Lying awake at night with a head full of worries is something most people have experienced at least once in their life. There are worries about work, worries about family, worries about finances, and then of course worries about COVID-19. Worries about whether things will ever go back to normal and worries about how it is going to affect work, family and finances. Whether its thoughts of a stressful work situation, a parent meeting at school, growing debt, or a pandemic, worrying at night can make drifting off to dreamland both tricky and frustrating.
Why do worries keep you awake?
Experiencing the odd night or two of sleeplessness is relatively normal. Those feelings of worry are a normal reaction to stress and uncertainty – they are your body’s way of protecting you from imminent danger by helping you stay alert and watchful. That may be helpful if you were sleeping out in the bush, but not so much when you have a big meeting the next day!
Does stress trigger poor sleep, or is poor sleep stressful?
It goes both ways. Racing thoughts, obsessive worrying, physical tension and/or a “jittery” feeling can make falling asleep nearly impossible. But without good quality sleep, those racing thoughts and worries are simply amplified. And of course, the more you struggle to sleep the more you worry about the fact that you can’t sleep, and so the cycle goes. The trouble is, since worrying is physically, mentally and emotionally draining, it’s at the most stressful times that you need the most restful sleep. A bit of a catch-22 here. That’s why addressing your worries, and prioritising your sleep is so important.
Switching off your worries
Fortunately, there are ways of ‘switching off’ your brain at night to ensure you get the sleep your body needs. How well you sleep at night is largely driven by how you spend your day.
- Remember routine
Thanks to COVID-19, your regular work/relax routine has literally been ripped apart. On the one hand, life has almost become too routine – wake up, work, eat, repeat. But on the other, regular working hours have almost become a thing of the past. Working late at night causes a disruption to your regular wake/sleep cycle, making it hard to switch your brain off as you finally switch off the laptop. To address this ensure that your sleep and wake times are kept as consistent as possible throughout the week. Getting your body accustomed to a cycle like this allows your brain to know when it should be on high alert, and when it can slow down and sleep.
- Have a dedicated daily “worry time”
As hard as you may try, closing your eyes won’t make your worries disappear, and that’s a good thing. You need to take the time to acknowledge your worries – without doing this, you won’t be able to overcome them. Dedicate a specific time each day (5-20minutes) to address what you are concerned about. Use this time to logically think about which of these worries are in your control, and which are not. Write them down – often getting a thought out of your head and onto paper helps to put it into perspective. If your mind starts worrying before or after your scheduled session, gently remind yourself, “This needs to wait until worry time,” and refocus on what you’re currently doing… especially if that is sleep!
- Sweat it out in the sunshine
Exposure to sunshine produces melanin in the skin. Melanin acts on the pituitary gland to produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for inducing sleep. Aim for 10 to 20 minutes of natural sunlight each day, morning beams are best! Take a walk around your neighbourhood, work next to a window, or play with your kids in the garden.
Exercise not only helps you to fall asleep faster but also helps you to sleep for longer. It does this by acting as a buffer to stress. Exercise releases “happy hormones” that generate feelings of relaxation as well as down-regulating the stress hormone cortisol. Any type of exercise will do the trick – try a family dance off, hop on the trampoline, or get moving with any other activity you enjoy. Aim for at least 30 minutes of movement each day. If you can do it outside you’ll be getting double the benefit!
- Keep your bed is for sleeping only, not working, watching or browsing
Train your brain that when you’re in bed it’s for sleeping only. Watching TV, scrolling through social media, or staring at your phone is not only mentally stimulating, the light from electronic devices delays the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. Removing media from your room, serves an additional purpose. Your brain isn’t really wired to handle constant news and minute by minute social media updates. These become almost like alarms, and your brain becomes constantly ‘switched on’ waiting for the next alert.
If all else fails…
If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep after more than 30 minutes, get out of bed and go to another room. A change of environment helps you reset, but keep lights low and don’t do anything that gets you energized. Do something simple and monotonous (read: boring) in dim light for 20-30 minutes and then try again.
Pick a few of these strategies and find out which works best for you, but don’t let this become another source of stress. Sometimes anxious thoughts are simply the remains of a stressful day. Aim to take a positive approach to your day and do as much as you can to eliminate stress before your head hits your pillow.