It’s something that most people have experienced – lying down in bed to go to sleep, but not being able to stop worrying. Your mind might be going over something that happened that day, thinking about what might happen tomorrow, or you might even be anxious about not getting a good night’s sleep.
Angelique Foran, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Supported Minds Psychology says that when we are tired, and particularly when we are overtired, our brain cannot cope with problems as well as it does when we are more alert. This means that something small can seem insurmountable and we tend to dwell on it more.
“It’s a very common problem,” says Angelique, “and certainly something that is a regular conversation I have with patients. Lying down to sleep is often the time when we are processing our day – and you certainly don’t need to be diagnosed with anxiety to worry about things at bedtime!”
But, she says, there are techniques we can use to put our worries aside and focus on getting a good night’s sleep.
Angelique says there are broadly two types of sleep anxiety. One is when people have thoughts racing through their minds that make them feel anxious, and the other is when people feel anxious about sleep itself.
“For this second type of sleep anxiety, we work with the person to specifically target those negative thoughts,” Angelique says. “For example, if someone is worried that they won’t get enough sleep and that they won’t be able to function the next day, we can turn that thought around and introduce a positive thought such as ‘I can cope with one night’s bad sleep, I have before’ or ‘I know that as the day warms up and my body moves I will feel more awake and functional’.”
For people who have multiple worries racing through their minds as they get ready for sleep, it can be useful to set aside some ‘worry time’ before bed. Angelique says this might be a time when you can write down what is bothering you or a time to talk about these things with a partner or friend.
“Keeping a worry diary next to your bed, so you can write down things as they come to you, allows you to both figuratively and literally put aside the worry until tomorrow. Often when you go back to the problem in the morning, it will not seem so terrible.”
Angelique also recommends mindfulness activities before bed to promote a good night’s sleep. These can include:
Good sleep hygiene is also important, and Angelique recommends avoiding caffeine later in the day, not exercising too close to bedtime, and limiting screens 30-60 minutes before bed.
“However, if you want to use a screen just use settings such as Night Shift mode on Apple devices or f.lux on android devices,” Angelique recommends. “It is important to think about the content that you are viewing. Ask yourself: do I find this relaxing?”
Although it can be tempting to fall asleep by taking a sleeping tablet, having a few glasses of alcohol, or using other drugs, Angelique mentions that these methods often lead to less restful sleep.
“Some people tell me they prefer to fall asleep on the couch while watching T.V., or they might decide to look at their phone until they are feeling very sleepy. In both cases, it will actually take you longer to fall asleep, and the quality of your sleep will be impacted. All these habits can also be hard to break, which means that sleep problems may persist for longer.”
While worrying about an upcoming performance review or thinking over a particularly stressful encounter is likely to affect us all as we try and drift off to sleep, Angelique says that if your bedtime routine is being interrupted by anxious thoughts for weeks or even months, then you should seek professional help.
“If you find your functionality is being impacted, then your first port of call should be your GP,” Angelique says. “They can refer you to a psychologist who can help you work through the problem. This will most likely include some cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and there is a specific CBT treatment for insomnia called CBTI.”
For more information on common mental health conditions, tips on looking after your mental wellbeing, and where to find support, visit our Mental Health Information and Support Hub.
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