Anxiety Symptom #3: Sleeping Problems (13 Ways To Fall Asleep Naturally)
Sleeping problems are a very common symptom of anxiety.
If you have dealt with General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder or panic attacks, I probably don't need to tell you what it's like to stay awake late at night struggling to calm down your racing mind.
The reality is that the anxious mind doesn’t like to drift away into unconsciousness. It has stuff to check. It has stuff to worry about. It has problems to solve.
And it likes to do all of that after you've turned off the lights.
Before I get into why that is, let’s look at what kind of sleeping problems anxiety can cause.
Various Sleeping Problems Caused By Anxiety
When it comes to sleeping problems, probably the most common one is having difficulty actually falling asleep.
If your mind starts racing and you can’t stop thinking whatever obsessive thoughts are forcing you wide awake, trying to relax and go back to dreamland can be a daunting task.
Sleeping problems are a slippery slope.
They turn those 8 hours of the day when you're supposed get recovery into just another challenge, a chore. Sleeping turns into something that you can't just peacefully enjoy, like other people. No, you have to steal it for yourself by playing a few shrewd tricks on your own mind.
Sleeping stops being an opportunity to relax and recover and becomes a daunting task that you have to solve before you can even dream of enjoying a good rest.
And that just creates more anxiety in your midn around sleeping. You end up in a vicious cycle where your anxiety is feeding your sleeping issues and your sleeping issues are feeding your anxiety.
You know, it can be very frustrating to keep checking the alarm clock only to be reminded that another few minutes have gone by. And with each passing minute, you have that much less time to sleep for the night.
Not to mention that when you stop to think about it, it’s not a pleasant idea that you have difficulty with one of the most basic of human needs; sleeping. It lends itself to some harsh self-criticism – you can easily end up blaming yourself for your sleeping problems.
And blaming yourself for your sleeping problems is the perfect recipe for even more anxiety down the line.
But sleeping problems are not just about falling asleep.
They're about staying asleep throughout the night.
And for some people, that’s not an issue at all. Every night they slip into dreamland and wake up renewed and refreshed the next morning. They don’t even think about sleeping – it just comes naturally and for the most part all the magic happens unconsciously.
But for people struggling with anxiety, falling asleep is only the first step of getting through the night. Next, you need to make sure that you actually stay asleep all the way through.
If you don’t, you’ll be back on square one: trying to force yourself asleep in the middle of the night in pitch black darkness alone with your racing thoughts. And we both know how that goes.
So the two main sleeping issues that I’m going to be writing about today is falling asleep and staying asleep.
How Anxiety Can Keep You Awake At Night
So how can anxiety make falling and staying asleep so difficult?
Well, to understand the reason behind that, I want you to travel back in time with me to a time when our great-great-great ancestors were still living in caves hunting for mammoths on the vast plains of the Savannah.
Back in those times our body developed a cutting-edge evolutionary tool for staying alive called the stress response. It’s something that we've been using a lot ever since.
Here is what the stress response basically does. Whenever we are in danger, our body releases stress hormones into our system to make us better at fighting and fleeing. This is very handy because it helps us stay alive in a life and death situation.
Here's a short list of some of the physiological changes that the stress response brings about in your body:
- Your arm and leg muscles get more blood,
- your breathing gets quicker and more shallow to get more oxygen,
- your heart starts beating faster to supply more blood to your muscles,
- your attention is focused automatically on the source of the threat,
- you automatically become more alert and much more attentive to your environment,
- and your brain gets more sugar to think and react more swiftly.
The stress response of our body is a pretty big deal. It is an amazing ability that has helped us survive as a species all this time.
However there is a tiny problem with the stress response. Unlike that of animals, our fight or fight response fires at imaginary things as well.
While a zebra has to actually see a lion running at it, flashing its formidable fangs to start releasing stress hormones, for you it’s enough if you just think of a situation like that to get all worked up and stressed out.
And that’s what happens at every night when you go to sleep.
What you’re doing is, without even noticing you start thinking about stressful things. And the moment you do that, you’re triggering the stress response of your body which releases all kinds of chemicals in your blood stream that make you restless and very alert.
After all, for all the brain knows, you’re in danger. And you better watch out before some predator jumps out at you from a dark corner of your bedroom. As far as the brain is concerned you’re stressing out about a looming threat, so you need a little “boost” in your thinking and fighting abilities.
So just as if you were about to wrestle with a mountain lion, your attention starts to focus obsessively and compulsively on your stressful thoughts. And your start to feel restless, eager to use your muscles.
And that’s pretty much the gist of what happens when anxiety is keeping you awake at night.
The stress response is the exact opposite of the calm, relaxed state of mind and body you need to be in to quickly fall asleep and enjoy a good rest.
At the root of it all there’s a biological super-weapon that gets activated by anything that you consider threatening, whether it be real or imaginary.
It could be paying the bills, keeping the car running, passing an exam – or even something seemingly trivial, like that smug remark that Jim made at you at work a few days ago.
The memory just pops into your head, you start ruminating over it and you try to come up with a witty comeback to Johnny's remark that you could have replied with, or ways you could have handled the situation better.
And before you know it, your restless, alert and unable to sleep at all.
13 Ways to Trick Your Mind into Falling Asleep
Now let's look at ways to force your racing mind into dreamy submission.
#1 Read Something Boring
This was my first technique that I ever tried and it works pretty well. There are a few things to keep in mind though.
First, don’t read anything that you’re even remotely interested in. So best-sellers with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter are a no-no. That would only keep you awake indefinitely.
What you want to read is something boring or dry. Stuff that will keep your mind occupied and distracted but slowly make your eyelids heavy with its boring content.
#2 Breathing Exercise
Yes, breathing can help you relax – if done correctly.
The key is to make sure that your exhales are longer than your inhales. A good technique I found is to count to 7 while you’re breathing in and then count to 11 while you’re breathing out.
Also, listen to the sound of your breath and focus on what it feels like to fill your lungs with lukewarm air. You want to focus your attention on your breathing in order to distract it from your anxious, intrusive thoughts.
The idea is to slow down your breathing. The stress response makes you breathe faster - and as long as you do, your body thinks you’re still in danger.
By slowing down your breathing, you communicate to your brain that the threat is over, it can relax.
#3 Yoga Nidra
If you’re interested in ancient relaxation techniques, I highly recommend yoga nidra.
My first encounter with it was when I listened to this YouTube video.
It’s a lot like guided meditation actually. It aims to create a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping and I think it does a very good job at it. It really makes you forget all those anxious thoughts that were grinding your mind just a few moments ago.
And as a bonus, the voice of the lady in that video is very gentle and soothing which adds another layer of immersion to the calm and relaxing yoga nidra experience.
#4 Listen to Nature Sounds Videos
This is one of my favorites. For some reason, the sound of the rain makes me sleep really, really well. And as it turns out, there are countless YouTube videos that play long hours of nature sounds. These videos can be the perfect lullaby if you're having trouble falling asleep.
It would be so cool to somehow conjure the smell of rain and the cold breeze into my room as well, but oh well.
Here are two of my favorite nature sound videos that help me fall asleep every time I put them on:
- This one is a 10 hour long video of a massive rainfall.
- This one is a 2 and a half hour long video of ocean wave sounds.
#5 No Backlights Rule
Blue lights are your enemy at night. You want to make sure that you turn off your computer, your smartphone and your tablet – anything with a screen really – about 2 hours before you go to sleep.
Although backlights don’t have a lot to do with anxiety directly, they do make you stay awake at night.
Research shows that melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleeping cycles gets released every time you’re body is getting ready to sleep. But it only gets released if your environment suggests that it’s the right time to sleep – meaning that it’s dark.
And this is where that blue light coming from the screen of your smartphone or laptop comes into play. It turns out that as far as the brain is concerned, staring at a screen is the same as staring at the sun.
And I don’t need to tell you that staring at the sun right before going to bed is not a good idea.
Here’s a cool gradual screen dimming tool that helps your eyes and your brain ease into a state of sleepiness.
#6 Eliminate Distracting Sensations
You want to eliminate any sound or light that might engage your attention.
I’m talking about the rest of the family shutting doors, the sound of footsteps and any direct or indirect light that might disturb your sleep.
You want to block any sensations that could remind you of those intrusive, anxious thoughts you’re trying to let go of.
The good news is that the solution to this problem is really simple and cheap. All you need is a set of ear plugs and an eye mask.
They will help you make sure that you not only fall asleep quickly but also stay asleep for the night.
#7 Light Stretching
Stretching is a really good way to relax your muscles.
When you’re stressed out, you’re muscles are tense. It’s part of the stress response – you tense your muscles to be able to fight or flee from a dangerous situation more quickly.
If you’ve struggled with anxiety for a while, it’s almost certain that some of your muscles are chronically tense.
Stretching helps you relax by releasing most of the tension from your muscles.
You don’t want to do anything major though, just keep it light and simple. A long stretching session can easily turn into an exercise - and that’s the last thing you want to do before going to sleep.
I suggest stretching the back of your thighs, your chest and back muscles. Those muscle groups are where most of the tension builds up during the day.
#8 Sleepy Time Tea
Sleepy Time Tea is a caffeine-free blend of chamomile, spearmint and lemongrass that will help you relax and reduce anxiety.
It pretty tasty, too. Just make sure you don’t drink too much of it before going to bed. It is a liquid after all and it might make you go to the bathroom right before you’re about to float off to dreamland.
#9 No Caffeine Late in the Day
And that brings me to the caffeine and anxiety connection.
This one probably warrants a blog post in and of itself which I'll probably write some time in the future.
But for now, to make a long story short, just don’t drink coffee late in the day. Preferably none after noon. Period.
#10 ASMR – Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
Now this might be a little weird at first. I don’t even know how to start to describe what ASMR is to those of you that have never heard of it.
So I suggest you check out this YouTube video from Gentle Whispering to get an idea for yourself.
But to sum it up, ASMR is, the way I see it, an artistic performance of somebody trying to help you fall asleep. And you are going to fall asleep like a baby, that is for sure.
The artist talks in a softly spoken whispering voice while making quiet, repetitive sounds of mundane tasks such as turning the pages of a book.
I know that it sounds weird but it’s worked for literally everyone that I’ve talked to so far.
ASMR creates this intimate feeling that the artist is paying close personal attention to you and you alone. It’s a very soothing and relaxing experience.
#11 Stroke Your Pillow
I learned this one from the ASMR video above and I immediately thought that it deserves its own section.
This is a very simple exercise that will engage all your senses and create a very soothing and relaxing experience that will distract you form anxious thoughts.
So as you’re lying in bed make sure that one of your ears is on the pillow. It’s just as if you were listening intently to the sounds inside the pillow.
Now glide one hand on the pillow ever so slightly.
This will create a sound that’s a lot like the murmur of ocean waves.
Keep gliding your hand over the pillow and listening to the calming sound that it makes until you fall asleep.
#12 No Clock Checking
Once you’ve decided that it’s time to sleep, make a promise to yourself that you won’t check the time again until morning.
Why do you check the time so often anyway?
All you’ll see is that it’s late – nothing you don’t know already.
However, looking at the alarm clock and noticing that another 5 minutes have passed will only remind you that it’s another 5 minutes less time for you to sleep. And this is only going to make you feel even more stressed out and anxious.
So remember: no clock-checking once you’re in bed.
#13 Make a Journal
Before you go to bed, collect all the things that are bothering you and dump them on a piece of paper.
Make an honest brain dump of all the things that are keeping you awake at night and just write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t think, just write.
Once you’ve got it all on paper, realize that there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it now. Just put the paper away somewhere safe and let go of it all for the night. You'll come back to it in the morning once you wake up.
Anxiety can cause a variety of sleeping problems.
But there’s also a silver lining that most people don’t even think about. According to research:
"Due to increased brain activity, people with higher intelligence tend to have a harder time falling asleep at night."
So who knows, you might be having sleeping problems because of your higher than average intelligence!
Feng Q, Zhang Q-l, Du Y, Ye Y-l, He Q-q (2014) Associations of Physical Activity, Screen Time with Depression, Anxiety and Sleep Quality among Chinese College Freshmen. PLoS ONE 9(6): e100914. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100914
Alfano, C. A., Zakem, A. H., Costa, N. M., Taylor, L. K. and Weems, C. F. (2009), Sleep problems and their relation to cognitive factors, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents. Depress. Anxiety, 26: 503–512. doi: 10.1002/da.2044