We’ve all been there. After a long, tiring day all you want to do is crawl into bed and fall straight to sleep… Only it seems your mind has other plans.
Instead of drifting off into weightless slumber, your brain fires up, your pulse quickens and your head becomes crowded with endless worries you thought had been parked for the day. Sound familiar?
“Around 80% of people say their worries whirlwind out of control at night,”says Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of support group Anxiety UK.
“With stress, we tend to worry about a specific, tangible problem. But with anxiety, we’re less aware of what we’re worrying about, so our reaction becomes the problem and we start feeling anxious about being anxious.”
And even if we do initially drop off, those worries can still crowd in if we wake up during the night. “The classic time to wake up seems to be between 2am and 4am,” adds Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake.
“Suddenly your brain starts to became very active and problems that may well be solvable during the day become huge worries at night – made worse by the fact you can’t sort them out there and then.”
Here’s what to do when your body says sleep but your mind’s not listening.
1. Sleep by the clock
When it comes to sleep, timing is everything, as Dr Michael Breus reveals in a new book. Our circadian rhythm – also known as the biological clock – affects every aspect of our life, including our ability to sleep well.
The more we understand circadian dyssynchrony – when the biological clock is out of kilter – the better we sleep, so his theory goes. In The Power Of When, Breus offers a programme for getting back in sync with our natural rhythm by making minor changes to our daily routine.
This initially involves taking a simple quiz to establish what kind of chronotype we are (lion, bear, dolphin or wolf). On the basis of which category you are, Breus then outlines how to schedule your day for peak productivity and wellbeing by timing when it’s best to do everything – from eating and sleeping to going for a run and even having sex.
Going to bed at the correct bio-time means you won’t lie awake feeling wired. Breus advises that lions (morning-orientated optimists with a medium sleep drive) should go to bed as close to 10pm as possible, bears (good sleepers who have a high sleep drive) at 11pm, dolphins (neurotic light sleepers with a low sleep drive) at 11.30pm and wolves (night-orientated extroverts with a medium sleep drive) at midnight.
2. Wind down, not up
Sleep is a natural physiological process – but you can help it along and avoid additional anxiety by having a set wind-down routine. The goal of this is to relax your body and prime it for sleep. So if you’re going to bed at 10-11pm, set aside 30 minutes to an hour for an identical nightly pre-sleep routine. This may involve things such as taking a shower, washing your face and brushing your teeth, moisturising your face, putting on your PJs and climbing into bed with a book.
Psychologist Susanna Halonen says: “The more identical you can make every evening, the more you train your body to prepare for sleep and the easier it will be to achieve.”
3. Keep a cork in it
“Alcohol is a stimulant as well as a sedative,” says Dr Guy Meadows of The Sleep School. “While many people use it to fall asleep, it is also metabolised so quickly that it can leave the body craving more.”
So when we drink alcohol close to bedtime, we are more likely to wake up in the early hours, leaving us primed for a night-time anxiety attack. As a rule of thumb, it takes an hour to process one unit of alcohol, so to be on the safe side, have a last glass of wine at 7pm if you intend to go to bed at 10pm.
4. Soak it up
Taking a relaxing bath can help declutter the mind. Try a few drops of Boots Therapy Relaxing Bath Essence – this contains lavender, which is a natural sleep aid. There’s an added benefit to bathtime, too: the fall in body temperature we experience when we get out of the bath is a signal for the brain to start producing sleep-inducing melatonin.
5. Breathe and let go
Practising deep breathing can distract your mind from worries, explains Dr Ramlakhan.
“Breathe in, hold for a few seconds and then breathe out – do this three times. Just follow the breathing as you do it.”
Breathing in this way instantly slows everything down, relaxes the mind and body, and helps channel your energy into the breathing action. The breathing will give way to the tiredness, which will overcome anxiety and help you fall asleep.
6. Ditch the caffeine
Avoid caffeine after 2pm, suggests Will Williams.
“Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and it takes six hours for our body to recover from a single cup of tea or coffee. If you feel you need a hit of caffeine to get you through the afternoon, then consider learning to meditate to give you more energy throughout the day.”
7. Make your worries real
Write down what’s on your mind at least an hour before bed. By committing thoughts to paper, you control them – they no longer control you and live on paper instead of in your head. Mentally, you can tick them off. Dr Meadows suggests giving each worry a nickname, too, such as The Nag.
“We can’t help these thoughts coming in, but they’re only a problem when they start to consume us,’ he says. ‘By giving them names, you speed up the process of defusion, so when unpleasant thoughts crop up, you can just acknowledge them – oh, there’s The Nag again – and go back to what you’re doing.”
8. Get moving earlier
Strenuous exercise in the evening may cause your nervous system to be too wired to sleep, says meditation teacher Will Williams. So either restructure your day to exercise in the morning, or use meditation after exercise to calm everything down and bring you back into balance.
9. Set clear goals
Have a clear plan for the next day, says psychologist Susanna Halonen.
“If you know what priority number one and two are, you’ll spend less time worrying because you know those are the first two things you’ll get done. The more you turn this into a habit, the more you realise that if you plan ahead and prioritise effectively, the more easily you can get the important things done. This will lower your anxiety and help you sleep better.”