Get the Eff to Sleep!

Just as your day is winding down, your mind starts winding up. You want to shift into relax mode, but your brain is racing, fretting over matters both mundane and major. Why, oh why??

By Megan Deem
woman unable to sleep

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What are the Causes of Anxiety at Night?

Blame biology, at least in part. According to Meghan Riordan, MA, LICSW, a therapist in Washington, DC, our brains react to darkness in a very primal fashion:

“There’s a core level of human anxiety that starts when the sun goes down,” she says. “It happens in the amygdala, which is this tiny little nut-sized part of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response.”

 “It doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder,” adds Riordan. “It just means, biologically, your body is responding to darkness.”

But add that to the stresses of life in general, and you’ve set yourself up for a long night of tossing and turning as various parts of your brain battle it out for your attention:

“Instead of the frontal lobe saying, ‘OK, I’m tired because it’s 11 o’clock,’ it’s circling around these problems,” Riordan says. “And the amygdala responds by saying, ‘Well, problems? Then we’re not going to relax.’”

How to Treat Nighttime Anxiety:

Try making a list of what’s troubling you, says Eric Klinger, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “This can have a calming effect because you know that there is at least an approach towards the problem. Now it’s recorded, so you’re not going to forget it.”

If you can’t bring yourself to get out of bed and switch on a lamp, Riordan suggests diaphragmatic breathing:

“It’s breathing from your diaphragm and chest at the same time in a pattern,” she says. “It oxygenates your muscles, which causes them to become heavier and more relaxed.”

Also, concentrating on your breathing will distract you from other troubles —  such as that giant new project your boss gave you, expecting  it to be completed in two days.

Consistent meditation practice, even just 10 minutes a day, can also silence racing thoughts. Riordan recommends the Calm and Headspace apps.

“In my experience, meditation isn’t usually enough of an intervention to bring you down when you’re really jacked up,” she says. “But if you’re brushing your teeth before bed and feeling like, ‘Oh, I have a little more energy than normal,’ and you’re a regular meditator, turning on something like Calm should help.” Sweet dreams!

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