A lot of people report that their anxiety worsens or takes hold at night time – from minor “cringe attacks” and replaying awkward, uncomfortable situations to intrusive thoughts and impulses.
The night time often brings about a sense of loneliness, solitude and introspection; a lack of distraction from racing or wandering thoughts. During the day, we’re distracted by work, errands, and other people – but as our bodies and brains begin to shift with our circadian rhythms into “night time mode”, it can be an unsettling switch to make with our modern conditioning and constant stimulation. As everything around us shuts down and we try to gear ourselves up to sleep, we’re forced to confront things we’ve been able to block out during the day. Discomfort, dread, unhappiness, low self-worth – all these sorts of things have a habit of arising at night. Nicky Lidbetter of Anxiety UK says that with anxiety, we’re less aware of what we’re worrying about, so our reaction becomes the problem and we start feeling anxious about being anxious, whereas with stress we’re generally worried about a specific, tangible problem.
It’s also possible that ‘hustle culture’ and our emphasis on productivity creates anxiety around sleep because it’s a time that we’re not doing anything. As a society, we have a tendency to devalue sleep and rest, and it’s possible that some of us internalise that morally and feel resistance towards switching off our brains and letting ourselves just be. Or conversely we worry about oversleeping, being late and missing important events.
Having a good structure to your day and an evening routine in place is a good way to manage night time anxiety. Setting that clear boundary between “daytime” or work time and relaxing evening time is crucial. Training your brain to welcome and respond positively to quiet time rather than with a sense of chaos or dread is fundamental to alleviating night time anxiety.
5 top tips for managing sleep anxiety and resting better:
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday: this is a good way to create a better structure and less chaos; once it becomes familiar to you, it seems less scary and daunting
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, without distractions like TV or a computer. Avoid using an electronic device to read in bed; the light from the screen can trick your brain into thinking it is daytime.
- Listening to a calming audio book, meditation or relaxation/ASMR clip before bed (ASMR is a type of video that causes a relaxing/tingly feelings usually around the head and neck, and can help induce sleep for some people – you may well have experienced it before as a result of certain triggers (whispering/tapping etc.) but not known the name for it)
- Exercise regularly/stay as active as you realistically can throughout the day
- Seek professional help like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which focuses on challenging and changing cognitive distortions and behaviours, improving emotional regulation, and developing personal coping strategies, OR invest in a sleep course that teaches the cognitive and behavioural techniques to help you change your habits and response to sleep (see Sleep Well, Feel Better for more information!)
If your night time anxiety has led to insomnia and is consequently impacting other areas of your life such as work, relationships and getting on with/enjoying daily life, it may be time to seek professional help.
Lack of sleep and an out of balance circadian rhythm can really impact our ability to regulate our emotions and deal with everyday pressures. You might start to feel depressed, withdrawn and out of control, so professional help, whether it’s medication or talking therapy, can help you to regain some of that control and practice techniques for changing your conditioning around sleep. It’s also important that you recognise your own agency and ability for change in these processes as it can be easy to feel so powerless to overwhelming/painful thoughts and emotions. As such, it may take some time to shift your mindset and feel in control but it’s incredibly worthwhile.