Sleep anxiety and insomnia feed off each other, one making the other more powerful. Sleep is critical to our well being, but we don’t always value it or know how to get it. Sometimes, it can even be fleeting. You can toss and turn for a few hours just to wake up well in advance of your alarm clock ringing. It seems like a never ending battle.
Then, there’s sleep anxiety. Just stressing about getting sleep keeps you awake! When you have anxiety while trying to sleep, it can be because you’re ruminating, planning, or reflecting when you should be clearing all of that out.
What Causes Sleep Anxiety and Insomnia?
Silence can be a trigger for thoughts to begin to flood in. Suddenly, thoughts spiral or snowball, and you start to feel anxiety, which leads to further insomnia. All of this leads to impacts on your physical and emotional health, which can lead to difficulty functioning or focusing in general.
Anxiety can be rooted in many mental health disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and more. Insomnia can exist on its own or be worsened by a mental health disorder. A little sleep anxiety or anxiety happens to everyone, but when it starts to take over your life, that’s when you know you have a problem.
Insomnia is an inability to sleep for periods of time. It can look different for everyone. It can be a difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or variations of both. The lack of sleep is the key component of it. There are many forms of insomnia, such as highly distressed to acute or chronic insomnia.
There may be a bidirectional relationship between anxiety and insomnia, one impacting the other and creating more of each other. It can be difficult to know which precedes the other. This causes further upset and sleeplessness, making it seem like a never-ending cycle. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million report occasional sleep problems.((Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Sleep Disorders))
Research has also found that insomnia can worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorders or prevent recovery.((Harvard Health Publishing: Sleep and mental health)) Mental health disorders such as anxiety and sleep disturbances overlap and increase one another.
Scientists have also found that “long periods without sleep are associated with cognitive difficulties, and can produce psychological symptoms ranging from mood changes to psychotic experiences such as hallucinations.”((Front Psychiatry: Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Toward Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake)) For that reason, mental health struggles can often be alleviated by getting a good night’s sleep.
How to Get Rid of Sleep Anxiety and Insomnia
Sleep anxiety can happen to anyone, and it shouldn’t be ignored when it comes around. Once you can face it, you can do something about it.
How can one overcome sleep anxiety and insomnia?
There is no “one fits all” cure for these struggles, but there are some steps that can help.
1. Log It
One easy thing you can do is to keep a notebook and pen next to your bed to write down late-night thoughts when they start to disturb you.((Greatist: If Your Insomnia Makes You Feel Panicky, You’re Not Alone)) When anxiety comes up, use a log to record your thoughts before you go to bed and while you have trouble sleeping so they don’t ruminate and consume you. You can easily review them the next day.
With your thought log, start to look into and practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This will ease your troubled mind by redirecting your thoughts to more positive thinking. Take a negative thought and change it to something more rational and less catastrophic.
Challenging your thoughts can calm you and help decrease anxiety, which may start to spike when falling sleep. You can determine what thoughts are troubling you so that you can start to address them.
A sleep log is also helpful. How often are you experiencing sleep anxiety? Rate the severity and note the duration. With any sleep issues, you will want to note how often you have trouble sleeping, about how many hours per night you are able to sleep, and the quality of sleep, i.e. whether or not you are waking up constantly or just having trouble falling asleep.
You may also want to get in touch with a licensed therapist or medical professional and share your findings with them. They may have more ideas of what you can try when they have a record of how severe the problem is.
2. Be Present
Practicing mindfulness is another way to find peace with yourself as it requires you to be absolutely present, bringing awareness to what you think or feel in a different way. Mindfulness acknowledges but does not judge feelings. You can feel more secure with mindfulness and learn to be kinder to yourself.
You can practice mindfulness while doing everyday tasks or while meditating. There is no real wrong way to do this. Even if you have a busy mind, that’s ok! The idea is to focus as long as possible on some meditation object (breath, sound, body sensations, etc.) and to come back to it when the mind starts to wander. There’s really nothing more to it than that.((Mindful: Getting Started with Mindfulness))
Grounding is also a way to be present and is used to help with negative emotions and experiences. You can do this by bringing your attention to your five senses. Note what you hear, see, smell, touch, and taste. When you bring yourself to your senses, you can get to a place where the brain is functioning well and can effectively process what is coming at it. That means you can get back to what you can handle and process without panic. You are back in the present. You are back with yourself. You are back to bed.
A Sleep Meditation
You can try a specific mindfulness meditation to help you get comfortable before bed. Think of a safe space; it can be anywhere, at anytime, with anyone (or alone, which I recommend).
You are standing or lying down in that safe space. For example, you could think of a beach at night with a bonfire going. You are kept warm by the fire while listening to the ocean. You listen to the sound of the waves rolling onto the beach. You can even name it something. Give your place a name and list as many details as possible.
Do this anytime you want, but do it before you go to sleep to relax your mind. You can change the visualization each time or keep it the same, expanding on the details. This will bring you into a place where you feel secure and out of difficult thoughts and emotions to help you sleep. In that relaxing state, you can separate yourself from negative emotions and release the need to engage with them.
This will help decrease anxiety and increase the likelihood of falling asleep at night.
3. Create a Consistent Sleep Routine
Go to bed at a decent time and try to get up the same time everyday. This will help you establish a sense of routine that your body can get used to. If you stay up all hours of the night on top of feeling anxiety towards sleep and sleeplessness, you will get yourself into an unhealthy pattern that worsens the situation.
Turn off electronics well in advance of going to bed so your brain is less stimulated. This will serve you in starting to get tired, if that is something you struggle with. If you are someone who looks at a clock constantly at night, turn it away from you if you need to.
If you engage with technology and keep yourself stimulated through screens, you will risk ruining your sleep structure and lose the ability to function or fall asleep properly. Sleep anxiety will worsen if you are constantly checking your phone or computer or watching TV as this naturally stimulates thinking.
Make sure you are eating right, avoiding caffeine before bedtime and getting some exercises during the day to help with any restlessness carried over into the night.
Your habits and sleep hygiene make or break your experience of sleep and sleeplessness.
4. Manage Your Environment
Your comfort also controls how you are sleeping. Keep the room dark and decide between silence or sounds that aid in sleep (such as nature sounds). Find what works for you. Make sure you can turn to your bed as a reprieve from the day, that you are comfortable with your mattress, that you have enough pillows, and that you keep your room cool enough. These things will aid in lessening your anxiety towards sleep when you feel it is a safe, comfortable space.
If you maintain your environment for sleep and make sure you’re comfortable, you will fall asleep much faster. It will aid in your recovery from any anxiety disorder or insomnia when your environment naturally relaxes you.
5. Talk to a Professional
It may not be something you want to admit to yourself, but if you have a sleep disorder or mental health disorder, you may need help. A professional may or may not diagnose you, but either way, some solutions will likely be offered.
The key is knowing that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence when sleep anxiety comes your way. It doesn’t mean you are weak or doing something wrong. It could be a disorder, and there is no shame in that.
Millions struggle with some form of sleeplessness and sleep anxiety. A professional will help you narrow down the reasons for your distress and find more ways to help you than you may be able to on your own.
Sleep struggles do not have to define you. Understanding that it isn’t your fault but that there are things you can do is the first step. Let yourself find methods of self-soothing, such as the ones listed in the article, and let your mental health professional or medical professional know what you are going through so they can offer suggestions and help you, too.
Facing sleep is partly relaxation and partly decreasing the rumination in your head that we all suffer from. Simply trying to fall asleep may not be enough for you. You may have to take additional steps to get the help you need.
More importantly, don’t put extra pressure on yourself to get sleep that doesn’t want to come as this can worsen sleep anxiety. Be kind to yourself, take as many steps as you can toward a healthy sleep schedule, and watch the benefits slowly form.