As you tuck into bed at night, do the thoughts in your brain refuse to slow down when you turn off the lights? Instead of winding down, it’s a wave of worries about everything from paying your credit card bill on time to an upcoming meeting with your boss. That non-stop chatter about what might occur tomorrow is a sign of anxiety and, for many, it’s a serious roadblock to getting a good night’s sleep.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the number of people struggling with anxiety is staggering. Anxiety has become the number one mental health issue in North America, affecting approximately 40 million Americans (18% of adults). Some estimates put this number higher at around 30% since many people with anxiety don’t know they have it or don’t seek treatment.
Simply put, it’s a national epidemic.
When it comes to sleep, anxiety is a key part of a toxic cycle because it makes getting to sleep and staying asleep difficult. What’s more, it becomes a source of worry itself, worsening the original anxiety – a chicken-and-egg problem. Did the anxiety cause poor sleep or did poor sleep cause the anxiety? One feeds the other, experts say.
“Insomnia is often co-morbid with anxiety and depression,” explains Elika Kormeili, a Los Angeles-based licensed therapist specializing in online counseling for anxiety and insomnia and founder of the Center for Healthy and Happy Living. “This means they often occur together. It’s hard to tell which comes first, but anxiety makes it harder to sleep and lack of sleep tends to make people more anxious.”
The bad news is that even as you manage to nod off, your anxiety is still active. “While we sleep, our mind is still active and may be processing information,” she says. “If we don’t take time throughout the day to process information and to unwind, then stress/anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.”
Fortunately, there are tried-and-true ways to tame anxiety so you can get quality rest, courtesy of these mind-soothing tips from trusted experts
Kormeili says, “I recommend to all my clients (online and in-office) to take time every day to unwind. Even if you’re really busy – especially if you are really busy – you need to find simple strategies to cope with stress like practicing deep breathing while sitting in traffic.”
Studies have shown the benefits of expressing gratitude, ranging from increased productivity to greater happiness and better sleep. Kormeili often recommends that her clients think of 3 or 4 things they’re grateful for every night. You can, of course, do this as often as you want.
Don’t keep staring at the clock, tossing and turning. Abandon ship! As Kormeili says, “Your bed should be used for sleep and sex – not for worry!” She suggests going into another room to do something mundane, like folding laundry or filling up some pages in your adult coloring book.
Bedtime can turn into a time when you start to think about all the things you need to do tomorrow, creating a never-ending list of tasks swirling around in your brain. Stop the thought tornado by writing down all the things you’re trying to remember. With them safely recorded, your mind can be more at ease and you can deal with them upon waking.
“Meditation helps people relax, focus, and tune in to their innermost feelings moment-to-moment. This is extremely useful for relaxation and winding down to sleep,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. She cites the example of a stressed-out couple she counseled who began to meditate together for 30 minutes each evening. They not only slept more deeply, but also felt closer to one another. Try an app like Buddhify or Headspace for guided meditations.
A low level of constant noise can be useful for distracting your anxious mind, shifting the focus away from troubling thoughts to the constant noise produced from a white noise machine. A simple fan also does the trick – as does a sleep app on your phone. Just make sure that the volume is quite low – barely audible – to keep sound in the background.
Anxiety is always about “what ifs” and trying to be prepared by situations that may or may not occur – a kind of fruitless rehearsal for potential problems. It’s not an effective tactic and can compromise our wellbeing over the long term. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down any worries. The act of recording them can zap their power. Review them in a few days when you can ask yourself, “Did the situations I was so worried about actually happen?” Over time, you may learn that the majority don’t become reality, helping to ease anxiety.
If anxiety rears its ugly head on a regular basis and disrupts your sleep, seek support and talk to your doctor (or a sleep doctor) about possible solutions. It’s not something you need to just live with or to accept. Sweet dreams are within reach.
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