How to Deal with Anxiety at Night: 2 Essential Skills

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Nighttime anxiety can be so painful, but you don’t have to just suffer. So let’s talk about two really powerful skills to turn down anxiety at night and sleep better.

Anxiety at night can be brutal. You just want to lay down and rest, go to sleep, and your brain is like, “Hey, let’s do a quick review of everything stupid you’ve ever done,” and you’re like, “What? No,” and your brain is like, “Okay. Point number one . . .” 

Or it’s like, “Hey, let’s try to imagine every awful thing that could happen. You’re relaxing. Let’s worry for a little bit. Doesn’t that sound like fun?” 

Nighttime anxiety can be so painful, but you don’t have to just suffer. So let’s talk about two really powerful skills to turn down anxiety at night and sleep better.

Why Do I Have So Much Anxiety at Night?

Your brain is like a phone that needs to do a software update. You’re busy working throughout the day — you’re doing important tasks, making calls, checking social media, playing games — and every couple of hours it prompts you, “Oh, you need to do an update. Would you like to do it now?” 

Now, of course not. No one wants their phone to not be working when they need it. So of course you put it off. You put off that software update until later. You play some more games, you answer some more emails, you send more texts. 

And the prompts to update the software have been going on for so long that you almost don’t even notice them anymore, until your phone stops working or it forces an update at the worst possible time. 

Our worries are like a software update. Our brain is constantly asking us to just face them and resolve them. When we don’t address anxiety during the day, when we distract ourselves, we keep busy, or we procrastinate facing a problem, our brain doesn’t just let it pass; our brain makes sure to bring up all of our worries as soon as we try to fall asleep. 

Now, for many people, their anxiety is worse at night. Things get quiet, there’s less distractions, there’s less to do, and you’re left with your thoughts. And so your brain is like, “Oh, finally, it’s time to do an update and deal with these anxious issues.” 

And that of course leads to the following nighttime anxiety issues: 

  • Laying in bed worrying about the future or rehashing the past. You can’t fall asleep because your mind is racing. 
  • Developing sleep anxiety. So this is anxiety about not being able to fall asleep, and then worrying that you’ll be so tired the next day, which leads to more worries and catastrophizing. 
  • Waking up in the middle of the night. 
  • Waking up to panic attacks. 
  • Feeling a desperate urge to leave the house or to avoid bed. 

One of my followers said, “Anxiety gets worse for me when the sun goes down. Anxious thoughts are louder, and it feels harder to think logically and not believe the negative thoughts. When it’s really bad, the thoughts are so loud I can’t sleep. It’s like a thousand TVs on all at the same time, all on different channels, and all on max volume.” 

What Can I Do to Decrease My Nighttime Anxiety?

So yes, nighttime can be really difficult for some people with anxiety. But there are two simple steps that you can take to decrease your anxiety at night and relax and sleep better.

1. Don’t Wait Until Bedtime

Number one: don’t wait until bedtime to manage your anxiety. You have to address the root cause of your anxiety. If you don’t want your phone to update at the worst possible time, then choose a time to do the update. 

Your brain is asking you to address your concerns, your tasks, your to-do’s, your mistakes, your worries because your brain wants you to resolve them. You get to choose: are you going to face your worries during the day, or is your brain going to choose for you to do it at night? 

So here’s what you do: you literally schedule in worry time during the day. Plan a time between 12 and 6 p.m when you’re gonna sit down and worry on purpose. Research shows that you fall asleep in half the time when you do a worry journal or scheduled worry. 

Now, I recommend that when you worry that you don’t do it in your head. So you do it on paper. So it just looks like writing down lists or free writing what you’re worried about or doing a brain dump or drawing out your worries. 

And to teach your brain that you’re serious, that you really are going to address your worries and it doesn’t have to bring them up at night, do this every day for one month. You can use a calendar to check off the days, or you can download my free habit builder to track your progress. The link to that is in the description if you want it. 

You can also process through anxiety during the day by just doing basic self-care. It’s important to manage your circadian rhythm, which means get early-morning light exposure, decrease your caffeine, exercise, and have really a standard calming bedtime routine. 

Now, again, scheduled worry is the most important skill here, but these other things can be really helpful. 

2. Get Out of Bed

Number two: if it’s already nighttime and you’re laying there awake, get out of bed. 

Sleep is not something that you can force. If you put tons of effort into trying to force yourself to sleep or you just lay in bed for hours trying to fall asleep, you are basically training your brain to associate the bed with worry and stress and being excited and awake, and this leads to a cycle of it being harder to sleep and you trying harder to sleep, which makes things worse. 

So we’re going to use one of the most powerful skills from CBTI — that’s cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. If you don’t fall asleep within about 15 or 20 minutes, get out of bed. Do something calming, boring, non-stimulating. You could meditate or read a book or just sit around. 

And if when you get out of bed your worries are taking over, write them down, do a brain dump, because you probably didn’t do your scheduled worry earlier in the day. 

But otherwise, if worry’s not bothering you, just do something that’s not too exciting, and then only return to bed when you’re sleepy. There’s no time limit. Just wait until you start to feel sleepy, and try again. 

Now, it’s normal to worry that doing this is going to make you tired. And it might in the short term. You might be tired for a couple of days. But in the long run, it’s going to be worth it when your brain is retrained to fall asleep faster. 

This technique does two things: it increases sleep pressure, which is the internal drive to fall asleep, which will improve sleep efficiency — that’s the percentage of time that you spend in bed asleep. And then second, it retrains your brain that the bed is a place for sleeping, not worrying. 

Now, once you’ve trained your brain to worry during the day and to fall asleep at night in your bed, you’ve addressed the root of most sleep anxiety. And then after that it’s okay to use things like mindfulness or guided imagery or meditation or progressive muscle relaxation or breathing exercises to help you fall asleep. I teach a bunch of these in my free Grounding Skills course. 

But if you just try to use these techniques to avoid your anxiety in the long run, your brain will still try to force you to face your anxiety, to face your worries, to face your worries, to run that update at the worst possible time. So make sure that you’re facing your worries and addressing them honestly. 

And if you need some extra help, a licensed professional can help you work through those worries so that they aren’t chronic, there for you all the time. 

I hope that was helpful. Thank you for reading, and sweet dreams.

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