For a number of reasons, it’s not surprising that most people might have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep on occasion. There are all the usual tricks to get yourself onto the sleep train: counting sheep, deep breathing, and putting your phone away.

But for those who live with chronic anxiety or deal with intrusive thoughts, getting rest is a different level of challenge that requires a little more creativity and experimentation.

We spoke with eight people who live with anxiety. They opened up about how they work to tackle intrusive thoughts and restlessness to get sleep.

Share on Pinterest

Rose, 28

Occupation: nursing school student

Average sleep hours: 7

“I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD so it’s really hard for me to keep my thoughts in line. It’s hard work and you can’t be doing hard work right before you go to sleep. I started doing crossword puzzles in 2016 during the day and would read books before bed — but after getting a concussion in 2018, my doctors asked me not to read for a while so that my brain could heal.”

“My absolutely wonderful partner started reading me the crossword puzzle clues, but I’d often fall asleep before we finished. It was a neat trick and after I was cleared to look at my phone again, I downloaded the NYTimes puzzle app so that I could do all the archived puzzles. I’m in nursing school so it’s important to start building up tricks to be able to fall asleep for night shifts.”

Travis, 26

Occupation: account executive

Average sleep hours: 7

“Sometimes when I’m alone in my thoughts, my mind starts to wander to very embarrassing events during my childhood. But I’m not [remembering events] where I felt humiliated at the time — just things I did that I now regret.

“So I do this thing that came from the war imagery in the films I grew up with. I think specifically of the Battle of the Bulge in the dead of winter in Belgium, close to Christmas where the soldiers are huddling up together in their respective fox holes. I picture myself in the fox hole safe from the danger above me. I imagine the fox hole is very similar to how people say they sleep very well when there’s a thunderstorm outside. Because you’re inside, there’s a sense of security.”

“Especially during COVID, the fox hole helps me feel a sense of safety because there’s a shared terror outside. The fox hole kind of represents the place where I can hide from all the awful thoughts.”

Gabriela, 23

Occupation: graduate student

Average sleep hours: 4–5

“I have generalized anxiety disorder and it often makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Here are some things that have worked: I listen to Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast. I suggested my fiancé listen to it, and it works for him also. I also use this podcast specifically because it doesn’t have loud commercial breaks or sound effects.”

“Next is essential oils. My mother [would often apply them] to my temples, behind my ears and elbows, under my nose, and on my wrists, as a child. It opens up my sinuses, making me breathe deeper and reduces my anxiety. The smell and the tingling sensation of the oil on my skin is enough to distract me from my anxious thoughts.”

Note: Always do a patch test before trying an essential oil that is new to you, and always apply mixed in a carrier oil. Applying straight essential oil to your skin can cause burns. Here’s how to shop for the best ones.

Ophira, 36

Occupation: vintage fashion stylist

Average sleep hours: 8

“For the past few months, I’ve settled into a sleep schedule where I’m awake from around 1:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. every night. At first, I attributed my inability to stay asleep to my massive anxiety. Then I had a Skype date with a historian friend of mine, who told me about how it was actually quite common in the pre-industrial era for people to sleep in two shifts.”

“He sent me this article and suggested that because so many of us aren’t working the typical 9-to-5 office job right now, our relationship to time may be changing again. When I stopped pathologizing my relationship to sleep, I found that something changed within me. I’ve been taking this time to read a book, meditate, or simply contemplate in silence.”

“There’s a certain expectation to move forward through life in the way that people used to do in the past — and there’s anxiety that comes with not being able to do that right now, at least for me. Ritual, even ritual that I’ve created for myself, helps me work with my natural energies and rhythms in a way that feels more ‘right.’”

Jerrica, 37

Occupation: English teacher

Average sleep hours: 3 –4

“It was a stroke of serendipity when I discovered horror movies are able to help me fall asleep. I recently decided to rewatch “Final Destination,” as I could tell that I was in for yet another night of no sleep, and would need to find a way to occupy my time.”

“As I watched the film, I was of course startled by jump scares, but by the end, I felt an unexpected sense of tranquility. And for the first time in 9 months, felt sleepy at a normal hour. I wound up falling asleep around 11 p.m., just a few minutes after having completed the film. I awoke the next morning around 8 a.m., which was a pleasant surprise, as it meant I had slept the whole night.”

“My working theory is that although horror movies intentionally provoke stress in the viewer, they often culminate in a moment of catharsis when the surviving characters have finally eluded or defeated whatever evil has been pursuing them. It is that moment of catharsis in horror movies that allow me to be at peace.”

“I believe that as far as my brain is concerned, the stressors and [eventual] relief occurring in the horror film are actually happening to me. So even though I go to bed with the same intrusive thoughts, and unresolved life issues, my brain is convinced that I’ve resolved something, and thus allows me to relax.”

Emily, 26

Occupation: realtor

Average sleep hours: 4 – 6

“I have pure O anxiety, MDD, and have had insomnia since I was little. I tend not to put my phone away as being able to reach for it immediately helps me to ground myself in reality. [It calms me] to know what time it is, if I missed something, or that if I have a nightmare, there’s a way to forget the dream or intrusive thought.”

“For an extreme singular persistent thought, I like to use guided meditation, Pixel Thoughts because it allows you to type the intrusive thought into a circle and watch it shrink. I find this to be more helpful than deep breathing or anything else because I struggle with nonvisual representations.”

“I keep the chocolate in my dresser to nibble on as well. I find that a lot of the conventional wisdom around phones and not eating late doesn’t seem to do much for me, so now I just do what makes me comfortable. I’ll also put my comforter in the dryer and then bring it back to bed warm so that I can roll myself up like a burrito. It seems to help.”

Sami, 20

Occupation: college student

Average sleep hours: 8

“Ever since I was very, very little something that has always helped me is listening to music! I remember my grandma would play this Broadway Kids CD and I guess that just stuck. When I started going to sleepaway camp I’d wear headphones to help me sleep. I also wore them at night during my first 2 years of college when I had two roommates.”

“I’ll still wear AirPods sometimes, even though I live alone now. And over the last 5 years or so, I’ve listened to Broadway cast recordings and occasionally podcasts.”

“Instead of obsessing about an intrusive thought keeping me awake — like what I have to do the next day or something I said to someone hours ago — I’m strictly focused on the musical. It has to be a musical because those tell a story. Rain noises or white noise just annoy me. It may not be what research or experts have recommended, but it works for me.”

Joanna, 29

Occupation: science writer and cartoonist

Average sleep hours: 3 – 7

“My current nighttime routine involves a skin care treatment, brushing/flossing my teeth, and checking that all the doors are locked. I either scroll on Buzzfeed, read a soothing book, or a combination of both. Then, I fantasize about rom-coms to soothe my anxiety and help me get to sleep.”

“The daydreaming started when I was a kid. It distracted me from whatever was making me anxious at the time. I have a diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder with a splash of OCD, so sinking into dumb romantic comedies was the perfect alternative to dark or disturbing thoughts.”

Those characters that either existed in a series [from my childhood] or that I made up have evolved over the years, but are mainstays in my current occasional mental rom-coms. They almost always involve the ‘shy girl meets extroverted boy and he gets her out of her shell’ trope.”

“As an adult, I do this less, as I’ve found other ways to cope with insomnia (SSRIs have really helped in that regard). But sometimes my OCD brain gets stuck on a thought and I need to dust off one of these silly romantic plotlines to get me to distract me enough to fall asleep!”

Lexia, 26

Occupation: unemployed

Average sleep hours: 8 –9

“For about 6 years now, my sleep routine has been masturbation and then listening to ASMR. I learned about both during my junior year of college when my anxiety was particularly high after losing two of my closest friends. I was feeling lonely and isolated on top of the stress of classes and working.”

“After doing some research, I came across an article on masturbation as a means to fall asleep. I had never masturbated before and to be completely honest, I wasn’t aware it was something women could do. It led to a lot of research and trial and error, but eventually, I got it down and it really helped my body to relax. Then I would pick an ASMR video to listen to and usually be out in 10 minutes!”

“This is as much part of my nightly routine as washing my face and brushing my teeth. Sometimes I might decide to make it special by pampering myself and take a bath, light some candles, and put on special pajamas before I get into bed.”

“It’s been wonderful, not just for helping me sleep, but also helping me to know my body and feel comfortable in my skin. It gets tricky, however, when I have to stay somewhere else and is a big reason why I don’t like sleepovers!

“And while ASMR is something I can watch/listen to anywhere, I have found it awkward to discuss with friends or family because they don’t understand it or find it creepy. I prefer videos where someone, generally with a soft voice, tells a story or does some kind of role-play.”

I also try “tingles,” which help to further relax my body and make my brain feel kind of fuzzy. It feels a lot like I do when I’m meditating and it’s the most peaceful I feel all day.”