Ruminating on your sleep cycle is not going to do you any favors.

Rebecca Norris
Dec 22, 2020 @ 9:30 am
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Credit: Getty Images

Does it take you forever to fall asleep? Does your mind all of a sudden jump into overdrive as soon as you try to hit the hay? Chances are, you have sleep anxiety.

“When you struggle with sleep anxiety, it can feel daunting to find a way out of the cyclical pattern and into a habit of consistent sleep,” says Tara Youngblood, a physicist, leading sleep expert, and the cofounder and CEO of ChiliSleep. Thankfully, she and clinical psychologist and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist Dr. Britney Blair have all the tips and tricks for overcoming sleep anxiety. Find out what they are—along with everything you could hope to know about the common sleep hindrance—below.

What is sleep anxiety?

According to Dr. Blair, sleep anxiety is the cognitive and emotional experience of worrying about one’s ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and/or obtain restful sleep. But it’s not always that direct. Youngblood says that oftentimes, people struggling with sleep anxiety begin worrying about other aspects of their lives right before bed, which, in turn, makes them stress over whether or not they’ll be able to fall asleep.

What are the symptoms of sleep anxiety?

As far as symptoms are concerned, it all comes down to feeling worried, stressed, and cognitively uncomfortable overall.

“Right before you go to bed, you may feel that your mind is racing and you can’t stop your thoughts,” Youngblood says. “A lot of people tend to overthink and focus on the worries of the day or anticipate things on their to-do list for the next day.” As a result, the analytical process makes it difficult to fall asleep and can often lead to nightmares and stressful dreams that make it hard to stay asleep—or, at the very least, to actually feel rested come morning.

What causes sleep anxiety?

While a racing mind is a major factor in sleep anxiety, Dr. Blair says that insomnia plays a big role, too. “Insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or consistently feeling like sleep is not restful,” she explains. “While we have all had a rough night here and there, consistently struggling to fall asleep can create significant distress and impairment in how you function during the day.”

The problem with insomnia and sleep anxiety is that they often become a recurring cycle.

“Not receiving deep and restorative sleep at night creates restlessness and stress throughout the day,” Youngblood explains. “And then, when it's time to go to bed, the stress of the day lingers into your thoughts at night. And thus you find yourself trapped on an anxiety-ridden ride to nowhere. But there is hope, and you can break this pattern with the right pre-sleep plan.”

How can I stop sleep anxiety?

The trick to making a sleep-inducing plan is knowing what helps mitigate sleep anxiety in the first place. In short, it requires creating healthy sleep habits. Below, find a few of Dr. Blair's and Youngblood’s top habits to harness for your most restful sleep yet.

Balance your stress throughout the day.

Youngblood says that engaging in anti-stress activities throughout the day can help make falling asleep much easier. “Aim for endorphins in the morning—get outside and move your body between 9 a.m. and noon,” she suggests.

Go to bed only when you’re actually sleepy.

Oftentimes people try to force themselves to go to bed at a certain time, which can lead to sleep anxiety in the process of being unable to fall asleep in a timely manner. Dr. Blair says that waiting to go to bed until you’re actually tired can help with this, as you're listening to your body's natural rhythm.

Make a to-do list.

This sounds simple and, quite honestly, unrelated, but according to Youngblood, making a to-do list can help reduce stress and boost a person’s ability to eventually fall asleep. “Dopamine is another way to fight stress, and when we cross things off a list, getting things done boosts dopamine levels,” she explains. And dopamine (along with serotonin) are also involved in your sleep-wake cycles, which can help with sleep regulation, so it's a win-win all around.

Get up at the same time every day (even on weekends).

According to Dr. Blair, creating a consistent sleep schedule helps your body know when to fall asleep each night. So, even if you’re tired, try your best to get up at the same time each morning for the sake of routine.

Hug your quaranteam.

That’s right: Physical touch can help overcome stress. “Oxytocin is another stress-counteractive hormone,” Youngblood says. “Cuddle during that Netflix binge, hug, or connect. You are an animal that needs contact. Aim for five hugs per day.”

Avoid daytime napping.

It might seem like a good idea to catch a few extra z's during the day if you’re feeling sleepy, but Dr. Blair says doing so can throw your sleep schedule out of whack, exacerbating sleep anxiety in the process. If you have to take a nap, aim for less than 20 minutes so you don't hurt your sleep cycle even more.

Boost serotonin.

Serotonin is another hormone you should seek out if you're having restless nights. According to Youngblood, the mood-stabilizing hormone can be boosted with weighted blankets, journaling, practicing gratitude, and settling your mind with anxiety sleep meditation.

Breathe.

It sounds so simple, but we so often forget one of the most basic elements of remaining calm: breathing. “Breathe out longer than you breathe in,” Youngblood suggests. “At least a minute of mindful breathing can counter stress.”

At the end of the day, stressing over your sleep isn’t going to make falling asleep easier. For that reason, Dr. Blair says to decrease the pressure by following the guidelines above and trust that your body will fall asleep in due time.