I've lived with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for the majority of my life. Most days, my anxiety is manageable, but the most common time my anxiety gets the best of me is when I’m trying to go to sleep. It's hard to fall asleep when you have anxiety. My panic attacks are triggered by just about anything — tasks I need to do the next day, a noise in the house, some stressful interaction I’m dwelling on, a possible earthquake that is going to level my apartment — you know, usual things. And the darkness and added stress of trying to make myself go to sleep only makes my anxiety worse.
GAD is more common than most people think (it affects 18 percent of the population in the U.S.) and can impact all aspects of your life, including your sleeping habits. We all need sleep, obviously, so not being able to get a good night's rest only adds to anxious people’s stresses. And let me tell you from personal experience — we are not happy campers when our usual anxiety meets a sleepless night.
Luckily, there are ways you can help alleviate some of that bedtime stress and help yourself sleep better. Some methods will work better than others depending on your anxiety and personal sleeping habits, so this is by no means a cure all.
Hopefully, though, you’ll start to sleep a little easier after implementing some of these tips. But, if you’re still experiencing a high level of anxiety during bedtime or throughout the day, you should consider talking to a doctor — be it a psychologist to try and get to the root of your anxiety, or a psychiatrist to discuss any medication options. There is absolutely no shame in not being able to find a non-medication route to alleviate your anxiety. You have to do what’s best for you and make sure you’re living a happy life — sleep and all.
1. Put yourself to bed... before bedtime
I think we can all agree that browsing Tumblr or Instagram on your phone before bed is potentially killing you, and it affects your sleep and anxiety more than you know. Mostly, it has to do with the artificial light tricking your brain into not feeling sleepy, but constant cell phone use has also been linked to heightened anxiety. So do yourself a favor and put your phone away, turn off the TV, and try to avoid any other electronics an hour or so before bed. Reading is always a calming activity (and that's reading a real book, not on an e-reader or tablet), but you could also draw, journal, or even play cards. Doing this will help your brain start to calm down and get it ready for sleep. Pro tip: dim the lights, or only have a lamp on before going to bed. The low light will also help alert your brain that it's time for sleep.
2. Set a schedule
Routines are especially helpful when combating general anxiety, and it's important for sleep, too. Setting a schedule for when you're going to start getting ready for bed, when you'll be shutting off the lights, and when you'll try to actually fall asleep can help relax your mind and your body. Eventually, your internal clock will catch on, and you'll feel ready for sleep around the same time every night.
3. Use your bed for sleep and sex only
I work from home, so I sometimes find myself bringing my computer into the bedroom to work or watch TV or play a video game. But using your bedroom as a multipurpose area doesn't help your brain realize it's finally time for sleep once you're in there for the night. Try using your bedroom for two things and two things only — sleep and sex. This will help subconsciously alert your brain that it's time for sleep, and will help you power down.
4. Add some white noise
I've slept with a fan on since my anxiety started to present when I was a child, and it's made all the difference. When I'm away from home with no fan, I can attest that my anxiety is definitely higher. White noise, be it a fan or an actual white noise machine — even music — can help distract you from focusing on your worries. I suggest something you already find calming (like the sound of the ocean, forest, or rain), or music without lyrics.
5. Don't force it
Sometimes, even after an hour of reading and actually feeling sleepy, my anxiety will kick in and I won't be able to fall asleep for hours. And the only thing that will make me feel more anxious is trying to force myself to go to sleep. It's like having a panic attack and then telling yourself to calm down, but then you have more anxiety because you can't. If you find yourself stressing and laying awake, get up and do something else. Clean the kitchen, play with your cats, or go back to reading for a while — once your anxiety has subsided, you can try to sleep.
6. Be wary of caffeine drinks
Look, I know — caffeine is basically as necessary as air. But if you have anxiety, you’re probably already aware of the effect caffeine can have on you. But don’t worry, you can still have your morning cup of coffee or tea with breakfast, and even a soda or two in the afternoon, but you probably want to cut yourself off by 2 or 3 p.m. Of course, caffeine impacts everyone differently, so try a few different cut-off times, and see how it affects your sleep.
7. Keep the bedroom at a cool temperature
This might sound like crazy talk considering most of us are dealing with freezing temperatures at the moment, but it's true. Most people sleep best when the temperature in their room is between 65 and 75 degrees — so if you're having trouble sleeping, check the thermostat. You could either be too warm or too cold, and it could be what's keeping you awake.
8. Use aromatherapy
If you're looking for a natural remedy, try aromatherapy. Scents like lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood have a good track record of helping to alleviate anxiety and stress. Light some scented incense or candles while you're getting ready for bed perhaps. You can also try out some scented sleep sprays or pillow mists — I got a lavender chamomile sleep spray for Hanukkah, and I love it.
9. Exercise (but not too close to bedtime)
Working out is a no brainer when it comes to helping with anxiety. The release of endorphins will make you calmer and happier, and the physical exertion will make you more tired. But avoid working out too close to bedtime, since your brain might still be a little hyped up. A few hours between the end of your workout and when you usually start getting ready for bed should do the trick. However, yoga and other forms of meditation can help you feel less anxious, and you can do them closer to bedtime, if you'd like.
10. Avoid drinking, smoking, and eating before bed
It might feel like having a glass of wine or a cigarette before bed will help relax you, but it won't help in the long run. Drinking before bed will wake you up one or two times to go to the bathroom — same goes for eating close to bedtime — and smoking can keep you up since nicotine is both a stimulant and a sedative.
Images: Giphy (11)