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15 Bedtime Routines You Can Try When Anxiety Makes It Hard to Sleep

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Anxiety is a lot of things, a sleep aid is not one of them. Often anxiety seems to creep up most just when you turn out the lights, close your eyes and everything goes quiet. Despite the challenge of falling asleep once those anxious thoughts start racing, you need your sleep for both your mental and physical health. While they might not make the anxiety go away completely, there are some ways you can fight back and manage more easily when you’re ready to sleep.

When Lisa Henshaw, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor in Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a licensed clinical social worker, works with anxious clients who struggle to fall asleep, first she works on preventative measures that start long before you even get into bed. She starts by asking clients to keep track of their sleep habits.

“Typically what I would ask a client to do is to journal, not at night, but during the day. What was keeping you up at night?” Henshaw told The Mighty. “We’re identifying the triggers and what’s triggering those thoughts and then really challenging them and reframing them…to calm down the negative thoughts.”

As you log and track how anxiety affects your sleep, Henshaw also recommends making a few other preliminary changes to reduce your bedtime anxiety. For example, are you using up enough energy during the day? If you spend all day at a desk, try working in more activity to your daily routine like getting outside for a walk. Burning up more energy during your day can reduce the energy your anxiety has to feed on when you’re ready to sleep.

Also, be mindful of your sleep hygiene — what you’re doing in your bedroom that might be activating and keeping you awake. Oftentimes it’s tempting to bring your work into your bed — after all, it’s comfortable, and then you can just close the computer and go right to sleep. However, you don’t want your bed and bedroom to be associated with something potentially stressful.

“If a person is feeling anxious, it can really leave them to feel wanting to get out of this room, so to have positive associations in the room with sleeping,” Henshaw said. “We don’t want people to associate negative thoughts with sleeping because then they start to get anxious about sleep in general.”

This brings us to bedtime routines that you do right before going to sleep. Anxiety is often about control, and it can be overwhelming when it doesn’t feel like you have any. By following a consistent bedtime routine, however, you’re able to take back some of the anxiety’s power because you’re providing yourself extra stability and predictability. Plus, “human beings require structure,” Henshaw emphasized.

Based on what you discover in your journal, Henshaw often recommends incorporating techniques like breathing, meditation, visualizations, calming sounds and classical music into your nightly plan. These soothing activities serve to calm down your over-eager stress response and increase your chances of getting to sleep with anxiety. To gather a few more ideas you can try, we asked The Mighty community about their go-to bedtime routines when anxiety starts to creep in.

Here’s what they shared with us:

  1. “Warm bath with lavender beads, candles, soft music, and before retiring, a cup of camomile tea. Utter bliss!” — MaryPat C.
  2. “No phone/TV an hour before bed (I just read a familiar book beforehand), a bubble bath and then clean pajamas. If I’m really struggling I will use some rescue remedy night spray alongside some lavender room scent and then pop in my headphones and listen to any sort of piano music (anything really that doesn’t have words).” — Laura T.
  3. “My favorite is warming my sheets before I get in the bed (I have an electric mattress cover) because I suffer from fibromyalgia, making sure my Christmas movies are playing (throughout the year), [and] using a humidifier to keep the night air moist.” — Glendora V.
  4. “I try to be non-judgemental about not sleeping. When I used to get lost in the self and situational judgement of insomnia, I got a lot less sleep. ‘Ugh, i want to sleep’ with practice became, (self-talk) ‘OK, I’m awake. It is what it is. Please do your best to relax.’” — Amanda C.
  5. “My sleep phones are, hands down, the best sleep aid I’ve ever owned. Pop those bad boys on, and if my anxiety is particularly bad, I listen to something that requires me to focus (a TV show or a podcast). If it’s not as bad and I’m just a tad more tired, I listen to the ‘Sleep With Me’ podcast, which puts me out like a light every time. — Stephanie R.
  6. “Laying in bed with a fluffy blanket, accompanied by a good book or my journal. Sometimes writing down what I’m feeling is better and helps to cope with the irrational thoughts. Sometimes a cup of chamomile or flavored teas is good.” — Sara P.
  7. “If I can’t fall asleep within 1–1.5 hours I will get out of bed and do something like reading a book on the couch or color in a coloring book.” — Victoria G.
  8. “I always try to be as relaxed as possible before I sleep, but when I’m laying in bed and I can’t fall asleep because there are a million thoughts running through my head, I visualize a ‘thought cloud’ in my mind. I acknowledge each thought as it comes into my head and I direct each thought into the cloud, allowing them to disappear. I’ve found that this is a really soothing way to release all the anxious thoughts that have been running through my head all day and finally decided to catch up with me as I’m trying to sleep.” — Eljo A.
  9. “I give myself an extra hour to try and unwind, snuggle with my cat, wrap up in my weighted blankie, make sure everything is set ahead of time, remind myself I will be OK, breathing exercises, maybe turn the fan and humidifier on. If I really can’t sleep I will watch my roommate play video games until I pass out on the couch.” — Molly F.
  10. “Listening to voice recordings my therapist made me where she tells me she will always be there in my dreams and I’m safe and even if she is on vacation to listen to her voice, imagine her in my head and have object constancy that she will be back.” — Monika S.
  11. “Doing a full skin-care routine, having low lighting with relaxing essential oil scents going. I also try to read something I really enjoy so I can focus on that instead of my mind constantly focusing on the fact I’m not sleeping/not able to go to sleep. I feel like if I can’t go to sleep I may as well do things that are relaxing and that take care of my body/mind that I normally can’t do during my busy days.” — Kira Hope M.
  12. “Bedtime yoga, breathing exercises, a yogurt mask, positive self-talk, watching something funny, and tea. Never forget the sleepy tea.” — Kira K.
  13. “I take a really hot bath with magnesium salt and 20 drops of lavender oil. Turn off all lights and light one candle. I watch ASMR videos with hair brushing (Whispers Red Emma, Psychetruth Corrina and Fairy Charlotte are my favs.) This really relaxes me and distracts me.” — Charly B.
  14. “Read. Listen to deep sleep guided meditation. And focus mindfully on my breathing.” — Jess M.
  15. “Tell myself to ride the anxiety wave. It is temporary. Only a feeling. Then begin gratitude. I start at the smallest things. The food I ate. The roof over my head. My dog. Etc. Breathe in and out. If I still feel anxious, I continue with grounding, starting out as far as possible in the universe and work my way to where I am physically. If that doesn’t work… Just accept it. It’s part of me. It’s temporary and it will eventually pass.” — Aimee D.

Want to build a nighttime anxiety kit? Check out the products recommended by The Mighty community here and these six sleep techniques tested by The Mighty’s editors here.

What helps you when anxiety keeps you from sleeping? Let us know in the comments below!

Header image via Elvetica/Getty Images.

Originally published: February 23, 2019
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