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How to Fall Asleep When You’re Feeling Anxious

You’ve been feeling fine all day, but as soon as your head hits the pillow, you begin to spiral.

The news of the day catches up to you and you can’t fall asleep. That time you called the teacher ‘mum’ in year four flashes into your mind. That unkind thing your brother said won’t leave your brain. The uncertainty eats away at you.

Even if you don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it’s so common for anxious feelings to rear their ugly head as you try to go to sleep. If you’re suffering from a busy brain, there are a few things you can do. Some will help in the moment, while others need to be implemented every night before bed.

If anxiety is something you’re struggling with, please contact your local GP to discuss the situation.

What to do in the moment

Take a deep breath

Inhale, exhale. Such a simple thing to do, but when you’re feeling panicked and anxious, you often take shallow breaths. So taking a big suck of oxygen in and breathing it out is a great way to ground you.

“Breathing is the number one and most effective technique for reducing anger and anxiety quickly,” Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, of Delphi Behavioral Health, told Healthline. According to Dehorty, when you’re taking short, shallow breaths, it reinforces your fight-or-flight response, so taking deep breaths can help interrupt this pattern and calm you down.

So, if you’re lying in bed and feeling anxious, try taking a few deep breaths. Harvard Health Publishing recommends doing the following:

“First, take a normal breath. Then try a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).

“Once you’ve taken the steps above, you can move on to regular practice of controlled breathing. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.”

Listen to a meditation app or music

As Dehorty notes above, breathing helps break the loop of anxiety by disrupting the fight-or-flight response. But, if this isn’t proving to be enough, you might need to use a meditation app or some calming music as a settling technique.

Meditation app Headspace offers specific exercises for when you can’t shut your mind off to sleep. Another great app to try is Calm. While it includes similar meditation exercise, it also offers audio bedtime stories that you can listen to as you drift off.

Calming music is also a great way to soothe anxious minds, so try popping on a playlist to bliss out to. Otherwise, pink noise has been proven to help with sleep.

Write it down

Sometimes when you write your feelings down, they can lose their power. There is something about emptying your thoughts out onto a page that can make the anxiety easier to manage. Keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table and scribble down any anxious feelings you’re having and what is playing on your mind and stopping you from sleep.

In the 1980s, a psychologist by the name of James Pennebaker created a writing therapy called “expressive writing”. According to Harvard Health Publishing, this involves writing your thoughts down without worrying about spelling, grammar or even normal sentence structure.

Research has shown that this style of writing reduced the size of the negative brain wave that was found in participants who were known to worry regularly. This finding implies that writing your worries onto paper could free up your mind and provide a little bit of comfort.

What to do in the long term

Avoid caffeine or alcohol

Different people have different anxiety triggers and yours could be caffeine or alcohol. Your daily cup of coffee or glass of wine could be more of a hindrance, rather than a help.

Studies have long linked caffeine to an increase in anxiety. So, even if you’ve always been a coffee drinker, certain stressful events could be proving too much and it could help to forgo coffee for a while to see if it calms your anxiety and helps you sleep. Try switching to decaf coffee, or give dandelion tea a go. It’s 100% caffeine-free but has a similar taste to coffee thanks to the dandelion and chicory.

Enjoying a glass of wine after a stressful day is common. We’ve all used alcohol as a coping mechanism at one point or another, but it can be particularly bad for anxiety. According to Healthline, alcohol alters the serotonin levels in the brain and this can actually make anxiety feel worse.

Anxiety can feel particularly bad after the alcohol wears off, which is most likely just before bedtime. Ditch alcohol for a few days (or a week) to see if that is playing a role in your anxious feelings.

Turn off your phone

Actively limiting your consumption of news and social media before bed can help reduce anxiety and help you sleep easier. There’s nothing quite like reading something distressing online and then switching off your lamp to sleep but it just keeps floating around your mind.

It’s especially tempting at times like these to be plugged in from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, but it’s not healthy for you or your poor brain. While this will be hard to implement in the beginning, once you’re in the habit it’ll be easy. And, better quality sleep will (hopefully!) follow.

Have a shower before bed

Bad news for all those who prefer morning showers: taking an evening shower will lead to better sleep. According to a sleep specialist, the perfect time for a night shower is roughly an hour and a half before you hit the hay. This is because it gives your body time to cool down before going to bed.

Shelby Harris, director of behavioral sleep medicine at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, also told TIME that while a lot of studies have only looked at the positive impact of baths on sleep, a long shower can also have the same effect.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.