How to Overcome Anxiety at Bedtime and Get a Better Night’s Sleep
Did you know that May is Better Sleep Month? I didn’t realize it until speaking with someone from Casper. Casper is the most awarded mattress of the century. They were even named one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2015.
Think they know a thing or two about the importance of sleep? I’d say so. As Arianna Huffington pointed out in Casper’s Sleep Symposium, “Many of us are so used to being tired all the time that we think that is the new norm. If you go to Google and type in ‘Why am I…’ Do you know what is the most common autocomplete? ‘Why am I so tired?’”
There are various sleep problems that keep us from getting a restful, healing night’s sleep. We’re going to look at a few of them as we close out May. The one I wanted to tackle first it Anxiety.
Why? Because, judging from the e-mail I receive, it’s one of the biggest sleep problems people are experiencing.
We know the basics when it comes to “setting the stage” for a great night’s sleep:
Comfortable mattress, pillows, sheets, and covers.
Keeping your bedroom dark. Our mind, naturally, associated darkness with sleep and light with being awake. This is part of the reason iPads and other devices are such a bad idea at bedtime. Your eyes “register” the light and your brain receives the wrong signal.
Comfortable room temperature. Experts suggest that 65 degrees is the best temperature for sleep.
Turning off all electronic devices at least 10 minutes before lying down… and (even more importantly) keeping them off!
The problem with anxiety, however, is the fact that its victim can set the stage and still not fall asleep or stay asleep. The reason is they can’t turn off their mind as easily as they can turn off the lights. The light and devices go off, the brain stays on… very much on.
The good news is this is not how the story ends. Not from a long shot. Below are tips that will, I hope, help you get a better night’s sleep if you suffer from any type of anxiety.
Start Thinking About Bedtime at Least Two Hours Before You Hit the Sheets
This may seem kind of odd, but stick with me, it’s actually vital. It’s all about unwinding – or to be more exact – winding down. If you’re in the habit of watching dramas, action movies, ballgames, or (yikes!) the evening news right before bedtime, you aren’t setting the stage for restful sleep. I’m not suggesting you give these up… not at all. As a baseball fanatic, I’d just dare anyone to try to get between me and my ballgames!
I understand, nighttime television viewing is a wonderful way to relax after a long day. What I’m suggesting is this – construct a “bridge” between the high-energy tv viewing and bedtime. Depending upon your personal level of anxiety, the prognosis of going from HIGH energy to sleep within a reasonable time frame is about as realistic as the tooth fairy.
You could begin, at the end of your television viewing, reading for thirty minutes. Some people enjoy turning on something incredibly relaxing like the Weather Channel or golf to close out the day. You could even begin recording your favorite cooking show and watching an episode each night before bed. Cooking shows are off the chart relaxing.
Two hours before bedtime, cut off all caffeine. If you battle anxiety, you probably have already cut back on caffeine (smart move) – but make certain you don’t have any for at least two hours before you go to bed. As for food, try not to eat much before bedtime. Digesting requires energy and the e-word is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sleep.
Try Listening to Calming, Relaxing Music
There are countless relaxation apps (just be sure you put your device away when you lie down!) with soothing music. You could also go “old school” and listen to a cd or even relaxing music YouTube. If you search for Japanese Garden Music on YouTube, you will not be disappointed.
As the graphic above suggests, you could find a meditation app and use it right before bedtime.
Nature sounds are also blissfully relaxing. There are apps for these as well. Personally, I love a good old-fashioned fan. In fact, I associate the sound of a fan with sleep so soundly that, in the summer, I have to be careful turning one on in my home office. I made the mistake one day last August and it took me three hours to accomplish one post.
And it was a short one!
Turn off Your Thought Factory
Okay, I’ll go ahead and admit it – I do not battle anxiety, so this is easy for me to say. From what I’ve heard (from readers as well as family members), there is no flip switch on anxious thoughts. Instead of turning thoughts off, let’s just think of turning the channel on our thoughts. If you tend to have worrisome thoughts at bedtime, you’re going to have to outsmart them.
Here’s a cool mental exercise: Think of a small white poodle. It’s a little girl poodle with a pink bow on top of her hair. She’s lying on a big pink pillow and looking cuter than she has a right to look. Now think of a plate of spaghetti. The noodles are mounded up and topped off with a delicious, meaty sauce with mushrooms, onions, and garlic. You better believe it’s topped with Parmesan cheese!
You went from FiFi on a pillow to dinner in the blink of an eye. Why? Because your brain is an incredible machine, that’s why!
In the same way you just switched channels on your thoughts, do so the next time you’re lying in bed thinking of the electric bill, Christmas shopping, your daughter’s ridiculous new haircut, your husband’s spending habits…. switch the thought channel and focus (not just think… focus) on a favorite color, visions of the sky, the sound of rain on a summer afternoon… Pick one thing that is relaxing or satisfying to you and focus entirely on it.
Just be sure you stick with one. If you start out thinking about one, then your brain gets cute and tries to switch to another, you’re going to be annoyed and, worst of all, as anxious as you were before.
This one is my personal favorite – which is why I saved it for last. While apps, music, fans, etc, can be a wonderful place to start – your ultimate goal is to be able to control your own destiny when it comes to sleep. When you get to where you can unwind and slide deliciously into a restful night’s sleep without the aid of any device or sound, you’ll be in complete control and that’s a wonderful place to be.
After my mother died in 2006, I developed horrible sleep problems. Like those of you with anxiety, my brain would NOT turn off and it was a hideous ordeal. It’s even worse for people who deal with anxiety because a lack of sleep makes their anxiety worse. They pay for it the next day when they aren’t able to sleep. It’s a vicious cycle!
When I went through this period of time, I dreaded bedtime because it felt like a battle each night. I finally found a trick that worked for me and I believe it can work for anyone who needs a little help shutting off their brain at night. I decided to try something “visual.” I looked through the photographs on my phone – looking for one that evoked a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation.
When I came across a picture of a beautiful lake, I knew I’d found just what I needed. I studied the picture and began, each night, to visualize the photograph. The peaceful setting brought about relaxation but that was only half the magic. Focusing on the picture instead of the pain was probably even more important. If you don’t have personal pictures that do the trick, look through magazines, books, or even do a Google Image search for “relaxing pictures.” You’ll turn up lakes, birds, candles, oceans, etc – just find the one that whispers, “Relaxation” to you.
Make Your Busy Mind Work FOR You Instead of AGAINST You
On the playground of minds, anxious minds are in the hyper-active crowd. Busy, busy, busy. So, if this is something you can’t fight, go with it. If your brain refuses to shut off at night, another trick is to focus on an activity. Some minds are simply too busy to use a relaxing image (like the suggestion above). These busy bee minds need to buzz a little more. If this is the case for you, go ahead and think… just think creatively.
Here’s one exercise: Close your eyes and relive one of the best days you ever had. See the sights, smell the smells, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions. Focus your energy on that day.
Here’s another: Close your eyes and focus on the darkness until an object takes shape. The first one to take shape may be a ball or a star. The next may be more detailed, like a bird or tree. The images and shapes will fade in and out of “view” and (trust me) it’s completely relaxing.
Here’s another: This exercise should probably come under its own category heading, but it’s too late to turn back now. Get comfortable – with your pillow just right and your arms just where they ought to be…. close your eyes.. now imagine that your toes are being massaged. The masseuse is using warm lotion and is working slowly across each toe. Now imagine that the process is carried up to the arches of your feet… then the heels… (by this time your eyes may be rolling into the back of your head). I’ve tried this exercise many times and have NEVER even made it to my knees.
Remember: It’s a Process
As you try each of the above suggestions, remember that it’s a process. You’re a professor and you’re in the lab looking for the cure. You may not find it right off the bat.. then again, you may do just that.
Keep looking until you find your own magic key to unlock the sweetest sleep you’ve ever had.