How to go to sleep when you're feeling anxious

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD
Aug 5, 20214 min read
A setting sun behind a bush

Your tired, sleepy body hits the bed and fifteen minutes later you’re wide awake. Alert. Anxious. Your anxiety about not being able to sleep deepens. You hear the neighbor's dog bark and feel your heart beating in your chest. You hear the faint whine of an electric motor and nervously fixate on it. The day’s worries replay in your mind.

Three hours later you look at the clock. It’s 2 AM.  You’re still not asleep and now the anxiety keeping you awake feeds a raging inferno of hyperarousal within your neurobiological and psychological systems. You are tired but wired.

What is the link between anxiety and insomnia?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry and unease. It’s normal to feel anxious in response to certain stressors in your life, as long as that anxiety does not interfere with daily functioning for more than six months. The reason anxiety keeps you awake is because your brain’s security alert system is trying to protect you. When your brain feels your safety is compromised, it will opt for alertness over sleep, because in evolutionary terms there’s no point in sleeping well if you’re about to be devoured by a predator with big teeth.

The effect of this hyperarousal manifests differently in different people. Some struggle to sleep, no matter how tired they are. Others doze off, but wake up soon after and repeat this stop-start cycle throughout the night. Many lie awake for hours every night. Very often insomniacs get so desperate that they turn to sleeping pills and alcohol to dull the hyperarousal temporarily.

How to sleep better despite anxiety

So how do you convince your brain that you’re safe? How do you signal to your brain that it is prudent to switch off the hyperarousal and let the biologically unbreakable, adenosine-fueled sleep drive do its work?

Are there ways to placate the overactive neurobiological and psychological systems that cause your insomnia? There are!

  • Avoid napping during the day. The sleep drive is fueled by the amount of sleep you get. The moment you take a nap, you start satiating this drive. The sleep drive is also regulated by adenosine, which builds while you’re awake.  The moment you take a nap, you start draining some of that adenosine from your sleep tank. Try to keep your tank as full as possible during the day by not napping.
  • Set and stick to a fixed sleep wake-up time.  Make sure you wake up at the same time every morning. You have an internal master clock called the circadian rhythm. The clock creates a cycling rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at regular times of the day and night.  The good news is you can train your clock to follow a particular sleep-wakefulness rhythm by getting up at the same time every morning. Your internal clock responds well to this discipline and, with time, it adjusts to the behavioral changes you initiate. When your sleep drive can rely on this consistent pattern, you will get deeper and more restorative sleep.
  • Create a sleep runway before you go to bed. Staying in full work mode and coming in to land with screeching tires is not an effective strategy. Your mind requires a wind-down period before you go to sleep. People are unique so you may need to try a few activities to determine which is most effective. For example: listen to soothing music, read a fiction novel, work on a puzzle, or draw. Choose activities you enjoy and are relaxing and soothing because it is vital you do these things without any goal orientation. The moment you do something because you think it’s going to help you sleep, you’re defeating the purpose. Deliberately trying to relax and avoiding adrenaline has the paradoxical effect and puts your brain on high alert.
  • Act as if you don't care. People with sleep anxiety disorders primarily fear the consequences of NOT sleeping. So how do you counter that? By acting as though you don’t care. When bedtime arrives, do not put in any effort to fall asleep. Let go of safety behaviors—all the obsessive things you do to calm yourself before getting under the covers, like getting the Sleepzilla eye mask and ear plugs ready and putting on your special sleep socks. These safety behaviors send a message to your brain that sleep is a big deal. The only way to stop your brain from getting the message, is to change your behavior.
  • Go for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. The American College of Physicians has identified cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) as the first-line treatment for insomnia. It improves sleep outcomes and reduces the risks associated with reliance on hypnotics.

Use a CBT-I app to help you sleep.

Apps like Dawn can help you overcome your anxiety and get a good night’s sleep. The Dawn app specifically connects you with CBT-I specialists and uses daily lessons to alleviate the anxiety that causes insomnia.

Learn how to cure your anxiety-related insomnia by scheduling a call with Dawn today.

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Dr. Ehrnstrom is not a medical provider and is not providing any recommendations regarding medications. Rather, she is sharing and reviewing the research as it relates to education when learning how best to treat insomnia.

It’s time to stop blaming the night monsters.

Let’s work together to transform your sleep for the better.