It’s 11 p.m. My blue light-emitting cell phone has been on Night Mode for the past hour. I’ve generously sprayed lavender sleep mist on my pillows. My blackout eye mask is on my nightstand. And I’m reading a chapter of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life from a real, physical book, not my Kindle. In short, I have done every damn thing imaginable to turn my bedroom into a peaceful haven, perfectly calibrated for me to fall asleep minutes after the lights go out.
But the second I switch that light off, a switch in my brain flips on, helpfully reminding me of all the things I have to worry about before I can comfortably fall asleep:
When was the last time you got blood tests? What if there’s something wrong?
Hey, remember that big trip you have coming up in four months? Have you thought about every single item you might need to purchase and pack before them? Nope? Well, no time like the present!
Your boyfriend’s parents aren’t going to be impressed with a new set of wine glasses as an anniversary present. Better come up with a dozen equally awful ideas, just in case.
The news. All of it. All of the news. Just… ugh.
Forget falling asleep in minutes—most nights, I’m lucky if I can drift off in less than an hour.
And I’m not alone in my struggle. Robert Oexman, D.C., director of the Sleep to Live Institute, explains that there’s a connection between anxiety and sleep. Those spiraling thoughts may keep you from falling asleep and lead to worse sleep quality at night. And this can be the case for women, in particular, especially if they’re stressed about interpersonal issues.
In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there’s a relationship between sleep and mood. “People with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally,” Oexman says. “The more a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake at night as a result, the higher the chances of developing depression.”
Or as licensed psychologist Ben Rutt, Ph.D., puts it, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep can be symptoms of a larger problem with anxiety. “Ruminating about worst-case scenarios, racing thoughts, and obsessing over things you need to do can prevent you from falling asleep,” he says. “Worrying about these things can also wake you up and prevent you from falling back asleep.”
And when you experience those incessant, anxious thoughts, it’s not just your brain that’s getting wound up—the rest of your body is revving up too.
Rachel Kazez, LCSW, a therapist and founder of All Along, explains that anxiety activates our sympathetic nervous system, increasing physiological arousal and producing stress hormones for a contradictory-feeling, tired-but-wired effect.
“That internal physiological arousal is interesting,” she says. “It’s like on the inside, you’re doing jumping jacks, but on the outside, you’re sitting still—which is both tiring and confusing.” So no matter how exhausted you may be from a full day of work, errands, going to the gym, and socializing, if your brain isn’t relaxed, your body’s going to be fired up—and trying to trick your brain into thinking it’s time to work. Ever had “I’m so tired but I can’t fall asleep” syndrome? Yeah, you can blame your brain for that one.
But you’re not doomed to hours upon hours of restless nights and groggy mornings if you frequently experience anxiety at bedtime—the experts I spoke with also offered up some ways to counteract anxiety-induced insomnia.
1. Start off by changing your morning routine.
Just like summer bodies are made in the winter, relaxing bedtimes start with healthy morning routines. In fact, Kazez argues that the hardest time to positively influence your bedtime is when it’s, well, bedtime.
“Your morning routine is one of the most important parts to healthy sleep hygiene,” she says. “Waking up at the same time every day, getting out of bed right away, exercising in the morning rather than at night, and eating a nutritious breakfast all help your body clock set, which means you’ll be more likely to be tired at night and able to fall asleep consistently. It’ll also help regulate your internal systems like energy, stress hormones, and blood sugar.”
A note about breakfast—while it’s generally considered a good idea, and there’s some evidence to suggest that skipping breakfast is associated with poor sleep quality, there isn’t enough data to make that kind of claim definitive just yet.
2. It might sound strange, but it’s actually a good idea to designate “worry time.”
Rachel Hershenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University and author of Activating Happiness, advises taking 20 minutes a day to write down all the negative thoughts swimming in your head that tend to pop up later at night.
Just don’t save this activity for before bedtime, when it’s more likely to get you mentally worked up. Instead, have “worry time” earlier in the day, when you don’t have the room in your brain to focus on your anxieties. You can also keep your worry time completely unstructured—journaling, drawing, whatever works for you.
After a couple of weeks of worry time, Hershenberg predicts that you’ll start to see two themes in your journaling: solvable problems and total unknowns.
“Solvable problems are things you can do something about. By listing them, you can better plan and anticipate, and you’ll feel a little more in control,” she says. “Then there’s stuff you feel nervous or apprehensive about because they’re total uncertainties. This is when you can gently validate that fear—for example, by telling yourself, ‘Yeah, it makes total sense that I feel scared because I don’t know what my boss is going to say tomorrow. But I did everything I could, and I’m just going to go in there and listen.'”
3. As usual, regular exercise is the key to basically everything—including anxiety-induced insomnia.
“Regular, moderate exercise is the most effective treatment for insomnia,” Rutt says. And Hershenberg agrees. “If you wear yourself out earlier in the day, you’re more likely to fall asleep when your head hits the pillow.”
One caveat: Try not to exercise too close to bedtime unless it’s a more meditative type of exercise like yoga or Pilates.
4. Stay mentally present.
“Your anxieties are future-oriented, and they take you out of the present moment—your bed,” Hershenberg says. “You’re physically there, but your mind isn’t.”
So to stay in the present moment, try an activity that lets you be as present-focused as possible. Yes, this is why everyone recommends reading before bed—you can participate in that activity fully, focusing on what you’re reading, while you gradually get sleepier and sleepier.
Not a reader? As an alternative, Hershenberg suggests meditation or breathing exercises via the free app Insight Timer as another way to relax in the present moment.
5. If you just can’t fall asleep, get out of bed.
If the anxious thoughts just won’t quiet down, the experts recommend physically getting out of your bed (yes, even if it’s super cozy) and moving to a different location in your house.
“Don’t make bed a place of feeling trapped,” Kazez says, and Oexman agrees. “You want to avoid associating your bedroom with not being able to sleep. If you can’t sleep after being awake in bed for longer than 20 minutes, get up and leave the bedroom.”
Once you leave your bed, settle on a comfortable couch or chair with the lights dim. From there, you can read, write, listen to music, or practice breathing exercises or gentle yoga until you feel tired again. When you feel sleepy, head back to your bed and try again.
6. Try… whistling? Yes, seriously.
If you live alone, Kazez recommends this offbeat sleep starter: whistling. “If it won’t bother the people you live around, whistling uses up some air and energy in a way that can make you tired,” she explains. Whistling? Well, there are no studies to back this one up, but at least it can’t hurt.
With the advice of these professionals in my pajama pocket, I started to make a few changes to my sleep routine in the hopes of falling asleep faster.
As much as it pained me to do so, I started getting up at the same time every day—I have a flexible work schedule, so I was previously tempted to sleep as late as I could on days when I didn’t have to teach early. But since I was sleeping late on random days, I wasn’t getting tired at my self-set bedtime. See you every morning from here on out, 7:30 a.m. (and sorry, boyfriend who physically recoils at the sound of my alarm).
I was a little skeptical about planning out worry time—after all, aren’t I supposed to be keeping a gratitude journal and writing in my happiness planner every day? But after some reflection, I realized that I already sort of scheduled worry time for myself without realizing it during the time I spent running. I’d always used running as a way to corral my stress and decompress from the day’s worries, but now I officially designate that as my worry time, when I can let my anxieties and worries tumble around in my brain. When my run is over and I’m unlacing my running shoes, it’s almost like I’m physically finished with my worries too.
And finally, I’ve begun leaving my bed if I’m just not falling asleep for some reason. I resisted at first because I can be unbelievably lazy, but I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for my couch, my favorite fuzzy blanket, and the dimmer on my living room lights.
Sure, random anxiety-provoking thoughts still cross my mind every now and then when I’m trying to fall asleep, but with these sleepytime suggestions in my nightstand, I’ve started to drift off to dreamland much faster than I used to, with a lot less tossing and turning along the way.
Kristen Geil is a Chicago-based freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness, and happiness. She recently hosted a donut and wine pairing tasting party, and it was the best night of her life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @KristenGeil.