Waking up in the middle of the night with anxiety can ruin anyone’s night. You’re panicked, frustrated, worried, and you may not sleep well even if you do manage to doze. You don’t have to sit awake all night though. Here’s how anxiety messes with our sleep, and how you can fight back.
We’ve discussed what anxiety does to your brain and what to do about it, and how you can get a better night’s sleep in general, but this video from the folks at DNews explains how your brain reacts to moments of anxiety, how those moments are triggered, and what happens specifically when anxiety strikes while you’re sleeping.
Put simply, your body can kick on that stress response that triggers anxiety at any time, without warning. Whether you’re sitting up watching TV or you’re asleep at night, our subconscious mind is really to blame. When you’re dealing with stress during the waking hours, like a deadline for a big project that’s looming or a trip you’re about to take the next morning, your brain can mimic that pattern and send you in to a stressed, panicked state even after you’ve been removed from the immediate stressor. The end result? We wake up in the middle of the night, after we’ve managed to relax, stressed out about work or that flight we need to catch.
When this happens at night though, the problem multiplies and feeds on itself — you wake up worrying about a thing, and then you worry you’re not getting enough sleep, which makes you worry more, and the cycle continues all night, leaving you without rest. So what do you do about it? Here are some tips, including some we’ve highlighted before.
- Get up and out of bed. We’ve mentioned this one, but you should only stay in bed if you’re about to sleep or know you’re about to fall asleep. You don’t want your brain to associate your bed with anything but the impulse to sleep, so if you’re suffering insomnia, get up, sit in a chair or go to another room.
- Distract yourself. Some light reading by a low light, a cup of warm milk or a light snack (nothing too heavy, and nothing alcoholic, mind you), watching traffic go by outside your window, whatever works for you. Anything to distract yourself from the negative thoughts or feelings that come as a result of that momentary panic. We’ve mentioned that noticing and describing the objects around you can be both meditative and calming, so try that.
- Try to relax, and stay relaxed. This is easier said than done, of course, but key to getting back to sleep is to try and relax, let the anxiety or panic slowly ebb away, and let your mind and body return to a semi-normal state. Some people do this through meditation, which is always a good idea, but if that’s not your style, just finding some way to consciously relax yourself is a good approach too.
- Resist the temptation to watch the clock. You may think it’s a good idea to check the time, but try not to. Watching the clock, especially when it’s dark and you’re alone and awake, can backfire spectacularly, and make you more stressed about the time that’s slipping away and the sleep you’re not getting.
However you approach it, most methods of dealing with middle-of-the-night-anxiety boil down to these methods. If you have the time to take a light sedative or a melatonin tablet and still wake normally in the morning (something you don’t want to do if you have to be up in like four hours), go for it — just try not to rely on those pills for a good night’s sleep.
As always, if you run into serious problems sleeping through the night, or you wake up frequently in the middle of the night, you should consult your doctor or have a sleep exam done. There may be something else at play that, once treated, will open the door to a better night’s rest for you.