Insomnia, restless sleep, or waking in the middle of the night are all common and unfortunate effects of nighttime anxiety. Here's how to deal with it when it happens—and how to avoid it altogether.
Why is it that your brain loves to spew fake news once your head hits the pillow? The IRS is going to audit me. My boss won't like my presentation. My BFF didn't text me back yet—she must be mad about something. Those headaches I keep getting are probably something serious.
If this sounds like something you struggle with on a nightly basis, you probably have what many dub "night anxiety." While the term might not be an official mental health diagnosis, experts agree that it's pretty common for worries to wake you up at night and interfere with your slumber. "There are several reasons for this," says Julie Pike, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and anxiety disorder specialist in Durham, NC. "First, it's when you're less likely to have structured activities to focus on. During the day, you're typically problem solving and are actively engaged in the tasks of your daily life, but at night, it seems like all there is is time to worry."
The good news is that there are ways to deal when your mind is too wired to be tired. Below, experts share their best insider advice.
Screw counting sheep.
When you're lying in the dark, wide-eyed and worried, it's common to try and cope with the anxiety by attempting to solve the problem that's plaguing you. If you're stressing over potentially losing your job, you may stalk online job listings or pull up the last email from your boss to see if there was anything subliminal behind what she said. Instead, try this: Sum up your worry in 10 words or less, and then repeat it over and over again, says Pike. What if I lose my job? What if I lose my job? What if I lose my job? As you continue to say it, the words start to lose their power and your brain gets bored, she adds. Asleep in 3, 2... (Discover more weird and wacky insomnia cures.)
Acknowledge the absurd.
When you suddenly start to stress about wrecking your car on the way to work tomorrow—because at midnight that suddenly seems like a very real possibility—keep telling yourself that it's just a story, says Pike. When you label it that way in your mind, your brain processes the information as something that isn't real. When the scenario doesn't feel like reality, it allows your body to relax, your heart rate to slow, and for you to doze off.
Know your thing.
You need a strategy that will help you zen out from your pillow problems. "Different things work for different people, so you may need to try a few things until you discover what works for you," says David Yusko, Psy.D., a staff psychologist at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "It could be breathing exercises, meditation, stretching—whatever works to distract you from your thoughts and quiet down your body."
Stop trying to force sleep.
But it's all you want, dammit! You need to forget that it's 4 a.m. because the longer you lie in bed cursing the clock, the more frustrated you're going to be. Instead of pounding your face in the pillow and demanding your eyes shut right now, give yourself permission to get up. Avoid looking at your phone or flicking on the TV—the blue light emitted from these screens disrupts the hormones that help you sleep. Instead, read a book or do some journaling. It helps to calm and distract your mind and is way more effective than trying to argue with your insomnia.
Get your room right.
If your problem is less about falling asleep and more about waking up and then being unable to drift back off because your mind starts racing, your environment could be to blame. (Here's how to give your room a better-sleep makeover.) By making sure your room is dark and at a comfortable sleeping temperature, you hopefully won't give your brain a chance to go bonkers in the middle of the night. Cut out any noise that could disturb your ability to snooze, too.