Help with anxiety and trouble sleeping

Woman awake in the night

Many people who suffer from anxiety complain that they have trouble sleeping. The main reason for this is that they usually go to bed with 101 worries and things to think about. Sleep then becomes difficult because their mind is too active and so the brain has trouble switching off, which is important for a good night’s sleep.

Some say that they have trouble falling asleep or that they wake too early. Others mention waking up many times in the night, which can lead to them staring anxiously at the clock, wondering how long it will be until they drop back off.

All of these scenarios can have a huge effect on how that person functions the next day and in many cases, can actually increase their symptoms of anxiety, making them even more anxious and cranky. This can then lead them to start worrying about sleep as they go about their day, making it an even bigger issue. The more they worry about sleep and the harder they try to get it, the less they seem to have, creating a vicious cycle.

This is a cycle I certainly fell into, I would wake in the middle of the night and sometimes not get back off at all and if I did, I was waking every few minutes, checking the clock and worrying about how I would be feeling the day after. This was when it became an obsession to get a good night’s sleep and so I went on to read all the usual articles passing on techniques.

This included making sure the room was the right temperature, that the bed was comfy, to turn off all devices two hours before I went to bed, to listen to relaxing music and many more. I tried every technique presented to me and yet nothing seemed to work; in fact, I would say things were becoming worse.

How to break the cycle of worrying about sleep

Sleep cycle

When none of these sleep techniques worked for me, I then looked to find my own answers on how this had become such a problem and why I could not seem to overcome it. The first thing I realised was that all these techniques to help me sleep were making more of an issue out of it, which was only hindering me further.

What I was trying to do was perfect all this advice and then constantly monitor how I was doing. I was trying to use techniques to help me sleep and then fretting about how much sleep I was getting. This cycle went on for a while until I eventually realised that the body falls asleep naturally and that me trying to interfere with that process was making it worse. I was in a cycle of ‘trying’ to sleep instead of allowing it to come naturally.

Also, the fact I was making an issue out of sleep was giving my subconscious mind something else to think about. This was the reason for me constantly waking up; it was like my mind was on constant alert to how I was doing. If I wanted to sleep far better then I needed nothing on my mind, I needed to no longer care how much sleep I got and then my mind would be far less active before and during sleep.

If you ask anyone who sleeps well what they do to get a good night’s sleep, they will say they do nothing apart from shutting their eyes. If you ask those who really struggle with sleep, in most cases, they will come up with a whole range of things they attempt to do.

What really helped me sleep

Man sleeping through the night

I literally went back to doing nothing, in fact, I just defaulted back to the old me and went back to going on the computer before I dropped off, stopped worrying about the temperature of the room, drank coffee before bed, and stopped listening to relaxing music. None of this had hindered me before, so why would it now?

I then stopped making an issue out of sleep and allowed it to come naturally. If I slept poorly one night then that was fine, if I woke in the night, it was not a problem, I would drop back off when I was ready. When I took the whole worry and emphasis out of sleeping, then I began to sleep much better until I had no problem whatsoever.

I also cut down on the worry during the day and if anything was on my mind at bedtime, I would just let it go. If my mind wanted to replay anything, then I would allow it to do so, but I would no longer get involved with it.

I remember one night when my mind was particularly active and I just said ‘You carry on as you wish with your drama and problems, I’m off to sleep’ This allowed me to realise that my mind could go into a worry storm but that I didn’t have to get involved with it. I just became aloof to my mind’s antics.

The only things that helped me sleep

  • Not drinking alcohol just before bed
  • Sticking to a certain time and not going to bed at numerous different hours
  • Getting up as soon as I woke
  • A good amount of exercise, especially outdoors
  • No longer napping through the day

Sleep is natural to all of us when we don’t try and interfere with it using a bunch of techniques. It is just that the person suffering from anxiety tends to take more worries and concerns with them to bed and unfortunately not sleeping can become another thing to worry about, making their mind more active than ever.

So try not to take any worries to bed with you, just let them all go. If the mind wishes to go over anything just allow it to do so without getting involved and make no issue out of sleeping and just resign yourself fully to whatever sleep you get. This in itself relaxes the mind and in turn, sleep will come much easier.

Below is the story of how someone I helped with anxiety overcame their own sleep issues

Man who has overcome his sleep issues

The sleep disturbances took on a few forms.  First were the nights when I couldn’t get any sleep at all.  Second were the nights I’d be able to fall asleep, but I would wake up very early and feel intensely on edge.  Finally, there were the nights when as soon as I would doze off, I would immediately be jolted awake, or at least conscious of my surroundings and knew that sleep slipped away.  This final type of interference could play out all night long: doze/jolt awake…doze/jolt awake.

Along with this was the constant thinking about sleep during the day.  I would run scenarios through in my mind.  Crumble under the fear of never being able to fall asleep peacefully or normally again.  I’d obsess about the fact that I was obsessing about sleep; understanding that those who sleep normally give sleep little to no thought during their waking hours (at least not to the degree I did).

I would recognise that the obsessions about sleep would come on automatically and since this was happening automatically, I would never be able to reclaim any sense of normality with respect to my sleeping.  The fear felt too profound and final to ever leave me; like a gaping wound that had no possibility of ever healing over.

I had taken numerous prescription drugs which didn’t put a dent in the sleeping but had me moving about like a drugged zombie.  Along with the prescriptions were the over-the-counter and the various natural remedies (no impact whatsoever).  The sleep tricks and sleep hygiene – which only made me focus on sleep that much more.

Paul’s approach, though I doubted it greatly with respect to this aspect of my anxiety (which I’ve noticed isn’t that dissimilar from others: we all have that one big thing that we believe is somehow immune to acceptance) was eventually what led me out of the sleepless nightmare.

I had to stop caring.  I put so much weight on needing to get good sleep at night (after the insomnia had already started).  For a mind already struggling with anxiety, this kind of expectation is just adding more fuel to the fire.  Even after my occasional good night, I would always be back to doubting during the day.  “It must have been a fluke…. tonight will be worse”.

I couldn’t stop the constant mental chatter and hyper-awareness towards sleeping.  So I needed to start a new relationship with sleeping (which was actually the old relationship).  All of the sleeping tricks were tossed out.  Sleep hygiene methods were ditched.  Sleep restriction practices were done.

All pills were discarded.  No more dimming all of the lights in the house after 7 pm.  I would use my computer late into the evening again.  I would go out with my wife and friends again.  I would have spicy foods for dinner and even a soda after 10 pm.  All the things that I did prior to having any concerns about sleep.  I needed to tell those immediate/automatic fearful thoughts that I was no longer going to heed their promptings.

If I got great sleep at night: oh well, fine and if I got terrible or no sleep at night: no big deal, I’ll just be a little rundown during the day.

I no longer chatted about my sleep issues with anyone.  Even if I was weak in the legs with doubt and eyes welling up with tears from hopeless despair, I would simply tell myself “I’m done making this a bigger issue”.  I permitted it to do to my body what it wanted to, but I would no longer be a marionette doll to it when it came to the decisions I was going to make concerning how I lived my life.

When I was falling asleep, I noticed that some nights my mind would just race with random thoughts.  Sometimes those thoughts would be charged with such a negative feel to them that I would perspire, constantly run to the bathroom, and toss around on the bed.

Other times the thoughts wouldn’t have a negative feel to them, but they would still grip my attention.  All of the sleeping tricks of trying to force peaceful thoughts into my head never worked.  It was like pushing down further on the accelerator hoping to slow the car down.

But what if I relinquished all control and let those thoughts take me where they wanted to?  I would close my eyes and almost envision that I was watching a movie play out.  An incredibly nonsensical and sometimes tormenting movie…. but a movie nonetheless.  That took the wind out of the sails of the thoughts more than trying to force happy, peaceful thoughts ever did.  And most nights I would notice that I must have eventually dozed off because I was certainly waking up.

There were nights when the fear and doubt would drown me.  I would flip back and forth between wanting to fall to my knees begging and pleading or wanting to start punching the wall (or myself) in a fit of paroxysm.  Early on, I would follow the lead of those promptings and do just that: cry, begging for this nightmare to end or punch the air, the wall, my own face.

This simply needed to stop.  I would let the fear be there, but as I stated before: I was not going to let my willful actions be a puppet to the puppeteer of anxiety/depression/insomnia.

In doing all of this, the thoughts became less intense and eventually just stopped.  The nights got so much better and my sleep issues became a thing of the past.  There was a time when I was certain I was broken for good and that this nightmare would never end.  Now it has ended and I look back fondly on those times as a huge learning curve to a better me.