Beating Sleep Anxiety: A Roadmap

December 8, 2023 · John Gallagher

How Can I Overcome Sleep Anxiety?

An estimated one in three people don’t get the sleep they need each night. You might lose sleep for many reasons: caffeine or phone use too close to bedtime, indigestion, even social time with friends that stretches into the evening.

Sleep is also more difficult to achieve for the 40 million Americans who face anxiety, particularly sleep anxiety. Sleep anxiety — the fear of going to sleep — can quickly lead to lost rest and irritability the next morning.

What is Sleep Anxiety?

Sleep anxiety is a particular type of anxiety where people worry about falling asleep. Many people also worry about what might happen after they fall asleep, perhaps a nightmare or a sleepwalking event. In other cases, people simply worry that they won’t be able to stay asleep once they fall asleep.

Certain symptoms of sleep anxiety make it fairly easy to recognize. For example, people challenged with sleep anxiety often experience cognitive symptoms like a fear of losing control or sustaining an injury after falling asleep. They might also exhibit behavioral symptoms around bedtime, including a total avoidance of their bedtime routine or activities like pacing, sweating, or freezing.

Some people with sleep anxiety also have an actual fear of sleep, called somniphobia. This fear of sleep can plague your thoughts during the day until you find yourself obsessing about how you can avoid rest. This type of anticipatory anxiety can also contribute to long-term sleep deprivation and its many consequences.

Beating Sleep Anxiety: A Roadmap

Sleep is critically important for a variety of processes in your body, from breathing and memory retention to digestion and respiration. Not only do you need sleep to preserve your health — you also deserve a full night’s rest after a full day’s work.

Sleep anxiety is a genuine concern that’s often enough to significantly impact your life. When the fear of not sleeping is enough to keep you awake, it’s time to act.

Step #1: Consult a Verified Medical Professional

Self-diagnosis and self-treatment are two activities to actively avoid if you suspect sleep anxiety. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of sleep anxiety, it’s time to consult a medical professional. Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician, or with a sleep specialist, to explore ways you can still earn the sleep you need.

Health professionals rely on a variety of scientific techniques much more effective than the guesswork you might perform at home. They can provide a comprehensive evaluation, suggest specific treatments, enroll you in a sleep study, recommend medications if necessary, and rule out underlying conditions that might be disrupting your sleep. Always ensure that you're consulting with credentialed professionals to get the best advice tailored for your situation.

Step #2: Understand & Embrace the Issue

If you and your healthcare provider discover that you suffer from sleep anxiety, it’s time to learn and adapt. Embracing sleep anxiety doesn’t mean accepting life as it is. It only means acknowledging its presence and committing yourself to an improvement roadmap. This helps you create a positive mental headspace that allows you to deal with the problem head-on.

Take the time to research and ask all the right questions. Make sure that you’re consulting reputable healthcare providers for answers to these questions, or answers from reputed databases or other sources. Understand that executing on a sleep anxiety roadmap is a journey, not a step. This shift in mindset helps establish a foundation for long-term mental health success.

Step #3: Establish a Regular Sleep Schedule

Our bodies thrive on routine. By going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends, you can set your internal clock and improve your chances of falling asleep quickly and sleeping deeply.

Beyond maintaining consistent sleep and wake times, a regular sleep routine includes rituals and practices that prime your body for rest. These rituals don’t have to be complicated. They only have to be consistent.

This could involve:

  • Pre-bedtime relaxation techniques: Consider practices such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided sleep meditation.
  • Limiting food and drink: Try to avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep.
  • Prepare for the next day: By laying out what you need for the morning, you can alleviate the anxiety of the morning rush and improve relaxation.

The key is to find what suits you best and to be consistent with it. Over time, these routine actions will signal to your body that it's time to wind down and rest.

Step #4: Create a Restful Bedroom Environment

Your bedroom is a sanctuary for sleep. For best results in creating a restful bedroom environment, keep the room dark and distraction-free. Try not to use electronic devices there, particularly in the 60 minutes before bedtime. Maintain a cool, consistent temperature. Use white noise or ear plugs if necessary to limit background noise.

It’s also important to invest in the right sleep accessories. With so many sleep products and options to choose from, prioritize items that truly improve the quality of your rest. This includes basic items like high-quality pillows and blankets.

Step #5: Manage Your Thoughts

This step is all about giving your thoughts an appropriate amount of power. If worries about sleep keep you up at night, try jotting them down in a sleep journal. This is also a great place to keep track of details about your sleep patterns, longevity, and any wake episodes you experience during the night. The act of writing in a sleep journal can also allow you to offload your thoughts onto paper.

Step #6: Manage Your Diet

You can begin protecting your sleep long before it’s time to go to bed. Managing your diet and prioritizing nutrient-dense foods is a great way to encourage sleep. Consider magnesium-rich foods, including almonds, spinach, and avocados, for their relaxing properties. Avoid heavy meals before bedtime, since heavy digestion can interfere with the body’s natural sleep processes. Remember to stay hydrated throughout the day, but taper your water consumption in the hours before bed to prevent unnecessary bathroom trips.

Step #7: Practice Personal Patience

The occasional night of bad sleep is normal. Understand that achieving consistent, restful sleep — particularly if you face sleep anxiety — can take time. It’s important to put setbacks in perspective and celebrate wins, no matter how small.

Sleep anxiety is a formidable opponent. It can compromise your sleep, one of the most valuable periods of your day. Managing your diet and your thoughts, getting daily exercise, practicing positive sleep health, and staying honest with yourself are great coping mechanisms that can yield real dividends over time.

Don’t forget about the importance of a great mattress. Your mattress is one of the most important components in the recipe for better sleep. In the same way that the right mattress will support your body, the wrong mattress can hurt your body and your productivity.

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