If worries or anxious thoughts are keeping you up at night, these tips, techniques & self-help strategies could help you switch off
There’s no better feeling than waking up fresh and rested after a solid kip. However, getting that elusive eight hours is far from an easy feat – especially if you’re feeling more anxious than usual. Not only can it make it more of a struggle to fall asleep, but the constant whirring of worries in your mind can make staying asleep near impossible, leaving you feeling drained.
But all is not lost; there are lots of things you can do to help with anxiety at night-time and help you feel calmer in the evenings, too.
First up, though, let's look at the relationship between anxiety and sleep…
Why is my anxiety worse at night?
Sleep and anxiety are closely linked. Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder and clinical lead at Sleep School, explains how they ‘both feed off each other’. Put simply: if you feel more anxious, you’re more likely to have trouble sleeping and if you sleep badly, you're more likely to feel anxious. It’s a vicious cycle.
Our hormones are often to blame. When we feel anxious, we release the fight or flight hormone, cortisol. ‘This increases our level of alertness, arousal and heart rate, keeping us awake,’ says Dr Meadows. This makes it harder to drift off and to stay asleep.
It's also common to feel more anxious as you go to bed. ‘We tend to notice anxious thoughts less in the day, because we’re busy and have distractions. At night in bed, it’s just us and them, so they can feel worse,’ notes Dr Meadows. Similarly, as we’re tired at night, we have less emotional capacity to put our worries into perspective.
Can anxiety cause night sweats?
As mentioned, anxiety activates the release of cortisol, pushing us into a state of fight or flight. Dr Meadows highlights how this can have a physical impact ‘including increased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature, all of which can lead to night sweats.’
What can I do to calm anxiety at night?
Often we try to push anxious thoughts away, but accepting them can be a powerful act. Dr Meadows recommends a technique called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for sleep. This means learning to shift your focus from getting rid of your anxious thoughts towards allowing them to exist within you.
Before bed, practice an exercise where you look at your anxiety as it arises in your body and give it physical attributes, such as shape, size, weight, colour and texture. For example, you might say: ‘My anxiety feels like a cold, black knot tightening in my stomach.’ Describing your anxiety like this works to defuse the power it has over you and your sleep.
It’s worth noting that a certain amount of waking up during the night is normal. But if you feel anxious when you do, resist the urge to ruminate and toss and turn in frustration which can cause a negative association with sleep. Avoid the temptation to do anything that may overstimulate your senses – activities like checking your phone will only wake you up more. Some may find it useful to read a book to feel sleepy again, but simply resting may help too. ‘Resting in bed offers many benefits similar to sleep including energy conservation, repair and memory consolidation,’ explains Dr Meadows. Try a few things to see what works best for you.
If your anxiety is affecting your sleep for long periods – which Dr Meadows states is more than three nights per week, for three months – try seeking professional help. Your first port of call can be an appointment with your GP. And more info on anxiety in general can be found on the NHS website.
How to deal with anxiety at night-time
Before going to bed, there are some helpful strategies you can do to help you feel less anxious and improve the chances of a good night’s sleep.
Here are some techniques we’ve found useful for relaxing the body and mind, and better equipping us to deal with anxiety at night-time.
Do a brain dump before bed
If there’s something on your mind, try putting pen to paper and writing down everything you're thinking and feeling. The act of writing not only helps clear your mind, but seeing your worries there in front of you allows you to view them more rationally.
Try deep breathing exercises
The breath is a hugely powerful tool for influencing how we feel. Slowing it down with deep, conscious breathing exercises can help you feel calmer by signalling to the nervous system to lower your heart rate and levels of cortisol, which helps dial down your state of fight or flight. Try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise before bed for a few minutes: simply inhale through the nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven and then exhale for a full eight seconds.
Mindfulness activities, such as meditation, have been scientifically proven* to help reduce cortisol. Taking 10 minutes to meditate before bed could help you get in the right headspace for sleep. Check out the abundance of options on YouTube and our pick of the best free meditation apps for some download inspo.
Tweak your exercise routine
Fitness is very beneficial for your sleep as being physically tired is an important part in aiding a smooth transition into slumber. However, timing it right is important. High-intensity exercise releases cortisol, so it’s best to do these workouts in the morning or middle of the day, not the evening. If you would like to exercise at night, it’s best to try something relaxing, such as yoga nidra or Pilates.
Run a bath
Sinking into a warm bath is a relaxing way to end your day. Not only does the warm water soothe muscles, the subsequent cooling down tricks your body into thinking you’ve gone from daytime into night-time, which helps you sleep. Try adding Epsom salts – the magnesium found in the salts can promote the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Similarly, popping into your bath a few drops of essential oils, such as lavender or ylang ylang, may help you feel calmer and better prepared for sleep.
While a good cup of coffee is one of our greatest pleasures, caffeine isn’t our friend when it comes to sleeping. It can take up to 10 hours for caffeine to completely clear from your bloodstream. Also, remember that other things, such as tea, energy drinks and dark chocolate, all contain caffeine and so it can be a good idea to limit your intake of these to increase your chances of a more restful night’s shut-eye.