You know the feeling: You’re lying in bed after shutting off the lights and suddenly, your mind starts racing with a billion thoughts. Next thing you know, you’re forecasting all the “what if”s for tomorrow or playing a highlight reel of your most embarrassing moments… from sixth grade.
It’s pretty common to experience nights of tossing and turning or counting sheep to no avail. In fact, anxiety is one of the biggest things that can rob you of a good night’s sleep. While everyone experiences anxiety differently, some people are more heavily affected by it at night, according to Annie Miller, a psychologist specializing in CBT-i and EMDR to help people with sleep troubles.
“This happens because the distraction from the day fades away and it’s quieter at night with more opportunity for our brain[s] to worry,” Miller says. “Activities from the daytime often engage and distract us from anxiety and at night, we don’t have as many things to engage an active brain.”
There’s no doubt that sleep is essential for day-to-day functioning. It improves mood, cognition, stress, decision-making, and energy levels, as well as reduces the risk for illness and medical conditions, according to Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed psychologist who is board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine and the author of “The Woman’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.”
However, when you’re anxious about falling asleep, it can be a vicious cycle. Not only is your body in an alert, prolonged state of stress, but the more fear you build up around trying to fall asleep, the harder it actually becomes. Once bedtime worry becomes a habit, Miller says the more likely it is to perpetuate anxiety as it gets closer to bedtime.
A good night’s sleep is possible for anyone, even for those who struggle with it. By managing both internal and external stressors, you can take some of the pressure off of getting the perfect night of Zzzs. There are several changes and anxiety-reducing habits you can follow to make sleep effortless. Below are a few expert tips from Miller and Harris.
Set a wake-up time and stick to it.
Humans are creatures of habit and thrive on consistency. Regular sleep patterns strengthen your natural circadian rhythm, aka the sleep-wake cycle. That’s why sticking to a consistent wake-up time seven days a week will help prime your body for sleep as the day goes on.
“Even if you go to bed late one night, or have trouble falling asleep, keep your wake time the same,” Miller says. “Yes, you may be tired the next day, but it will help you build sleep drive to fall asleep more easily in the coming nights.”
Think of your wake time as the foundation or set point of your day. This signals to your body when you should be awake and when you should be asleep. When you fall into a natural rhythm, you’ll likely feel more tired at night which — you guessed it — will make it easier to fall asleep.
If you’re not a morning person, don’t worry. Miller says the wake time you set for yourself doesn’t have to be super early, as long as it’s consistent. Listen to your internal clock and let it guide you.
As much as you can, keep your bed a sleep-only space.
While you may need to work from your bed for mobility or space reasons, Miller recommends finding ways to create boundaries between your bed and the rest of your home. As she notes, doing other other activities in bed besides sleep can incite nighttime anxiety. Ultimately, she recommends creates a conditioned response so your brain associates your bed with sleep. “That means no reading in bed, no watching TV in bed, no tossing and turning, and no snoozing in the morning,” Miller says.
Ever toss and turn relentlessly thinking about your 9 a.m. meeting, then check the time to see how much sleep you’re losing? While it may appear harmless, looking at the time can actually make you more anxious.
“If you have an alarm clock in your room, turn it around. As long as you have an alarm set, you don’t need to know the time,” Miller says.
As for your smart watch? “Use your smart watch during the day and take it off at night,” Miller adds, noting that it doesn’t adequately track sleep, but tracks movement instead.
In order to do this, it’s important to identify what seems to trigger your bedtime anxiety. For example, is drinking or staying out late impairing your sleep? Are you watching or reading the news on your phone then stressing about the state of the world?
“The most common trigger I see is when people are on social media, the internet, or doing work/emails,” Harris says. “These things awaken the brain and remind you of what is going on in life and boom, your brain is turned on, active, and worrying.”
When you know your triggers, you can then set a boundary with yourself. Maybe that’s no screens before bed (what Harris suggests) or designating a specific time you would like to be home if you’re out so you have enough time to yourself before turning off the lights.
Create a relaxing wind-down routine.
Having a “buffer zone” about an hour before bed sets the tone for a good night’s sleep. How you choose to spend this time is completely up to you, but make sure to avoid stimulating activities like work, watching the news, or anything else that may be stressful.
Harris suggests starting your wind-down by writing a to-do list to clear your brain of any clutter and prime your body for sleep. Next, dim the lights and engage in relaxing activities. This can be reading, stretching sore and tired muscles, or doing breathing exercises. While screens can disturb sleep for some, for others, it’s okay if you want to watch a rerun of your favorite show (as long as you’re not doing so in bed).
Engage in mindfulness practices during the day.
There are several things that you can do throughout your day that encourage better sleep at night. For instance, Harris recommends people meditate during the day in order to “strengthen their brains” to use meditation at night. Remember, practice makes perfect when it comes to meditation, and the more you learn to recognize and regulate busy thoughts at night, the more you will be able to let them go.
Additionally, Miller suggests scheduling in “worry time” to your day. This is an exercise where you designate a specific time of day to dump out any thoughts, stresses, or issues on your mind. This can be done first thing in the morning or during the afternoon, as long as you don’t do it right before you shut off the lights.
“After your worry time is over, put the stressful things aside and remind yourself that it’s not time to worry right now and move onto other things,” Miller says. “Your brain will eventually get used to this new routine and it will start to be able to let worry and stress go more easily.”
According to Miller, sleep should be effortless, and worrying about sleep while you’re trying to sleep can perpetuate insomnia. If you’re finding yourself tossing and turning or lying wide awake wondering how many hours of sleep you’re losing, first things first — get out of bed. When you take your mind off worrying through quiet activity, it becomes much easier to drift into dreamland.
“Find something quiet to do, like read or watch TV (though nothing too upsetting or stimulating),” Miller says. “When you feel very sleepy again, get back in bed. If it’s a difficult night, you might have to do this a few times.”