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How to manage nighttime anxiety
Posted by SANE
3rd Oct 2019

Picture the scene: you’ve had a busy day at work. You didn’t manage to finish your to-do list or get back to every email in your inbox. When you get home you’re met with life admin demanding your attention and an influx of messages from friends wanting to meet up. By the time you get into bed, your body is exhausted and ready to welcome sleep with open arms.

But your mind has other ideas. Instead, it decides to take you back to work and those unfinished tasks. It replays the stressful conversations from your day and the plans you’re yet to put into place. It reminds you which life admin tasks still need doing and who you really need to call back tomorrow. 

As sleep slips further out of reach, you begin to feel more and more stressed and anxious. Your night ends up being restless, anxiety-fuelled and you may even experience panic attacks

Sadly this scene is a common one. For those of us who live with anxiety, nighttime can be particularly difficult. I spoke to Counselling Directory member, Peter Klein to find out why.

“People often feel less anxiety when they are busy, especially if their workload feels somewhat manageable. This is because there are many influences around that require attention. At night and especially in bed, the mind is less distracted and therefore underlying issues that are bothering us can come into our awareness. 

“These can be real issues such as being in a bad relationship or be reflections of one's own tendency to exaggerate. Such concerns often circle around more benign circumstances such as worrying if enough socks have been packed for an upcoming holiday and then progress to more and more threatening ‘what if’ scenarios.”

In today’s society, we have many ways to distract ourselves, whether it’s through work or scrolling on social media. Because of these constant distractions, we rarely give ourselves the space we need to process what’s happened in our day. So it’s no surprise that when we settle down for sleep, our mind starts whirring and processing. 

OK, so we know why anxiety can rear its ugly head at night - but what can we do about it? Below are some tips I’ve found helpful in my own journey with nighttime anxiety, and some suggestions from Peter. 

Allocate worry time

“A small trick can be to have allocated worry time where one can worry to one's heart’s content,” says Peter. Having a dedicated time to worry is a tool I used when undertaking cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and found it very helpful. As worries come up during the day, note them down and set them aside until your designated ‘worry time’.

This helps to stop worries from piling up and tugging on your attention all day and helps you feel more in control. Peter advises not to do this, or anything else mentally stimulating, before bed. I found worry time most helpful just after work before settling in to relax for the evening. 

Make room for whitespace in your day

Having some quiet time in your day can really help you decompress and allow your mind room to process. This whitespace time could be meditation, I’ve found mindfulness helpful in coping with anxiety, or an activity like yoga, walking or drawing. Find something that encourages you to switch off from your to-do list and be more present in the moment. 

Avoid using your phone as a distraction technique in bed

Distraction can be a helpful tool when dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, so it may feel tempting to use your phone as a distraction tool when you’re struggling to sleep. The problem here is that devices emit blue light which can hinder sleep. “Avoidance tools such as drifting off on a smartphone whilst watching TV will often come back to bite when in bed,” Peter says.

Instead, try journaling about what’s worrying you or read some fiction. Leaving your bed and going into a different room is also recommended if you’re not able to sleep - this helps you to disassociate sleeplessness with your bedroom. 

Sit with the discomfort of uncertainty

Peter explains that the mind loves habits and routines and that worry can often be used as a problem-solving mechanism. “If people address problems as soon as they worry about them, be it by coming up with solutions mentally or by addressing them head-on, the mind will remember this and the tendency to use worry as a problem-solving mechanism gets reinforced. 

“It is, therefore, good to practice watching out for when worries come up and to deliberately not come up with solutions. This often relates to accepting the uncertainty of not having a solution there and then, which is a big thing to train in itself!”.

Not having a solution can feel stressful, but the more you allow yourself to sit with this discomfort, the easier it will become. You might find it helpful to visualise your problems in a balloon and letting them float away. 

Talk to someone about it

Whether it’s a friend, family member or a counsellor, talking about your worries can really help. Working with a counsellor can help you understand the way your thoughts and behaviours affect one another and help you learn different coping mechanisms. 

Nighttime anxiety can feel incredibly lonely, but please know you are not alone in this. Support is available. Talking to someone from the SANEline before bed may help if you’re struggling, they are open every day of the year from 4.30pm to 10.30pm on 0300 304 7000.

Written by Kat Nicholls from Counselling Directory, an online mental health resource hub dedicated to connecting people to the help they need. Find more information and help in their anxiety section.

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