Have you ever stayed awake or were awakened in the night thinking about concerns in your life? Mulling over and over thoughts that you think may or may not happen? Have you ever experienced racing, unwanted or intrusive thoughts as you try to sleep?
We’ve all been there: Lying in bed after a long day, tired yet W-I-D-E awake — or awakened with thoughts from our day. Our mind is racing. Perhaps worried about that project, that communication, deadline, the future, work, bills, family or maybe even concerns from watching too much news.
Essentially your anxious thoughts won’t let you sleep or unwind — which, in turn, compounds the issues — robbing you of the health and well-being that restful sleep gives. Stress and anxiety can keep you from getting the sleep you need, and losing sleep can aggravate your ability to manage stress and anxiety.
Anxiety can pile up at night, because anxious preoccupation is not as likely when a person is actively using their brain and body to carry them through the demands of their day. When you get into bed, it’s challenging to shut off those thoughts about what you did or didn’t do and what you need to do. There can be added stressors of illness, family dynamics, finances, major events such as divorce, death, unemployment or traumas that can cause havoc with calming your mind to get a good night of sleep.
So, what do you do when anxious thoughts flare up at night? How can you combat them and quiet your mind to get the sleep you need? Here are helpful tips you can do while in the grip of anxious thoughts, as well as things you can do to help prevent them before you go to bed.
When you have a list of to-dos, projects, appointments and meetings, your thought process is geared toward frontal-cortex functioning, which is the judgment, planning and reasoning area of your brain.
Once you are at the end of your day, your frontal cortex has the ability to relax a bit, shifting gears into things you enjoy or pieces of you that are not connected to higher level functioning, mainly in your emotions and limbic system. And when your thoughts start connecting to the emotional part of your cognitive functioning, especially at night, anxious thoughts or anxious emotions that may have been lying dormant all day have a place to go and become the forefront of your thinking patterns.
So while during the day you have tasks occupying your energy, bedtime brings a halt in activity, which can be a difficult transition for your brain. It’s easier for your thoughts to race at bedtime — sort of like a movie playing in your mind that keeps you awake while your eyes are closed — which in turn, can make it difficult to transition into a state of sleep.
Powering down to your sleep
At the end of your day, when it is time to go to bed, you need to “power down” your mind, and here’s what you need to understand:
• Relaxing your mind can be challenging even in the best of times.
• Stressful situations and those anxious thoughts start replaying (some call it, ruminating), which make it difficult for your mind and body to go to sleep.
• You can find yourself focusing on the events of the day or experiencing needless (unproductive) worry that perpetrate feelings of apprehension or dreadful concern of “is this or that going to happen?” Your mind is unsettled with thoughts and images.
• Not being able to go to sleep, stay asleep or waking up — known as insomnia — can become a source of worry and concern.
• Losing sleep can worsen anxious feelings.
• And anxiety can cause poor sleep, and poor sleep can cause anxiety. Experts describe it is a two-way street or bi-directional.
Calming your mind to get to sleep
Before going to bed there are steps you can take to help prevent anxious thoughts, including prepping for nighttime calm and understanding how to alleviate the grip of anxious thoughts when they arise:
1. Journal. At bedtime, write down worries and then put them away to be dealt with in the morning or later the next day. For anxious thoughts that arise from actual stressors, add action items that will help alleviate or solve the problem. This allows you to deal with anxious thoughts and worries in a definable or tangible manner with an end in sight so it doesn’t take over, infringing into your sleep time.
2. Decide what it is specifically you are focused on that is causing your anxiety. Is it something that you have control over? Is it something in your future that has not yet occurred? If so, state the negative thoughts or anxious concerns out loud and then follow them up with alternative and positive thoughts or solutions for your problems. You need to be able to accept uncertainty and soothe yourself out of the uncontrollable and irrational thinking. And focus your efforts on the things you can change. Taking your thoughts and worries captive is essential to diminishing anxious thoughts.
3. Avoid catastrophizing — leaping to thoughts that are out of control — to allow your mind to drift on and on. Experts state it can take on two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation or imagining one about a future situation. It’s negative energy, blowing things out of proportion and uncontrolled thoughts that can keep you lying awake at night instead of sleeping. Replace those thoughts with ones that are rational (“you will manage it”) or other positive thinking. Rarely is there anything productive that can be done at that very moment when you are lying in bed at night (aside from sleeping). Struggling with uncertainty adds to your anxious thoughts and worries and keeps you up.
4. Shift focus. Visualize positive, good events, relationships and situations that elicit positive emotions. The power of your imagination can help get you to a place of ease. Visualizing positive events and relationships in your life helps to increase your connection to positive emotions that are also within you, but you must work at accessing them when the anxious feelings or thoughts have shown up.
5. Calm your body, to help calm your mind. Start from toe to head (or vice versa), and slowly tighten and release each muscle group, holding each for 5 to 10 seconds. Another technique is to focus on your breathing — taking deep breaths activates a restful state.
6. Engage in physical activity, regularly, during the day. Exercise has been shown to help calm anxious feelings as well as improve sleep. But beware: engaging in strenuous exercise an hour or two before bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep.
7. Create calming routines before bedtime. Try dimming the lights, reading, taking a warm shower or bath, listening to music, aromatherapy or do yoga. And darken your room and turn down the temperature.
8. Unplug. The constant dings, beeps or vibrations from texts, emails or “likes” on social media activate our minds. Additionally, the lights on screens (TV, laptops, computers, smartphones) prevent the sleep hormone melatonin from rising to help you fall asleep.
9. Watch caffeine. Whether it be coffee, teas, energy drinks or sodas in the afternoon or evening, they can fuel anxious thoughts and wreak havoc on sleep. It’s estimated to take 6 hours for half of the caffeine you consume to be cleared from your body. Nicotine is also a stimulant. Thus, smoking cigarettes or vaping can also impact your Zs. When nicotine wears off, it can lead to withdrawal symptoms that activate you and cause difficulty with falling asleep or staying asleep.
10. Limit alcohol. It interferes with deeper sleep states that are critical for your body to rejuvenate and make you feel refreshed upon awakening.
11. Manage stress. Anxious thoughts can be your continued reaction to a stressful day. Do as much as you can to manage stress during the day so you can enjoy a peaceful night. Avoid stressful people, realize your feelings and make action plans with what you can do.
Once you’re in the grips of anxious thinking, you have to do the work to clear your mind by venting the nervous thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. You must take steps to help your mind rest, as you do your body. If you continue to struggle with anxious thoughts, talk with your primary care physician.
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author.
Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@ -pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.