Healthy Mind

5 Tips to Stop Your Worries From Literally Keeping You up at Night, According to a Sleep Doctor

Mary Grace Garis

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Photo: Getty Images/Sam Thomas

Amid the growing concerns connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s abundantly clear to just about everyone that these are scary times we’re living in. With tensions running high and feelings of anxiety being a common culprit of not being able to sleep, it makes sense that you may not be snagging the quality or quantity of sleep you’d like. Tossing and turning over what’s going to happen next in your own life, this country, and the world at large can feel like a perpetual and catastrophic case of the Sunday Scaries, so knowing how to calm anxiety before bed, at the very least, is key for sustaining the quality of your sleep.

To that point, a number of us at least now have newfound time to work on sleep hygiene, invoking soothing practices for both body and mind. Not sure how to calm anxiety before bed, though? No worries—below, a psychologist and a sleep doctor weigh in with their best strategies to help you fall asleep during this high-stress time.

5 tips for how to calm anxiety before bed, according to the pros

1. Acknowledge your mind might be fuzzy right now

“Mornings are wiser than evenings” is a saying that comes from the Slavic folklore Baba Yaga, and it’s also reflective of our mind’s diminishing capabilities as the night wanes. That means that the first thing you want to do when you slip into late-night rumination is remind yourself that you’re not at full capacity.

“Late at night, we don’t have the same mental abilities, the coping skills, and the filters [as we do earlier in the day] that keep us from slipping into worrisome and fearful thoughts,” says Helene Brenner, PhD, licensed psychologist and creator of the My Inner Voice app. “Just knowing that you truly aren’t thinking at your best can help you get through the night.”

“Recognize when you’re thinking very fearful thoughts that very likely things will look different to you in the bright light of day. That alone might help you give up your rumination and go to sleep.” —Helene Brenner, PhD

A technique like thought stopping or thought noticing may be one strategy to accomplish this and calm anxiety before bed. To try it, first notice what thoughts are happening, and what you’re specifically afraid of. Then, say “stop” and/or imagine a red stop sign. Replace this with a comforting thought, even if that thought is simply, “my brain power is not at full strength right now, tomorrow is a new day.”

“Recognize when you’re thinking very fearful thoughts that very likely things will look different to you in the bright light of day,” says Dr. Brenner. “That alone might help you give up your rumination and go to sleep.”

2. Make wake and sleep times ritualized and routine

According to a release from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that outlines mental-health coping strategies to invoke during this pandemic, having regular routines can be crucial for combatting stress and feelings of anxiety. That means, regardless of whether you’ve committed yourself to one before or not, now is a great time to start a morning routine and bedtime routine. Likewise, having a regular bedtime, is absolutely essential, but there’s a right and wrong way to go about it. Generally speaking, you want to make sure that you’re only using your mattress for sleeping time.

“Make sure to get up at the same time every morning; sleeping in is only going to worsen things,” says sleep specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. “Don’t get into bed until you’re actually sleepy. If you’re not sleepy or sleeping, staying in bed complicates things as well. Get up and do something quiet, relaxing, and in dim light with no screens until you are sleepy—then get in bed.” It might take some trial-and-error experimenting to set your new wake-and-sleep times (hey, you’re probably cutting out a morning commute, might as well give yourself an extra hour), but once you find the two slots that you’re comfortable with, stick with them.

3. Say out loud, “something in me is feeling…”

Scared, worried, or even terrified—however you’re feeling, just say it. This can help calm you down even if you’re not entirely sure what the worry culprit is, precisely.

“That’s because stepping off the train of worrisome thoughts to a place of seeing them as something in you, not the totality of you, immediately takes you to a calmer place,” says Dr. Brenner. “If you can imagine the worrisome thoughts stealing your sleep as something inside you that is worried for your safety and the safety of those you love, you’ll feel more deeply, but you’ll almost automatically slow down and be more relaxed, because you gave it a chance to be touched and heard.” And when that part feels heard and like you’re with it, you might be able to fall asleep without even realizing it.

4. Take a conscious break from the news cycle before bed

You might already know that technology and bedtime aren’t the best of pals, and that mostly has to do with the lighting. Whether by stress-texting friends or trying to appsturbate the stress away with different online games, you’re exposing yourself to blue light. But the constant stream of news you may digest from phone screens, computer screens, and TV screens alike are now emitting a lot more that might be keeping you up than just blue light alone. So a great answer for how to calm anxiety before bed during this time, especially? Assign a nightly bedtime to your consumption of triggering, distressing news.

“Making sure to stay away from screens and news at least an hour before bed is key,” says Dr. Harris, “Also, try to limit your news exposure to one hour a day.” If your mind is still very restless and needs some in-bed stimulation, there are other ways to distract yourself: Reading a book before bed can help distract you and lead to great snoozies, as can giving yourself an orgasm.

5. Remind yourself of the present, and that you don’t know the future

Finally, there’s the concept of “runaway thoughts.” At night, these very strong feelings and fears can feel very real and accurate. But we don’t know the future, and we can’t truly know how things will turn out. That means that as much as uncertainty can be paralyzing, it can also be comforting.

“It’s very true that something undeniably difficult and scary is happening in our world, and it helps to acknowledge this to our inner selves, so we don’t start thinking that we’re just lying to ourselves,” says Dr. Brenner. “But try placing a gentle hand on your heart and saying to yourself, quietly, ‘Yes, this really is scary, but right now I am here, and I am alive.’ This allows our runaway thoughts to slow down to a pace where we can keep up with them. The objective is to be able to self-soothe in a way where they don’t consume us.

“When runaway thoughts take over, you imagine the very, very worst, and you don’t think you can make it through,” says Dr. Brenner. “Instead, imagine the most soothing, loving, and calming voice you can think of telling you that even though it feels really hard and scary right now, you have support, and you’ll make it through.”

Here’s how to stop worrying about things you can’t control. And if you miss spending all the time you want in nature, we have some advice on how you can bring nature into your home.

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