Updated: Apr 24, 2020
If you have anxiety, you know that a good night’s sleep is ever-elusive. Even though your body is tired, your racing thoughts prevent your mind from quieting so you can get your much-needed rest. You may be thinking of everything that you did that day, what you could have done differently, and why you made the choices you made. Or you could be thinking of future days, like what is going to happen tomorrow, how you’re going to get through that work meeting and what you will say, or really anything at all. When you have anxiety, just telling your mind to shut off, stop thinking, and rest can seem impossible. This article will give you some tips to help you sleep when you have anxiety.
Practice good sleep hygiene
What does sleep hygiene mean? Sleep hygiene is the overall term for your sleep habits and practices that you have or put into place that results in having enough quality sleep to combat daytime tiredness. Basically, sleep hygiene is your bedtime routine and the things you do to get ready for bed. Your sleep hygiene can start up to an hour before you actually get into bed. As you know, we cannot wind ourselves down from the day in just a few minutes. By structuring your bedtime routines, your body will start getting the signal to wind down and getting to sleep should be easier. Your bedtime routine may consist of these activities:
Set a consistent bedtime each night.
Try to stay within 30 minutes of your set bedtime nightly. You want to schedule yourself to be in bed for at least 8 hours per night, assuming it takes you 15-30 minutes to fall asleep at night and get out of bed in the mornings.
Set a consistent wake-up time each morning.
Again, try to stay within 30 minutes of your set wake time.
Create a nightly routine, if you haven’t already.
In the same(ish) order each night, plan to get into your PJs, brush your teeth, wash your face, reading, and any other things you do prior to going to sleep. The more relaxing the routine is, the more likely it will help to lull your body into being calm.
Turn off electronics 1 hour prior to bedtime.
As you’ve probably heard, looking at your phone, the TV, or your computer prior to bedtime will make it more difficult to fall asleep. These electronic devices emit a blue light that can suppress your body’s sleep hormone, melatonin. Blue light delays the release of melatonin, which helps us fall asleep naturally and is based on our body’s internal sleep-wake clock. Thus, when the melatonin is delayed, our sleep becomes pushed back also. Plan to turn off or put away all electronic devices one hour before bedtime and replace that time with something not involving blue light, such as reading, talking, cuddling, or journaling (more on this below).
Stop working 1 hour before bedtime
When our minds are stimulated close to bedtime, it is more difficult to stop thinking of work, or whatever was stimulating us, and to fall asleep. Make a goal to stop working an hour before bedtime. This may coincide with the suggestion above, to turn off electronics one hour before bedtime, so by both turning off your computer and stopping working an hour before you fall asleep you are doing double-duty good sleep hygiene!
Journaling to get thoughts out
Many nights you’ve done everything you can, and you still cannot stop your racing thoughts. Try journaling, with the goal to get your thoughts out of your mind and onto paper. I suggest using a stream of consciousness-style writing, and not going back to read what you wrote. The purpose is to get your thoughts out of your head, not to rethink what you were thinking. While journaling doesn’t work for everyone, you might be surprised at how well it works to get your mind off of things, so give it a try. I also suggest having a journal by your bed at night in case you wake up in the middle of the night thinking or worrying about things, you have a pen and paper conveniently located to get those thoughts out of your head onto paper.
Relaxation techniques to calm the body
Although relaxation techniques tend to focus more on your body than on your mind, they can have a nice secondary effect of bringing you back into the present and getting you away from your worries. Some relaxation techniques that may be helpful are grounding, where you use all 5 of your senses to become totally aware of what is going on around you, and focusing on that instead of your thoughts. Another good relaxation technique that I often recommend is progressive muscle relaxation, where you alternately tense and then relax each large muscle group in your body, with the goal being total muscle relaxation. Breathing techniques such as deep breathing, yoga breathing, etc. are the third type of relaxation technique that I suggest my clients try. All of these relaxation techniques can be used while you’re lying in bed, just before you fall asleep at night.
During the day: exercise/walk
There are also many preventative things you can do during the day to help you sleep at night when you have anxiety. Getting regular exercise or even a walk will help you manage your anxiety. Exercising or taking a walk outside in nature will have double the benefits. Even 10-15 minutes of exercise may have significant effects on the quality of your nighttime sleep.
No caffeine past noon
If you are a caffeine drinker, try to limit your caffeine intake past noon. Caffeine is a stimulant and therefore helps you stay awake. If you have caffeine throughout the day or in the evening, it will likely do its job and keep you awake for awhile! While limiting your caffeine intake in the afternoons and evenings seems like a no-brainer, many people with anxiety drink caffeine throughout the day, thinking it is helping them get things done. If you are one of those people, try to make little changes to get to no caffeine after noon, such as first saying no caffeine after 5pm. Then 3pm. Then 1pm. Then noon. Then see if this change has any effect on your sleep.
Avoid triggering foods prior to bedtime
Triggering foods may vary by person, but in general foods that you should avoid prior to bedtime are those that are heavy, fatty, spicy, citrus-y, and fried. Carbonated drinks (that usually contain caffeine!) should also be avoided close to bedtime. These types of foods and drinks can cause indigestion, heartburn, or just a general feeling of being uncomfortable, which can then lead to problems getting asleep. When you aren’t comfortable in your bed, getting to sleep is going to be a challenge.
If you have anxiety, getting to sleep can be one of the hardest parts of your day. Being both thoughtful and planful about what you can do and what changes you can make in your daily and nightly routines can help. Practicing good sleep hygiene, stopping work 1 hour prior to bedtime, journaling, and doing relaxation techniques are all things you can put into place to help you get enough quality sleep at night. During the day, you can also make changes, such as exercising, eliminating your afternoon/evening caffeine intake, and avoiding triggering foods prior to bedtime. Together, all of these changes will help you fall and stay asleep more peacefully by managing your anxiety.
How We Can Help
If you are interested in how the therapists at Catalyss Counseling can help you with your anxiety or your sleep issues, contact us for a free 20-minute phone consultation or schedule an appointment online with one of our experienced therapists to start sleeping better today.
Shannon Heers is a licensed professional counselor and owner of Catalyss Counseling in Englewood, CO. Shannon helps adults manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, grief and loss, and addictions, to live a more balanced life. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn or Facebook.