Anxiety and sleep: Tips for sleeping soundly

Struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep is frustrating at the best of times. Especially during uncertain times like these, you might find your mind reeling, preventing you from getting some much-needed rest. So, what can we do to help ourselves when it happens?

Acknowledging your feelings, perhaps as frustration, anger, helplessness or despair, and reminding yourself that you can get through this, although it’s uncomfortable in the moment, is a helpful way to be there for yourself when times are difficult.

5 ways to help you get through the discomfort of insomnia:

1. Turn off your technology. I know, I know, this is the one that no one likes. But doing this can help us to manage our sleep patterns in a few ways. Physiologically, the artificial blue light emitted from our electronic devices delays our body’s internal clock and interrupts our natural sleep cycles. Giving yourself a break, the longer the better, before bedtime allows your body to recognize the physical signals for sleep. Psychologically, allowing yourself some time to decompress and switch off from the constant barrage of stimuli and information, whether it is the news, social media or video games, will help to prepare your body and mind for restful sleep.

2. Write it down. Get your thoughts out of your mind and onto paper. Don’t worry about it ‘making sense’ or if it feels silly – no one has to see this except you. Take note of the things that you can be in control over in the present, the things that you can deal with tomorrow or in the future, and the things that you might not be able to control at all. Once you’ve written/doodled it out, put it away to attend to in the morning, when you feel more refreshed and better able to focus clearly.

3. Progressive relaxation. There is a good chance that you are carrying some nervous tension within your body. As you continue to breathe comfortably, take the time to focus on each part of your body, starting with your toes and feet, moving up your legs into your abdomen, back and chest, followed by your arms and shoulders and finally into your neck, face and head. Progressively tense the muscles in these body parts, one at a time, holding it for 5 seconds and then releasing the tension, fully experiencing the feelings of relaxation that come as you let go. Make sure you continue to breathe comfortably throughout the exercise. Visualize the nervous tension drifting out and away from those body parts, leaving you more and more comfortably relaxed.

4. Try a relaxing podcast, audiobook or guided meditation. Do some research and find a soothing voice, a comforting story or topic, or calming music or sounds to help lull you to sleep. This will be a personal preference, so take the time to look into what feels most peaceful and safe for you, as well as interesting enough to distract your busy mind. There are a number of apps that offer guided meditations for you to practice as well.

5. Practice self-compassion. Don’t be hard on yourself if everything you try just doesn’t seem to work. Often times, surrendering to the reality of our situation actually takes some of the pressure off – try as we might, we just can’t control everything, even choosing when we sleep. Be kind and treat yourself to some well-deserved me time, binge watch your favourite show, read a book or reach out to a friend, maybe someone who might be struggling to sleep too, or someone on a different time zone. Chances are, that you will sleep, eventually.

But remember, if you find yourself having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep consistently (at least a few times a week), it has been persistently happening for over a month and it is significantly affecting your daily functioning or causing you distress – talk to your doctor to discuss other evidence based treatments for chronic insomnia, including referrals to a behavioural sleep medicine specialist, or a mental health professional, depending on your needs. You are not alone and there is help available, so please ask!

Sarah Harris, B.Sc. (Psych), M.C., Registered Clinical Counsellor