We’ve all had nights where we’ve felt anxious, worried, and unable to sleep. Maybe we were stressing about work or school, or something that was going to happen the next day.
After a night without sleep you feel exhausted the next morning, and probably still anxious about the lack of sleep, as well as what was causing you anxiety the night before. Some anxiety is normal in everyday life in response to stressful situations or fear, but being in a constant state of worry is not.
Anxiety disorders are common and affect about 20% of American adults each year. These disorders can take a number of forms, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Nighttime anxiety can create a vicious cycle of sleep disturbance— your racing thoughts can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, and sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety symptoms and continue to keep you awake at night.
People with anxiety can also experience sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea, further exacerbating their sleep problems. Any of these disorders alone can cause poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness, but combining them can make getting a good night’s sleep feel like an impossible task.
Thankfully there are ways to help those experiencing nighttime anxiety calm their minds and return to getting the good night’s sleep they deserve. But first, let’s take a look at how racing thoughts can affect your rest.
How Anxiety Can Affect Sleep
Anxious thinking can really ruin your night. Not only can racing thoughts prevent you from falling asleep on time, but nighttime anxiety can contribute to nightmares and poor sleep quality.
Anxiety symptoms include general feelings of worry or unease. If you experience an anxiety disorder, these persistent feelings can last for weeks or even months at a time. Additionally, the effects of anxiety can have other side effects, including irritability, focus issues, as well as fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, and rapid heartbeat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you can also experience hyperarousal or higher sleep reactivity, contributing to sleep disturbances such as insomnia.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety can cause sleeping problems which can lead to sleep deprivation, which can contribute to mental health struggles. If you struggle with these issues it feels like a painfully vicious cycle. The sleep deprivation that results from either nighttime anxiety or sleep disorders can also increase your risk of injury, hamper your mental performance, and make you more vulnerable to other health issues like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
So with that in mind, what can you do to calm your mind and sleep better?
Tips for Managing Anxiety and Improving Sleep
There are easy and holistic options you can take to help keep your anxiety under control and get a good night’s sleep. See which ones will work best for you!
1: Try A Weighted Blanket
If you’re unfamiliar with weighted blankets, they’re similar to a regular blanket, except they’re filled with beads or pellets to make them heavier. Like a warm hug, a weighted blanket can help you calm down and settle your nerves when you’re feeling anxious.
As well as helping with anxiety, weighted blankets are often used as a sensory tool to help those with autism or behavioral struggles calm themselves when they’re in distress. However, those with respiratory problems or sleep disorders like sleep apnea may want to seek other options.
If you want to try a weighted blanket, it ideally should weigh around 10% of your body weight— 15 pounds for a 150-pound person, for example. I recommend using Remzy weighted blankets, which provide the perfect amount of weight without extra thickness, which also helps keep you from getting overheated under the blanket. Each blanket also comes with my special 7-day sleep program to help you sleep peacefully each night.
2: Incorporate Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, or meditation can be super helpful in managing your thoughts each night— combine my Power Down Hour with the 4-7-8 breathing technique as a starting point. Make yourself comfortable and give it a try!
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Slowly exhale for 8 seconds
These techniques promote better sleep by helping your mind relax and your body unwind before you drift off each night. Taking a few minutes each night to clear your head and let yourself relax can really work wonders on an anxious mind, which will also help you feel much better each morning.
3: Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Consistency is key when it comes to creating a healthy sleep schedule and getting the quality rest you need each night. Irregular sleep patterns can disrupt your circadian rhythm, affect your mood, and potentially make you more vulnerable to depression.
To ensure you get the proper rest you need nightly, make sure you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Incorporate the relaxation techniques above also to help you fall asleep easier. Creating a consistent sleep schedule may not be easy, but as long as you stick with it it’ll get easier and you’ll begin to feel more rested and refreshed each morning.
4: Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Proper sleep hygiene can also go a long way in helping you sleep better and improving your mood.
Make sure to avoid consuming caffeine too close to bedtime— consuming caffeine within six hours of going to bed can reduce your sleep time by up to 41 minutes. If you enjoy caffeinated beverages, consider drinking their caffeine-free varieties after a certain hour.
Same goes for alcohol: try to avoid alcoholic beverages a few hours before bed. Alcohol usage is often associated with sleep disorders, such as circadian rhythm abnormalities, insomnia, and even snoring.
It may also be helpful to take a look at any medications you’re taking— medications containing stimulants can affect how you sleep at night if you take them at a certain hour. If your medications do negatively impact your sleep, consult your doctor to see what action they recommend. Do not attempt to change your medication dosage or schedule without your doctor’s consent.
Also, try to stop using your electronic devices at least an hour before bed. Your devices, including your phone, your computer, and even your TV emit blue light, which inhibits the production of melatonin, potentially making it more difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep.
For some people, a consistent journaling practice at night that helps you process your day can be very helpful in reducing racing thoughts. Even simply making a list of things you need to do and things you don’t want to forget before bed can give you peace of mind. Sometimes it’s the easiest things that make the biggest difference— if your mind races, start with the list and if that doesn’t help, just try journaling what is making you anxious and a few suggestions for what you might do in the future to help overcome the anxiety.
5: Optimize Your Bedroom Environment
Sometimes a comfortable bed just isn’t enough for a good night’s sleep. Consider how the rest of your bedroom contributes to your sleep quality.
If ambient light is an issue, try installing blackout curtains on your bedroom windows. These are great for blocking external light, such as sunlight or city lights. Be sure to also turn off any indoor lights that can keep you awake.
If ambient sounds or a snoring bed partner are a problem, consider using earplugs or a sound machine to reduce the unwanted noise and help you fall asleep easier. Also, if you want the effects of the earplugs and the sound machine together, I recommend the Bose Sleepbuds II. These handy devices play soothing sounds from Bose’s Sleep app while dampening background noise.
In full transparency, I am a spokesperson for Bose. I have partnered with Bose because of their commitment to reducing unwanted noise and creating an ideal sleep environment.
When to Worry about Worrying
Some anxiety is a normal part of life, but if the above methods don’t help you manage your nighttime anxiety and get a good night’s sleep, then it’s important to seek additional assistance.
If you’re concerned that you may have insomnia, sleep apnea, or another sleep disorder, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist so you can be tested for sleep disorders. If you need help finding accredited sleep specialists or sleep centers in your area, check out this tool from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
If you find that you’re constantly anxious, on edge, or feeling hopeless or sad, consult your doctor or your insurance provider. They can help you figure out your options for mental health services and get you started with proper treatment. For some, medication may be adequate for keeping their anxiety under control, while others may respond better to therapy. For example, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you stop the cycle of negative thinking and cope with your worry, which can help you sleep better.
In an emergency, there are also hotlines available that can provide support online or over the phone:
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-SAFE (7233)
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1 (800) 273-8255
- SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline: 1 (800) 662-HELP (4357)
It’s not always possible to be at our best all the time. But if anxiety is causing your mental health or your sleep to suffer, then it cannot be ignored. There are options you can try at home to manage anxiety and improve sleep, but if that’s not enough, then don’t be afraid to seek additional help. You shouldn’t feel ashamed about taking care of your sleep, or your mental health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor