditation, therefore, can help us relax so that our natural sleep can happen.”

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