Something as natural and necessary as falling asleep can be a severe struggle for many people. Up to one-third of adults have difficulty sleeping. Sleep disturbance is the second most common symptom of mental distress. And more than half of adults with generalized anxiety disorder suffer sleep problems.
For some people, it does not matter how tired we are. We can fall into bed exhausted, only to find ourselves overtaken by worries and what-ifs, keeping sweet dreams just out of reach. It is an ugly cycle, as well, because sleep deprivation affects your physical and mental health.
Fortunately, you can add several tricks and techniques to your toolbelt to prevent anxious thoughts and fall asleep more quickly, easily, and soundly.
- Start a worry journal. Many people with nighttime anxiety contend with ruminating thoughts. These intrusive, excessive thoughts about negative experiences can be challenging to put aside. However, putting them down on paper can help. Select a journal just for jotting down worries. Schedule 30 minutes every day (well before going to bed) to sit and write every anxious thought that comes to mind. If worries pop up at bedtime, or any time of day, remind yourself that you can think about it when it is time to write in the journal.
- Create a nighttime routine. Establishing bedtime rituals can help reduce anxiety and promote a restful night’s sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and follow soothing practices leading up to crawling into the sheets. Shutting off all electronics, taking a warm bath or shower, and enjoying a relaxing activity such as reading a book or meditating can help prevent anxiety from rearing its ugly head.
- Take time to exercise daily. The benefits of physical movement are twofold. Research shows that aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk or a bike ride, releases endorphins and raises the core body temperature, which can improve sleep quality. In addition, regular exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety as well as medication for some people, with long-lasting effects. For best results, aim for 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week at least one hour before bedtime.
- Get out of bed. When we lie in bed awake too long, anxious thoughts can overwhelm us. Experts recommend getting back up if you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying. However, we do not want to use this time to work on a project or watch TV. The best approach is to leave the bedroom and go to a dim, tranquil area to enjoy a quiet activity for at least 30 minutes. Once any anxiety has decreased and sleepiness takes over, get cozy in bed again.
- Certain breathing techniques have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and help people relax so they can rest. Start by exhaling, pushing as much air out of your lungs as you can. Then, inhale deeply and slowly through your nose while counting to four. Hold your breath while counting to seven. Finally, exhale through your lips (as though you have a straw in your mouth) and breathe out forcefully for a count of eight. Repeat three more times.
- Relax muscles progressively. Progressive muscle relaxation can decrease the physical tension our bodies experience when we are feeling anxious. To do so, intentionally tense a group of muscles and then allow them to relax, which frees them of tension and helps our bodies and our minds feel calmer. Begin by inhaling, clenching your hands for 4 – 10 seconds, and then deliberately relaxing them for 10-20 seconds. Move on to wrists and forearms, followed by upper arms, then shoulders, and so on until you have tensed and released your entire body.
- Cover up with a weighted blanket. While experts say the best temperature for sleep is approximately 65 degrees Fahrenheit, a special type of blanket could reduce nighttime anxiety. A weighted blanket helps us feel snug and secure, but it might do much more than that. One study showed that lying down with a 30-pound blanket safely decreased anxiety. Participants of the study largely preferred a weighted blanket as a calming modality, as well.
- Turn on some white noise. Research shows that listening to white noise can significantly diminish anxiety. It is also beneficial for blocking out noise, such as traffic driving by or a neighbor’s noisy party. White noise is easy to come by, as well. Turn on an oscillating fan or put a tabletop fountain beside the bed. There are loads of smartphone apps that play white noise, or you can find hours-long YouTube videos that even have dark screens. If you have an Amazon Echo or similar device, you can even say, “Alexa, enable ambient sounds,” and she will give you a list of white noise options to fall asleep with.
- Talk to a therapist. Sometimes, nighttime anxiety is prompted by events in our lives, such as an upcoming job interview or a stressful appointment. However, it can also come on during an ongoing life issue or for seemingly no reason at all. When even the best tips will not cut it, a therapist can help pinpoint the root of anxious thoughts at night and provide a kind, listening ear as well as professional assistance to help you get the rest you deserve.