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Toolkit: Combatting Anxiety at Night

Bedtime is a prime time for cringing at things we said throughout the day or worrying about the future, but there are things we can do to work through it.

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By Lee Phillips

It was a couple years ago when I finally realized that I am not just “super sensitive” or manic pixie chic, I have an anxiety disorder. It was getting in the way of my writing craft, my peace, and my relationships. 

Over time, and out of necessity more than anything, I learned how to interrupt my anxious mind and its subsequent overreactions with rational thought. With practice, the once-awkward and forced techniques I relied on became second nature.  However, it still seems like the second the lights go out and my head hits the pillow, all that I’ve learned flies right out the window. My thoughts frenzy into a whirlwind of worst case scenarios and negativity and after literal hours of thrashing around, it’s only full force exhaustion that ends the waking nightmare. But even then, it doesn’t fully stop –  my sleep quality is poor and my dreams are bonkers. 

Why is it that, if I can be so level-headed and at peace during the day, my anxiety suddenly becomes unmanageable at night?

“Nighttime is when we’re supposed to shut down and go to sleep. The pressure to ‘turn everything off’ can be immense, ” says Whitney Goodman, a licensed psychotherapist and owner of the Collaborative Counseling Center. We’re getting into bed with “on” brains, and then expecting to instantly be at ease. At the same time, she says, “if you’re busy during the day, the evening is the first time you’re alone with your thoughts,”  making it the prime time for cringing at things we said throughout the day or worrying about the future. 

The good news is that we’re not doomed to a lifetime of anxious nights, there are plenty of tips and tricks to help us work through it. I’ve outlined my favorites, below.

Combatting Anxiety at Night

1. Create an anti-anxiety bedtime routine  

 According to Goodman, dealing with nighttime anxiety is “all about creating a bedtime routine that inspires relaxation and tells your brain that bedtime is coming.” To her, one of the most important aspects of this routine is to get off technology. I know, you’ve heard this a thousand  times, but blue light from your screens really does block your melatonin production and make it harder to fall asleep. Algorithms are also created to feed constant dopamine loops and, in my experience, they inspire unhealthy comparison, FOMO, and weird stalking patterns. This doom scrolling is definitely not the kind of relaxation Goodman is talking about. 

One of the biggest bummers about nighttime anxiety is how lack of sleep makes anxiety worse. “When one has insufficient sleep, one is likely to experience moodiness, irritability, unhappiness, disrupted eating, or concentration problems,” says Dr. Michael Mazius, a clinical psychologist from New York. “All of these problems can be troubling and create even more anxiety, which becomes a vicious cycle.”

His suggestion for an anti-anxiety bedtime routine? Tuning into your body, where a lot of our anxiety presents itself. Doing gentle yoga, stretching, or any kind of feel good movement can help release tension that would otherwise feel amplified when lying in bed. He also suggests trying a hot bath. Add in a couple of de-stressing CBD drops, some soothing music, and a cup of chamomile tea? You’re doing great, sweetie. 

2. Assess your daytime stressors

Now, imagine for a second that you’ve finished your anti-anxiety bedtime routine and yet your mind is still racing. Let’s look at the bigger picture for a quick sec. According to Dr. Mazius,  persistent nighttime anxiety is a clue that some deeper self-awareness work is needed. "If you find yourself anxious at night, there is something happening during the day that either you aren't aware of or you think you're addressing healthfully, but really aren't,” he says. This is where self-awareness comes into play. To start, Dr. Mazius suggests reflecting on the questions: “What, really, might be bothering me?” and “Am I really addressing it in an effective way?” The answers can help you figure out what needs to change. 

Ongoing anxiety at night may also be a sign that our daytime coping strategies for anxiety aren’t working like we thought they were. That could look like pouring all of your energy into a task so that you don’t have to register your anxiety only to have it bubble up later. Maybe you have a conflict with a family member and have been trying to simply let it go, only to wind up obsessing about what you truly want to say. 

It’s important to check in on this before it gets worse.  “Anxiety is pesky,”' says Jaime Castillo, founder of Find Your Shine therapy. “The more it is ignored the more it persists.” 

3.  Ground yourself in the present 

Since anxiety tends to focus on the past and future, finding ways to bring ourselves back into the present moment can be a game changer. To do this, Castillo says there are a few different tools we can rely on.  Grabbing a journal and writing out what you’re feeling before bed is a great place to start. “If there is a particularly pesky thought that is keeping you up, putting it down on paper can help free up some space in your head,” she says. “It communicates to your anxiety that you're going to address its concern later, but now it's time to sleep.” 

Guided visualizations are also a life saver! Personally, when my stream of thoughts turn into a raging river of BS, I imagine myself standing waist deep in a river with a strong current. Then, I imagine a large hand picking me up out of the current and placing me onto the bank, where I lie in plush green grass. In this visualization, I’m literally imagining myself being removed from the negative thought patterns and, by doing so, interrupting the thoughts themselves. If you’re anxious about a particular event, visualizing it going well (rather than the worst case scenario you might be dwelling on) can also help soothe your jitters.

Affirmations are another great tool to try out during sleepless nights.  By repeating them to yourself in your head or out loud, you can actively create new positive thought patterns to replace the negative ones. Castillo suggests trying these:  "I am bigger than my anxiety," "I don't have to solve this problem right now," or "It is okay to rest now." 

 Similarly, breath work can calm our racing hearts and bring us back into our body.. To tap back into your senses and cut short the thought cycle in your head, try looking around your room, feeling the sheets, and listening closely to the world around you. In moments when your anxiety just won’t give up, turn to actions that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, like eating a small snack or splashing your face with cold water. And, if your night time anxiety is getting in the way of your day to day functioning, we recommend speaking to a professional who can help devise a plan that works for you. 

While you might be lying in bed alone, know that you’re not the only one. According to one study, over half of people with anxiety also suffer from sleepless nights.  Luckily, we don’t just have to learn to live with it – there is always a way forward.

CITE YOUR SOURCES

"How to Calm Your Anxiety at Night" - Cleveland Clinic 

"How to beat back night-time anxiety and get to sleep" - NBC 

"How to Ease Anxiety at Night" - Healthline

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