Many people with anxiety have experienced this scenario:
You’re finally done with a long day and have tucked yourself in for the night. Suddenly, your brain starts firing off worries that hadn’t even occurred to you during the day. What if I get fired? Am I a good parent? Did I forget to include something in that report that’s due tomorrow? These thoughts keep you awake all night long — and the following day, you’re exhausted.
Can you relate? People with anxiety often report their symptoms get much worse at night. But why is that? And what can you do about it?
Here is your guide on how to calm anxiety at night, including the real reasons for why you get anxiety at night, and tips for how to sleep better with anxiety.
Why Do I Get Anxiety at Night?
If you’re like many people with anxiety, you may have noticed your symptoms often get worse at night. Maybe you start contemplating everything that happened during the day, or you’re hit with stress thinking about what you need to do tomorrow.
Why is your anxiety so much worse at night? What’s the reason behind this?
1. You’re not as distracted or busy at night
For most people, anxiety worsens simply because you’re not as distracted at night.
During the day, many people — with anxiety or not — are focused on the task in front of them. You might be around other people and find the social interactions all-engrossing. Or perhaps work is so complicated, it takes all of your energy to complete each task.
The main idea is it’s easier for most people to distract themselves from anxiety symptoms during the hustle and bustle of the day. In the evening, when things start to quiet down, anxiety takes the opportunity to occupy all the empty spaces in your mind. Many people find all the thoughts and worries they’ve managed to push away during the day come back to haunt them in the dead of night.
2. Your body can’t get out of hyperarousal
There might also be a biological component to this. For example, when you’re anxious, your body is in hyperarousal. But as you get ready to go to sleep, your body gets the signal it’s time to rest. This has to do with the way your body’s natural circadian rhythm affects melatonin production.
But if you have anxiety, your body may fight this urge to rest. Humans developed stress and anxiety to help us fight real threats. That’s why we feel so on-edge when we’re anxious — it’s the body’s fight/flight/freeze response.
Of course, most of the time when you feel anxious, there probably is no real threat. But your body doesn’t know that, and it may be unwilling to let go of this readiness to fight off danger. Anxiety floods your brain with stress hormones like adrenaline, making it even harder to fall asleep.
3. There isn’t as much support available at night
Lastly, your anxiety may worsen at night because there isn’t as much support. During the day, you can reach out to friends or other people in your support network when you feel anxiety symptoms coming on. However, you might feel more reluctant to reach out in the middle of the night.
Other reasons why your anxiety may be worse at night include:
- Drinking caffeine during the day
- Certain medical conditions, like menopause
- Exercising right before bed
- Being more hyper aware of physical symptoms, which can lead to health anxiety
- Panic disorder, which can cause nocturnal panic attacks
- Worrying over the fact that you’re not sleeping
No matter the reason behind your nighttime anxiety, know you’re not alone. Up to a third of all people with insomnia (a sleep disorder that causes people not to sleep at night) also have an anxiety disorder.
How to Get Rid of Anxiety at Night
If you have anxiety, you must get restful sleep every night. Studies have shown that being sleep-deprived only worsens anxiety symptoms. But, of course, the problem is that anxiety and sleep issues are stuck in a vicious cycle; a lack of sleep worsens anxiety, but having anxiety makes it more difficult to sleep.
You can do things, however, to get yourself out of this cycle. Here are five tips you can use to calm your anxiety in the evening so it stops keeping you awake.
Going to therapy is one of the most effective ways to beat your anxiety once and for all. Many types of therapy are helpful for anxiety, but one method, called cognitive-behavior therapy, may be beneficial.
Cognitive-behavior therapy can help you recognize and challenge your anxious or irrational thoughts. Anxiety changes the way we think 一 and can make us believe things that aren’t true. Psychotherapy can help you transform your thinking patterns. When your thoughts become healthier, your behaviors and mood will improve, too.
Mindfulness meditation has been established as an effective way to battle anxiety. Try creating an evening mindfulness practice to help combat your anxiety symptoms at night.
To practice meditation, find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the here and now. While you meditate, simply pay attention. As you’re breathing in, notice that you’re breathing in. How does the air feel? As you’re breathing out, do the same. How does the air feel leaving your body?
When a worry enters your mind, acknowledge it, and then let it go. It’s okay for worries to come and go. You can always come back to the present moment.
This exercise has the added benefit of regulating your breathing. For example, your breathing often becomes faster, more shallow, or irregular when you’re anxious. On the other hand, by breathing mindfully, your breath often naturally becomes more profound and slower.
Experts say writing down your thoughts can be a helpful way to let them go every evening.
But make sure you don’t use your journal to work yourself up even more. Only focusing on the negative and stressful things that happened during your day might be a good venting exercise, but may make you feel even more upset.
For your evening journaling practice, try instead to keep your focus on things you know will help you feel more relaxed and safe. For example, you might write about someone you love, or describe a place that makes you feel safe.
4. Make plans for tomorrow
Worrying about the next day can often increase anxiety and keep people up at night. If this is what’s causing your nighttime anxiety, try addressing the problem directly by planning out the next day.
You might find it helpful to use a planner or a to-do list to prepare yourself for what you need to do tomorrow. That way, you can go to bed feeling confident there are no unpleasant surprises you’d forgotten about waiting for you the next day.
Make sure you’re mindful about how you feel if you decide to practice this; for some people, thinking about the next day might make anxiety even worse.
5. Use music and sounds
Many people with anxiety use their sense of hearing to help them relax in the evening. Different people find different sounds soothing, but audio tracks that include nature sounds or slow instrumental music are popular choices.
Figure out what kind of sound helps you to relax. For example, some people might find the sound of running water soothing, but others might find it irritating. It all depends on what your body needs to wind down.
When it’s finally time to go to sleep, experts recommend your bedroom stays as silent as possible. But if you find that some background noise helps you fall asleep, you can certainly choose to keep the music on.
6. Know your triggers
If you already know watching the news makes you feel more stressed and anxious, don’t watch the news in the evening. If checking your work emails makes the worries about work start spinning in your mind again, turn off your email until the morning.
It seems obvious, but it takes a great deal of mindfulness to know your triggers and recognize what’s upsetting you. So the next time you’re feeling anxious at night, pay attention to your surroundings. What were you doing right before you started feeling anxious? Did you have caffeine? Who were you with?
7. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is an evidence-based way to help your body wind down at night. You can practice it at any point in your evening routine, but you may find it’s so effective you fall asleep while practicing it.
There are several audio and video recordings that can guide you through a complete progressive muscle relaxation exercise. You can also easily do it yourself. The idea is to tense, then completely relax, one muscle group at a time.
To do progressive muscle relaxation, it’s best to lie down comfortably. Now, start with your toes, feet, and ankles. Tense this muscle group as hard as you can (but not so hard that it causes pain). Your feet will probably lift off the bed a little bit. After you’ve tensed your muscles in this area for around 10 seconds, allow them to relax completely. Let all of the tension drain out of that muscle group.
Work your way up to your body, repeating this with each separate muscle group 一 your legs, your hips, your abdomen, and so on. Many people find they’re asleep before they finish.
Lastly, many people with anxiety and/or sleep disorders find relief with psychiatric medications. Of course, there is a lot you can do to ease nighttime anxiety on your own, but there’s also no shame in taking medication if you need it. Anxiety is a diagnosable mental health condition, and medicine is one of the most effective ways to treat it.
Be sure to consult with your doctor to determine if medication is the right option for you. Some anti-anxiety medications and sleep aids come with a risk of abuse and addiction, so your doctor may ask you to try some of these other strategies before prescribing them for you.
How to Fall Asleep With Anxiety
Once you’ve gotten your nighttime anxiety to calm down, how can you fall asleep so you don’t get dragged back into the vicious cycle of poor sleep and worsening anxiety?
Experts say most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep every night. But if you live with anxiety, it’s likely you’re not getting that amount 一 or if you are, they aren’t restful hours.
To make sure you’re falling asleep on time and getting enough restful sleep every night, it’s essential to practice good sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene comprises the routines, practices, and habits you use to make sure your body is ready to fall asleep each night.
Start implementing the following practices into your nighttime routine. You may notice they make a difference in how easily you’re able to fall asleep at night, even with anxiety.
1. Have a bedtime routine
Keeping a strict routine is one of the most important things you can do when it comes to helping your body sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will start to train your body that, once it hits a certain hour, it’s time for sleep.
On top of that, build a bedtime routine and start it 30 minutes to an hour each night before going to bed. You can include any soothing activities you want in your routine, but some ideas are:
- Taking a warm bath or shower
- Doing a relaxation activity, like meditation or a breathing exercise
- Prepare yourself a hot beverage, like a cup of tea (just remember to avoid caffeine!)
- Cuddle with your partner or pet
- Listen to relaxing music
- Do some light stretching
- Place calming essential oils in a diffuser
2. Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary
Make your bedroom a comfortable space for sleep. Experts say the ideal bedroom for sleep is:
- Dark; try to block out any outside lights that try to sneak their way in.
- Quiet; many people use earplugs if they live in a city or sleep with a snoring partner.
- Cool; the ideal bedroom temperature is between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
If it’s within your reach, you can also buy a new, comfortable mattress. An uncomfortable mattress contributes to a night of tossing and turning for many people.
3. Limit screen time before bed
Although falling asleep watching reruns of your favorite TV show might sound comforting, it’s actually more likely to keep you awake than help you fall asleep.
Screens, including TVs, laptops, and phones, get in the way of your body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is what tells your body when it’s time to go to bed, but the blue light that’s released from these devices can trick your body into thinking it isn’t time to sleep yet. This is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sleep restfully!
Avoid looking at screens an hour before bedtime, and you may find you fall asleep faster.
4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol
It may feel tempting to have a glass of wine to help you get to sleep at night but, according to research, alcohol actually hurts, rather than helps, your sleeping habits in the long run.
Alcohol is a sedative and can help you fall asleep more quickly. But that sedative effect wears off during the night, which interrupts your sleep quality. Alcohol can also cause other sleep problems, including breathing issues, nightmares, and sleep-walking. And research has found that sleeping problems are more common in people who have an alcohol addiction than those who don’t.
Another substance you should avoid before bed, for more obvious reasons, is caffeine. Some studies had found that caffeine taken six hours before bed reduced the amount of restful sleep by a whole hour. Not to mention, caffeine is well-known to make anxiety symptoms worse.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for coffee-lovers, but limit your caffeine intake to your morning cup if your anxiety is keeping you up at night.
5. Exercise, but not right before bed
Physical exercise during the day is one of the best habits you can adopt to fall asleep more quickly every night. In fact, some studies have shown that exercise is just as effective as sleeping pills for helping people sleep. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, and you’ll probably find you start sleeping more soundly.
However, some people may find that exercising right before sleep keeps them up. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, a brain chemical that makes you feel more awake. Others, though, say it doesn’t seem to matter when they exercise.
Pay attention to your body. If exercising right before bed seems to be keeping you up, try instead to move your workout to around two hours before going to bed.
6. If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed.
This may sound counterintuitive, but if you find yourself lying awake at night, get out of bed. Sleep experts say that the longer you stay in bed tossing and turning, the more you train your body that your bed is a place to lie awake. And sleeplessness is not something you want to reinforce.
If you can’t fall asleep for 15 to 20 minutes after hitting the hay, get out of bed and do another activity 一 preferably something boring or relaxing. Remember to avoid screens. You might complete a Sudoku or a crossword puzzle, listen to music, or read a low-intensity book. Don’t do anything very active, like exercise. And avoid any food or drink that isn’t water.
After around 20 minutes, return to bed and fall asleep again. You can try doing a progressive muscle relaxation exercise while you’re in bed to help your body along.
If you still can’t fall asleep after another 15 minutes, get out of bed again and repeat. In this way, you’ll retrain your body and mind that your bed is a place for sleep.
Anxiety Treatment at The Center • A Place for HOPE
Anxiety and sleep problems can become locked in a vicious cycle. The more anxious you are, the less you’re able to sleep; the less you sleep, the more anxious you become.
Our therapists can help you break out of this frustrating cycle. The Center • A Place of HOPE offers high-quality treatment for all types of anxiety and sleep disorders. Our team can help you start making progress toward recovery 一 so you can finally get a good night’s sleep.
Our unique Whole Person Care approach to anxiety treatment addresses the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life. By managing every area of your life, and not just your anxiety, you can start to heal as a whole person.
Don’t let anxiety keep you up at night. Contact The Center • A Place of HOPE today to learn more about how we can help you.