As long as I can remember, Sunday nights were an extremely anxious time for me. The end of a weekend or a vacation meant my anxious mind was bombarded with worry thoughts.
It started during my early school years. Stomachaches and heart palpitations from persistent “what if” and “oh no” thoughts were so severe that I often contemplated calling in sick. If I did choose that option, I would then spend the day in misery about what my teacher and later my employer would think about my Monday absences. “Oh no! They will think I just wanted an extra day off, that I’m faking being sick or that I’m lazy!” Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Sunday night anxiety was worse for me than any physical sickness I have ever experienced. Throughout the many years I have journeyed with anxiety, I have acquired some tips that help me reduce the intensity of my Sunday night dread. I now share three of these tips with you in hopes that some or all of them will help you.
1. Check in with your thoughts.
My stomachaches didn’t happen because it was Sunday night. They didn’t happen because I had to go back to school or work the next day. They happened because of my thoughts about going back to school or work.
First, write down your worry thoughts (yes you actually have to write them down, otherwise they might just keep going around and around in circles in your head). After you have written them all down, look for the distortions in those thoughts (this is where having a therapist to work with you can be very helpful, since it can be a challenge to find those distortions on your own at first). Here is an example:
“Oh no I’m going to go into work Monday morning and have a ton of emails to respond to, I won’t be able to get it done in time and my boss is going to get upset with me and think I am a terrible employee, then I will have an awful performance appraisal and get fired and wont be able to pay my mortgage and lose my house and end up homeless!”
Can you see how the worry train really took off and created a catastrophe over one thought? The anxious mind excels at imagination. However, we often jump to conclusions and imagine the worst-case scenario. Instead, we can learn to change the neural pathways in the brain that lead into anxious thinking and create new pathways by changing our thoughts.
If you are anything like me, you have been having anxious thoughts for many years, so remember it will take practice to change your thoughts. But like learning any new skills, it totally can be done with practice. Take the above example again, but this time we will redirect our thought down a different pathway:
“Oh no I’m going to go into work Monday morning and have a ton of emails to respond to. Hmm wait a second, actually it wont be a ton, a ton would be 2,000 emails, so I’m exaggerating. It is usually somewhere between 20 to 50 (here you are preventing yourself from catastrophizing by looking at the situation in a more realistic manner). I’m only human, I’m not a robot, so I will start with 10 (you are setting more realistic expectations) and then give myself a two-minute calming break (you are giving yourself permission to use the self-soothing tools mentioned below).”
2. Take short, calming breaks.
Having several one- to five-minute calming breaks throughout the day is absolutely essential when you have anxiety. Start these Sunday night and use them through the week. Anxiety is exhausting, and taking these mini calming breaks is as necessary as oxygen is to breathing.
This relaxation breath has been described by Dr. Andrew Weil as “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” He explains, “[This] exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently.”
You can read how to do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise here.
Just like your anxious mind can imagine the worst-case scenario, it can also be used to transport you to a most peaceful place. I take myself to a beautiful beach, where I focus on using my five senses to get the full experience of really feeling as if I am there. I feel the warm sand on my feet, I hear the seagulls and the ocean waves crashing, I bathe in the glow of the sun and smell the salt air. Once I am here, I repeat to myself: I am safe, I am OK. No matter what is happening around me, no one can take this away from me. I can come here anytime I want. I am peaceful, I am serene, I am so calm and relaxed.
This mediation is so powerful that I cannot do it without getting tears of joy. No matter how anxious or unhappy I feel, this meditation has the power to completely change how I’m feeling. I start by thinking about how grateful I am that I am healthy and safe, and then I extend this feeling to my loved ones. I repeat over and over again how I am filled with so much gratitude at the blessings I have in my life. I allow myself to really feel this in my heart.
Your gratitude list will be different than mine, but here are a few ideas to start with:
- I am so grateful my family is happy and safe.
- I am so grateful my parents are living and healthy.
- I am so grateful for the hot shower I took today.
- I am so grateful for how comfortable my bed is.
- I am so grateful I have an abundance of food when so many do not.
- I am so grateful the lady at the coffee shop smiled at me warmly and told me to have a nice day.
The list can go on and on and fill your heart with joy.
3. Practice self-compassion.
I absolutely loathed my anxious mind. I spent my 20s going from therapist to therapist looking for a magic solution that would rid me from the agony my anxiety disorder caused me. Many years later, I now see this part of me in the same way I would see a child who was terrified and afraid. Would I loathe that child? Would I scream at her and tell her to just stop? No! I would speak to that frightened child with compassion, reassurance and encouragement. Now that is exactly how I speak to myself when I experience anxious moments. I say things like this:
“Andrea, you have had Sunday night anxiety since you were 6 years old and in all those years, nothing has ever happened that you were not able to cope with. I understand how painful those uncomfortable moments are, but the worry you are having right now is actually much more painful than what you are worried might happen.
“You are safe. In this moment, all is well. I am here with you. This will pass.”
So there you have it: three of my own strategies for dealing with Sunday night anxiety. I wish you all a peaceful and happy week ahead.
Andrea Addington, MSW, RSW specializes in anxiety counseling in her private practice in Moncton, NB.
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