The truth is, it took me a while to even realize something was wrong. My parents characterized me as many things as a child — a worrier, shy, thin-skinned — and I carried those labels with me into adulthood. I was unaware that the persistent feeling the world was about to collapse upon me (much like Chicken Little) wasn’t just another one of my charming personality traits. Last year, I finally sought help, and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
One of the most surprising parts of GAD is the effect it’s had on my sleep. I expect it to encroach upon my waking hours, but sleep is supposed to be the sacred refuge of all that is calm and good. I mean, if it can get to my sleep, what’s next? Pizza? Chocolate? LASER TAG?
Not only can anxiety keep me from falling asleep, it can keep me from staying that way. And since the universe likes to dick around with the human brain just for shiggles, lack of sleep actually makes anxiety worse. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle. Needless to say, this sleepless anxiety spiral can make me an extremely unpleasant person to be around.
Luckily, I've learned some coping mechanisms to help me sleep that I still use to this day. Since I know there are many anxious peeps like me out there, I’d like to share how I kicked anxiety’s butt and reclaimed my sleep.
Problem #1: Feeling 'Keyed Up'
When I was little, I used to tell my mom that my arms and legs hurt — I had to keep them moving to relax. I simply couldn’t lie still. As it turns out, that feeling was muscle tension related to my anxiety.
How To Solve It:
If you’re experiencing tension before bed, there are some simple ways to relieve it. The first is pretty damn important: don’t participate in any anxiety-inducing activities before bed (i.e. working from home, paying bills, etc.). It might seem like a given, but you’d be surprised how many people do it anyway. It's also helpful to get enough exercise during the day so you won't have restless legs, but not in the hours right before bed.
Next, do something that calms you. Read a book, do a jigsaw puzzle, or get your meditation on. Ask a friend or significant other to give you a massage. Take a warm bath or shower. Drink some tea supplemented with Kava Kava — but only if your doctor says it’s safe.
Once you’re in bed, don’t stay there if you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes. Get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing. If you lie in bed and dwell on not being able to fall asleep, it will just increase the tension and anxiety.
Problem #2: Racing Thoughts
The most common issue I’ve dealt with when it comes to anxiety and sleep is racing thoughts. I lie in bed worrying about everything from what I didn’t get done at work to whether or not I’m going to have Social Security when I retire.
How To Solve It:
I start with deep breathing, a technique that’s pretty simple to master: Start by lying down and placing one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise while the hand on your chest moves very little. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can. Again, the hand on your stomach should move, but your other hand should move very little. Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth until you feel calm.
My other favorite trick to focus my thoughts is visualization. I close my eyes and get as comfy as possible. Then, I imagine myself in a calm location (a forest, meadow, library, etc.) and notice as many sensory details as possible — such as colors, temperature, texture, sounds, and any people present. I’ve been using visualization to sleep since I was 10 years old, and it rarely fails to help me drop off.
Problem #3: Waking Up In The Middle Of The Night
Anxious people sleep lighter — and I’m no exception to that rule. In order to ensure I stay asleep, I have to make sure my bedroom is a favorable environment.
How To Solve It:
Here are three things that have helped me sleep through the night: One, my room has to be cool enough to sleep under a weighted blanket without overheating (62-69 degrees Fahrenheit). Two, I need complete darkness — I use blackout curtains and have banished all blue LED lights from my room. Three, I employ both a fan and white noise app to drown out any sudden loud sounds I might encounter in the night (like my dogs moving around).
If I do wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t check the time. I know that if I do, I will start obsessing over how much longer I have left before my alarm goes off, which inevitably leads to me being unable to go back to sleep. Don’t look at your clocks, people — time will enslave you.
Above all else, the most important thing is to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority. Block out seven to nine hours for a full night of uninterrupted sleep — I know it’s hard, but your brain will thank you for it.