Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and birthday parties all famously trigger insomnia in kids. But what if you’re an adult with an exciting or anxiety-inducing event — like a vacation or a job interview — on your calendar? If it’s well past your bedtime and you’rewide awake, checking caffeine consumption, belly breathing, winding down on schedule and other anxiety-busting techniques can help you drift into a deep slumber.
In this article, we look at six of the top sleep hygiene tips to help you engage snooze control and get a better night’s sleep when you’re anxious.
What Is Sleep Hygiene?
Forget about clean sheets for a moment (although they’re important, too). Sleep hygiene is about strategy. Bedtime rituals and daytime sleep-related habits both fall into the sleep hygiene category. Good sleep hygiene practices include:
- Limiting caffeine usage after noon
- Reducing blue light exposure half an hour before you hit the sheets
- Sleeping in a dark, quiet space
On the other hand, bad sleep hygiene looks more like this:
- Pulling all-nighters on a regular basis
- Snoozing late on weekends to compensate for lost sleep during the week
- Regularly consuming more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, although the exact amount varies between individuals
Perhaps unsurprisingly, sleep hygiene breeds sleep quality. A case in point: Cognitive-behavioral therapists usually make sleep hygiene education a central part of insomnia treatment.
Reliable Anxiety-Busting Sleep Strategies
We know what sleep hygiene is; now, we can look at some tried-and-true sleep-improving techniques. Most of these strategies cost absolutely nothing to implement, making them an ideal starting point for nearly anyone.
Practice Belly Breathing
The next time you feel worried, pay close attention to your breathing. Most of the time, anxious people unconsciously take shallow breaths and turn from “belly breathers” into “chest breathers.” Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing can promote relaxation and relieve stress.
According to Harvard-based Dr. Katherine Rosa, to belly breathe is to breathe like a sleeping child. You can give it a try by sitting in a chair, leaning forward and breathing normally. In that position, you should feel air travel all the way down into the very bottom of your lungs, next to your stomach.
“If you ever watch children sleep, they all breathe from the belly and not the chest. This relaxed state is the more normal way to breathe.”—Dr. Katherine Rosa
Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, activating a relaxation response; your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure lowers, and your stress decreases.
Might a nightcap be the answer to your problems? Probably not, according to new research from the University of Missouri. A small measure of whiskey or brandy before bedtime might make you feel sleepy, but if you start to make it a regular part of your bedtime routine, it could interfere with your body’s sleep regulator. The result? Insomnia.
If you think alcohol might be affecting your sleep routine, try switching your usual spirit out for a cup of chamomile tea.
Cut Down on Caffeine
If you have a history of worry-related insomnia, consider cutting down on caffeine — or cutting it out entirely — several days in advance of your important event. Caffeine is a notorious sleep inhibitor, and most of the time, that’s why we drink coffee. It’s a vicious cycle, though; if you drink coffee too late in the day, it knocks your sleep cycle off-kilter. As a result, you feel more tired the next day, and you need more coffee to maintain the same level of cognitive function.
According to the U.S. Food Administration and the American Medical Association, 200-300 milligrams of coffee per day is about average for most people. That’s roughly equivalent to two 6-ounce cups of regular coffee. Once you get over 400 milligrams per day, you’re considered a pretty highly caffeinated person.
Create a Wind-Down Routine
Winding down at the end of the day is an important part of sleep hygiene. It’s far harder to sleep when you’re anxious if you still feel wound up after a long day at work. To unwind, take a soothing bath or shower, read a book or meditate. Avoid talking about highly emotional issues, because doing so can cause stress hormone cortisol levels to rise. Avoid stimulating activities like exercise right before bed too. If you slow your mind and your body down, you may find it much easier to sleep.
Put Worrying on Your Calendar
Counterintuitively, it can help to make time to worry. Maybe you’re a natural-born worrier; if so, block out some time on your calendar and devote it to worrying. Think about everything you usually stress about at bedtime, and write down every concern on paper. Then, create an action plan to solve each worry. Many people find that when they explore their anxieties in a structured way, they sleep better at night.
Do Something Boring
It’s one o’clock in the morning, and you have to get up in six hours, but you just can’t go to sleep. Instead of lying in bed staring at the ceiling or your LED alarm clock, get up and do something incredibly boring. Fold your laundry, do some washing up, polish your copper-bottom pans or mop your kitchen floor. You may find that you feel tired in a hurry.
Additional Tips to Help You Sleep When You’re Anxious
As well as the above, most sleep experts advise their patients to go to bed at the same time every night, avoid naps longer than an hour and no naps after 3:00 p.m., and exercise regularly. Other tips include:
- Review your medications to see if insomnia is a listed side effect.
- Don’t eat heavy foods like pizza late at night.
- Quit smoking; nicotine can interfere with sleep.
- Avoid using electronic devices in bed, and don’t read stressful news articles after supper.
- Reconnect with nature outside for 30 minutes at least once a day.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool.
- Replace your worn-out mattress with a newer, more supportive model.
- If applicable, clean your CPAP machine to ensure optimal airflow.
According to Stanford sleep expert Brandon Peters, people who suffer from prolonged insomnia (difficulty falling asleep for more than three months) often benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) programs.
Some people need professional help to overcome anxiety and get more shuteye, but for the rest of us, a quick recap of our nightly habits can help us say hello to the sandman sooner. Snooze-boosting strategies like belly breathing, winding down, watching alcohol consumption and going outside during daylight hours can all help you sleep when you’re anxious.