How I Learned to Fall Asleep When Anxiety Keeps Me Awake
I was born anxious. I can't remember a single day in my life, even in my childhood, in which I didn't feel anxiety or worry. My worries range from the tremendously silly to the reasonably, yet rarely, possible.
I have spent many hours worrying about anything from brain tumors (which I just know are causing my mild headache) to being bitten by a mosquito that will infect me with a deadly, unknown disease—and I will be the first known case.
Unlikely? Yes. Crazy? Sure. Easy to ignore? Not at all! Regardless of how much my brain acknowledges how silly and unlikely these things are, I still find them overwhelmingly nerve-wracking. Thoughts of unlikely catastrophes and inevitable diseases keep me up at night.
So by self-diagnosis I'm not only hyper-anxious, but I'm also a hypochondriac.
The monkey mind of the anxious
I recently came across the term "monkey mind," thanks to Daniel Smith and his awesome book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. It feels good to know that I'm not the only with crazy, outrageous thoughts that can only be real inside the asylum that my brain has become.
But I digressed. The term "monkey mind" is a perfect description of the hyper-anxious person. Have you ever seen monkeys actively and frantically swinging from side to side inside their cage? That's exactly what happens inside the mind of the hyper-anxious person. Thoughts of unlikely events jump from one side to the other, without any order and without any type of coordination. These anxious thoughts are thrown disorderly from side to side causing the poor, anxious soul to start sweating, to start tensing and clenching, and to start dying gradually. Is it any wonder I can't sleep at night?
This anxiety is a great addition, or perhaps just part of my OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I have been able to control the compulsion and the obsessions, but the anxiety still lingers. To make things more interesting, the anxiety also comes sprinkled with bouts of hypochondriac-ism.
Anxiety doesn't let me sleep
I'm sure I'm not the only one tortured by anxious thoughts right before going to bed. I'm sure I'm not the only whose eyes are kept open by anxiety's cruel tactics. However, I have some methods that have helped me get some sleep even during anxiety's rush hour.
Read to kill anxiety
The best relaxation technique for me has been reading. However, you have to carefully choose your reading material. I like read mystery/comedy books, such as those written by Laura Levine or Nancy Martin. These are my guilty pleasure that have helped me relax. These books really help my mind escape my worries and become totally immersed in a story that I KNOW will have a happy ending. It's like living in a controlled environment which helps me get some kind of hold on my own uncontrolled mental environment.
Keep in mind that the reading material needst to be something that really grabs your attention and that you can read with ease. Stay away from anything that requires too much concentration, or from anything that makes you feel anxious.
How can you know which book is making you anxious?
Learn to recognize the first signals of your anxiety. For me it's clenched jaws and tense muscles. As soon as I start feeling this tensing up of the muscles I know my head will inevitably visit the dark neighborhoods of my mind and my anxiety will go through the roof.
I think clenched jaws and tight muscles are a pretty universal sign of anxiety. So my guess is that if you start feeling that way you should drop the book and go find something less chaotic.
What if I don't like reading?
Don't like to read? Try audio books. Audio books take me back to my childhood days when my parents used to read me a bedtime story. The best part is that you don't even have to buy them. Most public libraries now have e-libraries which allow you to borrow e-books or audio books for free. These e-books and audio books can be conveniently accessed in your iPad, Kindle, iPhone, or any other digital gadget similar to the above mentioned. Most libraries have a variety of titles and subjects to choose from.
I don't like audio books...
Hard audience, I see. Here's a list of other things you can try to help you get your head away from the anxiety that is eating you.
Classical does the trick for me.
Work out before bed time
Okay, some people find exercise super energizing. If that's your case, then please don't work out before going to bed. But if you're anything like me, you will find exercise mentally and physically draining. Whenever I work out before bed time I sleep like a log, and my mind is too tired to feel anxious. Some consider sexual activity the best work out before bed time.
Among my favorites are the Passion Flower tea, which relaxes muscles and mind, and Serene Slumber by Lifestyle Awareness, which contains a mix of oat grass, rose petals and chamomile. This last one really numbs me and makes me fall asleep with ease.
Writing for anxiety
When my thoughts visit the dark alleys of my mind I just get up and write. What can you write? Anything! Sometimes I'm so afraid of my fears that I don't even want to write them down. When my anxiety doesn't even let me write down my fears, I start writing whatever my hand decides to write. Most of the time I start writing about the events of the day and slowly transition into the thoughts causing my anxiety. It feels good. Once your anxious and scary thoughts take physical form in the shape of words, they don't look that scary anymore.
Once the thougth is out of your head and into the real world, it is stripped of its scary costume and it's left naked, without any power to scare you any longer,and looking quite ridiculous. It truly is a relaxing technique.
Drawing for anxiety
If writing is not your forte or if you just don't even want to make the effort (although I strongly suggest you at least try it), try drawing.
Draw your fears. Give them personalities. Draw them as you think they would look if they were a person, or a monster. Once your thought has a face, humiliate it by drawing funny accessories on it or by giving it silly words with word bubbles.
This will give you some sort of power over your anxiety and you will feel in charge.
Things to avoid before going to be if you're an anxious person
Don't watch news
News are food for anxiety. Anxiety feeds on negative news that travel to your mind and make you imagine all sorts of catastrophes. I avoid news at any time of the day, but particularly before bed time.
However, that doesn't mean I'm completely oblivious to the world surrounding me. Instead of watching news, I opt for a newsfeed in my phone, which gives me the option to read whatever event interest me at the time and to skip the news that look too daunting for my tortured mind.
Don't eat heavy dinners or too late at night
So this is true not only for those with hyper-anxiety, but for everyone who wants to get a good night sleep. Avoid eating heavy foods at least 3 hours before bed time. Some foods contain certain nutrients that can keep you awake at night. Also, avoid drinking too many liquids or you'll wake up to pee in the middle of the night, thus interrupting the seldom occurring slumber.
Stay away from stimulants
Don't drink or eat caffeine or energizing beverages. For some people, the use of electronic devices can also act as a stimulant, so it is preferable that you steer clear of electronic gadgets before going to bed to give your brain a chance to clear up.
Don't force yourself to sleep
If you can't sleep, don't force yourself. This will only cause more anxiety, sucking you into a downward spiral of stress and insomnia.
If you can't sleep, get out of bed and engage in any sleep inducing activity or simply do something you enjoy. But don't stay in bed.
Don't take sleeping pills
Although sleeping pills can be effective for the first few days, they will completely or partially lose their effectiveness after 3 or 4 weeks. They can also create dependence. That will only make you anxious and addicted.
Things to remember if your anxiety doesn't let you sleep
Quality over quantity
Don't stress out if you're not sleeping the recommended 8 hours. Everyone is different and your body may just not need that much time to recuperate. Focus on getting some quality resting time, as opposed to staying in bed for 8 hours while only half asleep.
Ask your doctor is any medication you're taking could be causing your insomnia.
Visit a specialist
If you've already tried everything and still can't sleep or control your anxiety, visit a specialist. Your anxiety might just need medication
And remember, anxiety will roam free if we give it the liberty to do so. Keep it in control by learning to recognize the first signals.