How to Combat Nighttime Anxiety

Ideally, you’d get into bed each evening, turn off the light, go straight to sleep, and only wake up when your alarm went off. Yet for many people, it’s not quite so simple. If you’re part of the 20 percent of American adults that the National Institutes of Health estimates struggle with anxiety, it might feel like a fight to relax and get the sleep you need.[1] In this article, we’ll look at some of the common causes and consequences of evening anxiety and give you some practical tips to tackle them.

Why Do You Get Anxious at Night?

There are many reasons why your anxious thoughts might make it hard for you to fall and stay asleep. If you have a chronic anxiety condition or struggle with depression, it could be that the nighttime silence and stillness that is calming to some people is difficult for you because you fall into an unconstructive thinking pattern. This could involve ruminating on the events of your day, worrying about what might happen tomorrow, or both. 

Even if you’re not usually anxious, sometimes you might feel that way about a specific issue such as a death in the family, losing your job, or anxiety about an upcoming event like a big presentation at work or finals at school. Or maybe it’s a big-picture situation like COVID-19, which has had a significant impact on mental health. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 41 percent of American adults reported feeling anxious and/or depressed at some point during the pandemic, including 48.9 percent of 25 to 49-year-olds and 56.2 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds.[2] Even those who might not feel anxiety during the day can be affected at night, with a KFF Health Tracking Poll finding that 36 percent of respondents have been sleeping worse than usual during the pandemic.[3]

While you might want to keep up to date about what’s going on in the world, looking at the news or trawling through political posts and comments on your social feeds at night can make you feel overly anxious. “If you're prone to anxiety, depression or sadness, doomscrolling can be like stepping into quicksand,” Dr. Susan Albers, a psychiatrist at Wooster Family Health Center told the Cleveland Clinic. “The negativity can pull you under quickly and can lead to panic attacks.”[4]

If you’re an athlete, you might get anxious at night if you replay a subpar training performance over and over as you lie in bed at night. In the days leading up to a race or competition (even if it’s a virtual event like the CrossFit Open), you could be anxious about your upcoming performance. Or if you’re injured, perhaps you lie awake worrying about your condition, how long it will be before you can return to play, or the outcome of an impending surgery.

The Impact of Nighttime Anxiety

The most obvious consequence of nighttime anxiety is diminished sleep quantity and quality. Not getting enough shuteye increases your risk of illness and injury, impairs recovery, and impacts physical and cognitive performance the next day. Per a paper published in Sports Medicine, you might notice that your reactions are slower, the accuracy of your fine motor skills has declined, and your alertness is diminished when anxiety has disrupted your sleep.[5] 

According to an article in The BMJ, the combination of evening anxiety and compromised sleep can negatively impact your interactions with other people and activities you find relaxing and pleasurable.[6] The terrible twosome of anxiety and sleep deprivation can also impair skill development and learning, delay recall, and make it harder to task switch. From an emotional perspective, you might become more irritable, experience mood swings, and have outbursts of anger and frustration. When you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, it can also make you worried about that, pouring fuel on the anxiety fire and creating an increasingly negative feedback loop that then impacts your next night’s rest (aka sleep anxiety).

Ways to Tame Your Anxiety and Sleep Better

Here are five evidence-backed techniques that can help you give nighttime anxiety the heave-ho:

1) Set Aside a Self-Reflection Period

In a follow-up article, the co-authors of The BMJ piece referenced above suggested that anyone struggling with nighttime anxiety get ahead of the issue earlier in the day by setting aside a 15 to 20-minute self-reflection period. During this time you could, “Download your swirling thoughts by writing them down and organizing them” and make this part of a structured and consistent daily schedule that will provide comfort in routine.[7] 

2) Plan Ahead

You’d also do well to plan ahead for tomorrow if you’re looking to reduce your evening anxiety today. Michael K. Scullin and other researchers from Baylor University discovered that spending as little as five minutes on writing a to-do list helped participants fall asleep more quickly. To give yourself an even greater sense of control over what’s to come and tame your anxiety, take this experiment one step further and divide your calendar into dedicated time blocks tied to the top priorities on your to-do list. If you don’t want to get back on a screen, you could use an old-fashioned planner or calendar and transfer the information to your digital one the next morning.

3) Get Your Groove On

Listening to music is another proven strategy for taming nighttime anxiety. While it’s a good idea to keep technology out of your bedroom as a rule, you could make an exception for a single-use device like an iPod that won’t allow you to doomscroll while in bed. Or try a slumber-specific one such as the Bose Sleepbuds II, which block out external noises that can disrupt your rest while piping in calming nature sounds. Certain DJs and producers have tapped into psychoacoustic research on how music can shift your emotional state to create mixes specifically designed to calm your mind. Check out Sleep by Max Richter (there's a 90 minute version to listen to before drifting off or an eight-hour one you can leave on low volume all night) and Sleep Better by Tom Middleton.

4) Breathe Away Anxiety

As you listen to these soothing sounds, hone in on your breathing. A study conducted by an Australian research team found that taking six breaths a minute with a five-second inhale and exhale is the best way to increase your heart rate variability (HRV), a key primer for good sleep and indicator for nervous system recovery.[8] Start by closing your eyes, making sure you’re breathing through your nose, and then slowing down your breath until you’re in that five-five cadence.

5) Soothe Your Mind with Supplementation

If you’re still struggling to quiet your mind and fall asleep, supplementation could help. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research concluded that creatine monohydrate showed “potential in the treatment of sleep-related disorders.”[9] It also helps you replenish phosphates that are depleted during your workouts, so try stirring a five-gram scoop of a pure product like Momentous Performance Creatine with an evening cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea that includes calming ingredients like chamomile, lavender, and passionflower.

You could also add a natural sleep aid to your nightly routine. An experiment conducted at China’s Zhejiang University found that the phytochemicals in wild jujube seeds are just as effective at taming anxiety as prescription medication, without the side effects.[10] Momentous Elite Sleep combines melatonin, valerian root, l-theanine, and tart terry juice. Taking one or two capsules before bed every night while trying the other tips just mentioned could help prepare your body and brain for a restful sleep.

 

Resources:

[1] “Understanding Anxiety Disorders,” News in Health, March 2016, available online at https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2016/03/understanding-anxiety-disorders.

[2] Nirmita Panchal et al, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” KFF.org, February 10, 2021, available online at https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.

[3] Liz Hamel et al, “KFF Health Tracking Poll - July 2020,” July 27, 2020, available online at https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/report/kff-health-tracking-poll-july-2020/

[4] “Everything You Need to Know About Doomscrolling and How to Avoid It,” Cleveland Clinic, September 1, 2020, available online at https://health.clevelandclinic.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-doomscrolling-and-how-to-avoid-it/.

[5] Hugh Fullagar et al, “Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise,” Sports Medicine, February 2015, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25315456/.

[6] Carla Edwards and Meeta Singh, “Anxiety and Insomnia in Athletes During the COVID Era: Part 1 – Foundation and Facts,” The BMJ, available online at https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2020/04/27/anxiety-and-insomnia-in-athletes-during-the-covid-era-part-1-foundation-and-facts.

[7] Carla Edwards and Meeta Singh, “Anxiety and Insomnia in Athletes During the COVID Era: Part 2: Solutions and Suggestions,” May 29, 2020, The BMJ, available online at https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2020/05/29/anxiety-and-insomnia-in-athletes-during-the-era-of-covid-19-part-2-solutions-and-suggestions/.

[8] Marc A. Russo, Danielle M. Santarelli, and Dean O’Rourke, “The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the Healthy Human,” Breathe, 2017, available online at https://breathe.ersjournals.com/content/13/4/298.

[9] Markus Dworak et al, “Creatine Supplementation Reduces Sleep Need and Homeostatic Sleep Pressure in Rats,” Journal of Sleep Research, June 2017, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28397310/.

[10] G Liu et al, “Hepatoprotective Effects of Polysaccharides Extracted from Zizyphus Jujube cv. Huanghetanzao,” International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, May 2015, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25709018.

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