One of the most common complaints of people who live with anxiety disorders is the inability to get a decent night’s sleep.
What we couldn’t give to just lay our heads on our pillows, close our eyes, and think peaceful thoughts as we gently drift off to sleep. How nice it would be to open our eyes the next morning feeling refreshed, have a good stretch, and smile to ourselves as we think about the day ahead? The idea of it seems almost mythical.
Everybody wants to be thinner, or smarter, or pay off that credit card bill. But I think if it came down to it, a lot of us would choose to gain 5 pounds, lose a few IQ points, and rack up that credit card for just 7 nights worth of solid, uninterrupted, sweet slumber.
Why is Insomnia So Common?
Apparently those of us with anxiety disorders aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting enough quality shut-eye. According to the American Sleep Association, 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time. The New York Daily News reports that the CDC has estimated that less than a third of Americans get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep they need each night, and that 9 million Americans resort to using prescription pills to help them sleep.
I wouldn’t say that I have terrible sleep issues but I couldn’t tell you the last time that I slept longer than 3-4 hours without waking up at least once. And on those rare occasions when I do go 7 or 8 hours without waking up, I have the most bizarre, vivid dreams and I wake up feeling like I have been sleeping for a year. I don’t know where I am or what day it is, and I feel like I have been hit by a truck – and I stay that way all day. I think my brain is so used to being alert and active all the time, that when I finally get into all of those deep sleeping stages, its like I’m in a coma or something. (At least that is how it feels.)
I think it would be hard to argue that one reason insomnia is so prevalent in our society is because our brains haven’t had a chance to adapt to the faster pace of life that has come about in the past century.
According to British psychologist, Dr. Richard Wiseman, the overall pace of life has increased by 10% worldwide since the mid 1990’s. Can you imagine how much it must have increased in the 75 years prior to that?
For tens of thousands of years people have been living life basically at one pace….without electricity or something always “stimulating their minds”. But just in the last 100 years or so, there has been an explosion of cars, electricity, computers, phones, television, etc. Our minds always have “something to do” and I don’t think our brains have quite caught up yet.
I’m not too sure that I want them to catch up, actually.
I think I would rather we just stopped spending so much time on electronic devices and stopped going, going, going all the time. (I say this as I am typing on my computer for hour number 4 today, on what is supposed to be my Christmas Break from all things computer related.)
Stress is everywhere!
There is not the emphasis on family and spirituality and/or a higher purpose to our lives that there once was. There is nothing to “slow us down” because our phones and internet and electricity are available 24 hours a day and a lot of businesses never close. When given the choice, it appears that we will push our brains to the max. And when you run something at full speed all of the time, there is bound to be a negative consequence…. hence the insomnia.
All magic comes with a price, as they say.
What Role Does An Anxiety Disorder Play in Insomnia?
The fast pace and stress of the modern world affects us all.
For those of us with anxiety disorders, they play just as much a role in our insomnia as they do for the average person, if not more so. In addition, those of us with anxiety also have personality traits that contribute to our sleeping issues and make us more susceptible to them than even the average person is.
*We are more likely to be chronic worriers than the average person. And when you worry chronically, the brain takes that as a sign that there must be something to worry about.
All that chronic worry sends the message to our brain that our world is unsafe, so it keeps a little extra adrenaline flowing through us all throughout the day so we can stay “alert” and keep our guard up. Adrenaline can keep us stimulated and make it difficult for us to acknowledge when it is time to “call it a day” and stop our activities.
*Chronic worriers tend to worry more at night and experience more conscious and subconscious negative emotions at that time, because we aren’t being distracted by daytime activities.
Because of this, our brain often keeps us even more alert at night than it does during the day. It doesn’t want us letting our guard down and relaxing or falling asleep because it thinks if we do, we could be injured or hurt by whatever the “threat” is that we are worrying about.
Remember that the brain doesn’t know what it is you are worrying or feeling negatively about. Your brain only interprets worry and fear one way – as a threat – and it will respond with the right amount of adrenaline that it thinks you need based upon your level of worry and fear.
So if you are a chronic worrier, especially at night, it makes sense that you would find it hard to sleep, right?
*We are also over thinkers, which keeps the brain more active. Even if we aren’t necessarily thinking about something “negative”, that doesn’t mean we aren’t still over-thinking. We think things into the ground and find it hard to get out of our heads. Falling asleep takes a certain kind of “thoughtless thinking”, and that doesn’t come very naturally to us. We are often very deliberate thinkers and this stimulates the mind and can make it a challenge for us to let go and drift off.
*We are sensitive too, which makes it even more likely that the stress of daily life will affect us as opposed to how it affects the average person. Change upsets us more. My entire life, before the first day of school or when I start a new job, I won’t sleep for a week. My mind just will not turn off. I am a creature of habit and I like “the same” and any kind of change scares me on some level…even if it is “good change”.
*Family problems and work problems upset us more as well. Things that another person wouldn’t think twice about could cause us to feel guilt that we will dwell on for days and make it challenging to sleep. There is nothing wrong with us. Our emotional shields just aren’t as thick as everybody else’s so we tend to take more emotional “hits”. And that can make it challenging to find peace when you lay your head on the pillow.
*Another issue for a lot of people and those of us with anxiety in particular, is that deep down, we don’t like to relax . We WANT to like to relax, but we just don’t.
We feel our most comfortable and secure when we are in control and on guard and alert and ready to handle whatever is going to come at us. So even though we are tired and exhausted and just won’t to close our eyes and get some peace and rest, our subconscious minds can make that a challenge.
We are fighters and we feel a natural urge to fight against that invisible “threat” that we feel all the time. We want to stay on top of that constant sense of dread and heaviness that we feel. We don’t want to just lay down and trust that the world is okay and nothing bad will happen while we sleep. And while it is great that we are so strong, I am sure you can see how those of us who struggle with this issue would find it hard to sleep.
*Hormones and other medical conditions can also play a role in insomnia both for those of us with anxiety, as well as the general population. This is why it is always important to talk to your doctor if you start experiencing a disruption in your sleep pattern.
I know that my postpartum periods and periods of PMS are a time of HUGE sleep issues for me, both because of hormonal factors and because of the huge life change that it is to have a new baby in the house. People always say “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”. But that can be extremely challenging when you have hormones and adrenaline and worries and over thinking going on.
So what can we do? Is there anything we CAN do to make it better?
I wish I had all the answers…but I don’t.
But I CAN share with you some tips and strategies that have helped me quiet my mind and fall asleep. None of these tips are “sure things”, but they are all things that have provided me some benefit at one time or another and hopefully they will be able to provide you some benefit as well.
16 Ways To Help You Fall Asleep
1 – Do not beat yourself up when you aren’t able to sleep. That only makes things worse. Remind yourself that rest is the next best thing to sleep, so even if you aren’t able to doze off, your body will still get some benefit from the time you are spending laying down.
2 – Remind yourself that when you get tired enough you WILL sleep. This is not something you have any choice in. Do not waste your time laying in bed thinking “What if I am not able to sleep for a week, or even worse, ever again? What if can never get my mind to shut off?” These are the kinds of thoughts that run through a tired mind at 4 am. Believe me I know. The truth is that it is impossible for you to never sleep again. Your body and your brain will reach a point where they just can’t do anymore and they WILL make you sleep when it gets to that point. Do not over think it and do not worry about having to be “in charge” of whether or not you fall asleep. Your brain will eventually take over and make you sleep when it gets tired enough.
All that you have to do is be aware of your level of fatigue and make sure that if you are severely sleep deprived, you don’t do any driving or put yourself in any dangerous situations. Other than that, it will all work itself out one way or another.
3 – If you aren’t tired, fake it. Tell yourself how tired you are. Pretend your eyes feel heavy and blink them slowly as if they are really drowsy. Pretend to yawn every few minutes and really stretch those yawns out as if you are exhausted. This works! I am getting sleepy just writing about this. Thinking about being tired and pretending to be tired, triggers a sleepy response from the brain. (I just yawned).
For whatever reason, thinking about sleeping and pretending to yawn, or being around other people while they show signs of being tired and/or yawning, helps us to feel drowsy! There are many theories as to why this is. My personal belief is that back in the caveman days, it was important for us all to be sleeping and awake at the same time to keep the “village” running properly. So when one person was tired and yawned, it signaled to everybody else that it was time to sleep. And I believe that response is still with us. “Fight or flight” is pretty much unchanged since the caveman days and I believe that “Me Sleep, You Sleep” is still with us too, and we need to take advantage of that when we are having trouble sleeping.
Try this YouTube yawning video if trying to induce yawning on your own isn’t working. It makes me yawn about 15 times and I always feel sleepy when it’s over. I am actually feeling sleepy just thinking about it. See there…. I just yawned.
Also, look at these photos of yawners that Canstock offers. I always start getting sleepy anytime I look through this particular section of their site. Look at each photo individually, one at a time, and give that primal sleepy reflex a chance to kick in.
4 – Make your bed a peaceful place to be. Make sure you have a pillow that you find comfortable and keep your sheets fresh and clean. There is no greater feeling than climbing into a bed with fresh smelling, crisp sheets. They make you want to snuggle down and get cozy.
What is your bed like when you lay down at night? Is it tidy and put together or is there stuff scattered all over it? I call mine my “nest” and my “nest” is a mess all the time.
Next to me now, I have my workout logs, about three notebooks, a pencil, my credit card holder, my husband’s t-shirt, part of a broken doll, my flat iron, a comb, a journal, some chewing gum and a Christmas card.
Mmmmm, doesn’t that just sound like a peaceful little bit of heaven?
Of course not! I feel stress just looking at it! It’s not cozy or inviting. And it certainly isn’t relaxation inducing. I lay down at night and the thought always occurs to me that if my greatest fear comes true and I die in a fire, the firefighters will probably be thinking “This lady was a slob!” It only adds to my difficulty getting my brain to settle down and its no wonder I find it hard to calm down at night.
I believe in de-cluttering to help improve anxiety symptoms, however that thought process hasn’t quite cemented itself when it comes to my bed. But I can tell you that when I do make that effort, I always feel so much better when I lay down with my bed clear, and looking nice and inviting.
This tip brings me to number 5, which is:
5 – Save your bed for sleeping! My bed is a mess all the time because it is the center of my world. When I am not working out or cooking or cleaning, I am in my bed blogging. or making some kind of list of something or other, or hanging out with my kids. This is a big no-no when you have sleep problems! I don’t associate my bed with sleeping. I associate my bed with being awake and active! I have a desk with a nice computer in the other room but apparently I am too lazy to sit in a chair and write…I have to be in my bed under blankets and propped up with pillows.
This tip brings me to number 6, which is:
6. Find something that you DO associate with sleeping and ONLY sleeping. I, for example, sleep with a bear. His name is Couleur and my daughter gave him to me. He is the perfect sleeping partner because he is warm and cozy and, unlike my husband, he doesn’t snore or have to have one foot out of out the blankets at all times. I only pull him out when it is time to close my eyes and go to sleep. When I see him, it puts me in the mindset of “sleep time”. I am not saying you have to sleep with a Teddy Bear yourself…but find a certain blanket, pillow, soft hat or sleeping mask or any one item that you can form a “sleeping only” association with. Sleep with it at night, and then the next morning remove it from your sight until it is time to sleep again. This item will help send the message to your brain that it is time to sleep and help get the process started……….sort of a “sleeping trigger”.
7 – Take a hot bath before bed. I always sleep so much better after having a hot bath. I feel relaxed and cozy and my thoughts slow down. Dim lighting, bubbles, candles and bath oils can create a wonderfully peaceful experience, and help you to feel ready for sleep when you are done.
8 – Try to stay awake and think about your problems. Here we have the opposite of number 3, but it can work just as well. Tell yourself that you must stay awake and that you must analyze what it is that is on your mind. Tell yourself that you cannot close your eyes for any reason. I know this seems like it would be counter-productive, but it works. Giving yourself permission to do the one thing that you don’t want to be doing, releases its hold on you and makes you no longer feel the urge to do it.
So go ahead and dwell. Keep those eyes open and dwell and analyze your problem until you are completely bored with it . You will get bored with it and there is a chance it will also help you fall asleep. Doing this has helped me many times. Just in case it doesn’t though, I would give it up after 30 minutes or so, but I usually fall asleep before then.
(I have never yawned more while writing a blog post than I am with this one! I should make number 9, “Read this Blog Post”! )
9 – Read a good book. But don’t read a great book. Bedtime is not the time to start reading the latest best-seller. You want a book that will calm your mind and tell a nice story….not one that is going to keep you guessing and dying to know what happens next.
Like me, I know a lot of you have played “One More Chapter”, until you look at the clock and realize its 3 a.m, and I’m sure you know that is NOT going to help your sleep issues.
You want a book that will help you drift peacefully off to sleep…not one that will have you completely absorbed, not wanting to put it down. I find that classic literature really helps to put me to sleep. I already know the story so I am not dying to stay up and find out what happens next…plus the dialogue is more complex with bigger words, and while I love big words, I often find it to be a bit boring and it can help put me to sleep. But if you don’t like classic literature, that is okay, just try to stick with a book that you already know the ending to, or one that isn’t too stimulating, in order to stave off those urges to find out “what happens next”.
10 – Write down your problems and make a “plan”. I usually have a “problem” of the day……that one problem that takes center stage. It will play over and over and over in my mind at bedtime. I have decided that the best way for me to handle that is to make a game plan. Even if I don’t have any real control over the problem, writing it down in my notebooks and saying “Ok, if this is what happens, here is how I will handle it.” , helps me feel like my mind is more organized and on top of things.
My brain is always going to be full of files and papers and messages and memos……I mentally hold on to everything. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a big mess full of chaos. If I can keep things neatly filed up there, then it helps bring my worry level down, and my notebooks are a huge part of helping that along. This goes for the daytime as well as the night-time, but especially at night, I find that if I put my problems on paper and make that plan, I feel like I am prepared for whatever happens. I feel like I have some power.
I have learned that my biggest fears are not just centered around something bad happening, its also that something bad will happen when I am not prepared for it. This is probably because I was so stunned when I lost my first set of twins, and the grief was horrendous, but for whatever reason, that is how I am and my notebooks help give me that sense of security that my mind needs.
If you don’t use notebooks or journals to help organize your thoughts, I highly recommend it, especially at bedtime if you can’t sleep. It can feel so good to unload those problems onto the pages and either just leave them there, or continue on and strategize on the best way to handle them. It can create just enough space in your mind to allow some peace in and help you sleep.
11- Try some Sleepy Time Classic Tea. This tea, made by Celestial Seasonings, is a wonderful blend of chamomile, spearmint and lemongrass. It calms me down and, true to its name, makes me sleepy every time. On those nights when I really just don’t feel like playing the “worry games” or I really need to get some rest for a big day, I sip a cup before bed and it always puts me in the right frame of mind to drift off. There is even a Sleepytime “Extra” blend that contains valerian, which is a natural sleep aid, to give you an extra bit of help to let you float off to sleep..just be sure not to take it if you are pregnant or nursing or allergic to chamomile or flowers in the daisy family and be sure not to drive after you have had some.
Sometimes I drink the Sleepytime “Classic” tea during the day when I feel like I am keyed up with extra adrenaline. My husband’s brother passed away not too long ago and one day shortly after, I was feeling very on edge and I could not get my thoughts to slow down. I could feel a bad thinking spiral coming on so I made sure to stay calm and keep up with my positive self talk and I brewed up a cup of Sleepytime Tea. Just the act of preparing it helped distract me from my spiral but after I started to drink it, I felt calmer almost immediately. Just the aroma alone is soothing. This tea is definitely one for the anxiety/insomnia toolbox.
12 – Slow your thoughts down. I know, easier said than done. But here is what I do. When I am lying in bed and my thoughts are racing in my mind, I consciously drag them out as if my inner voice is in slow motion. I hear my voice not only slower, but deeper as well. You becomes “yooooooooouuu”, problem becomes “proooobbbbbblllllemmmmmmm.” I make sure my inner thoughts sound somewhat like a record on the slow speed, which if you are younger than me you probably have no idea what that means or sounds like but you can always Google it. 😉 Using this slower speed and deeper tone forces the thoughts to slow down obviously, and even more importantly, it causes you to become bored. Bored is a wonderful thing to be feeling when it is time to go to sleep.
You don’t have to be thinking about your problems. You can count to 100 if you want. That is actually what I recommend if you can distract yourself from your problems enough to do it. But whatever you are thinking, think it sloooooooowly.
13– Sleep with a lightweight pillow across your diaphragm and stomach area. I know this sounds like an odd one and I am not going to promise anything here because this could be one that only works for me. I have never heard anybody else say this before, but because it does work so well for me, I am going to throw it out there.
I lie flat on my back, with a pillow laying across my diaphragm and stomach area, then I pull the covers up over myself and the pillow. Then, I lay my relaxed arms over the top of the pillow, so that my arms are resting a little higher than the rest of my body. For some reason, this position t makes me feel very secure and at peace. It makes me feel small and protected and I think it’s because it reminds me of how I imagine a baby would feel while sleeping. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know that I like the way it feels so maybe you will too.
Don’t pick a pillow that is too heavy. Just take a nice fluffy one lay it right across your diaphragm and stomach area, just underneath your chest. It should be thick enough so that it raises your arms just a bit when you lay them on top of it. Again, you don’t want a quilt or anything too heavy that will make you feel like you are being squashed or interfere with your breathing.
If you can’t find a pillow that will stay in place then you can fold up a fluffy blanket and lay it in the same area, and that can work just as well, provided that you don’t get too hot.
14 – Stick to a set sleeping schedule. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every single day. If you don’t get enough sleep one night, don’t make up for it by sleeping late. You may be more tired that day, but you will probably sleep better than night if you don’t try to play “catch up”. “Catch Up” always seems to turn into a game of tag where it feels like you are always chasing sleep. You don’t want that! If you stick to the same sleep schedule, no matter what, your brain will catch on to it and it will become easier to fall asleep when you are supposed to.
15 – Lie perfectly still. For me, being physically still helps keep me mentally still. If I am having trouble sleeping and/or winding down, I make myself lie perfectly still. No fidgeting, no scratching, no moving of any kind. I lie still as a statue for 20 minutes straight. Even if I have to itch, I do not do it. 20 minutes later I am either asleep, or at the very least, feeling very relaxed.
When you make yourself remain very calm, it is then that you become aware of how often you normally move. It can be kind of an eye-opening thing. Remaining perfectly still feels very odd and foreign to me and makes me very aware that at every other time of the day, I am always moving some part of my body. I am glad to know this because I think it really contributes to my anxiety disorder and I make a point now to consciously try to move and fidget less when I don’t need to.
16. – Unwind with a Sleepy MONQ. Since writing my first review of the Zen MONQ a few months back, I have really developed a “Product Crush” on this company. MONQ devices are portable aromatherapy diffusers that contain all natural blends of essential oils to promote various states of relaxation, energy, sleepiness, etc….depending on which blend you choose. I believe so much in this product, that I agreed to become an ambassador for this company, after they had such a great response from my original Zen MONQ review.
Sleepy MONQ is a special blend of three oils – valerian, lemongrass, and lavender – all which have been used for centuries to promote a state of relaxation and sleepiness. It was after I wrote this post of ways to fall asleep naturally, that I first tried the “Sleepy” MONQ, and I found it to be so pleasant and relaxation inducing that I knew I was going to have to change the title of this post from 15 Ways to 16 Ways to Help You Fall Asleep.
I don’t want to turn this blog post into a product review, so I am just going to share the link to the MONQ info page and let you read the information and reviews there and decide for yourself if it is something you would like to try.
OK, well I think that is enough for now. I have some more to share but I will put those tips in another post at another time.
On a side note though, because I always have a side note……my 9 year old daughter has trouble falling asleep from time to time. She knew I was writing this blog post, and the other night when her thoughts were racing and she was laying in bed she called me in and said “I need 6 tips to fall asleep mom.” I said “Six? Why so many?” And she said “I need to know I have back-up.”
I thought about that and I decided that was pretty smart of her. Having a lot of tips can help take the pressure off…so that is why I decided to include so many in this post. So thank you Ily for your wisdom. 🙂
I went back to check on her 20 minutes later and I smiled when I saw her sleeping in her bed. The next morning I said “Which one worked?!” Turns out it was number 12. 🙂
Take care of yourselves readers…..get some exercise every day and really try to slow the overall pace of your life down and manage your stress because I believe that ultimately that will do more to get you a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis then anything else will.
If you have any sleeping tips to share, please leave them in the comments below and please be sure to talk to your doctor if you have sleep issues because there are certain medical conditions that insomnia is a side effect of.
For more information on insomnia and other sleep issues please visit the American Sleep Association.
Thanks for reading.
Photos Courtesy of Pixabay
MONQ Photo Courtesy of MONQ Therapeutic Air
Bear Photo Property of AnnaLisa Scott