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Can’t sleep because of anxiety? Here are 5 techniques to help you relax

Welcome back to Sleepless Nights, Stylist’s weekly series designed to help you put your Sunday night anxiety and worries to bed. This week, we’re exploring things you can do to get to sleep when you’re feeling anxious and your mind is racing. 

Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do to prepare our bodies to deal with anxiety and stress. There’s a reason why you feel more on edge when you’re tired – a lack of sleep can cause your ‘fight or flight’ response to become more sensitive, making everything seem more intense.

However, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always as easy as it is made out to be. No matter how many new routines, sleep hacks and relaxation techniques you try in the hours leading up to bedtime, sometimes it’s the very stress and anxiety you’re trying to counter by going to sleep early that can stop you from nodding off, leaving you lying awake at two am counting down the hours until you have to wake up.

“It’s normal to experience poor sleep when we are stressed or anxious,” explains Dr Kat Lederle, head of sleep health at Somnia.  

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“Being stressed activates our stress system in the brain and body, and the fight or flight response which leads to physiological and brain arousal is triggered,” she adds. “Basically, what that means is that all systems are on go. And that is the opposite of being calm and relaxed which is what’s needed to sleep.”

With this in mind, we’ve put together this series of expert-recommend tips and tricks for you to try when you’re feeling too anxious to sleep that won’t make your problems worse (like scrolling on Twitter probably will, no matter how tempting it can be). From ‘thought switching’ to an anxiety-relieving meditation practice, here are some things for you to try. 

1. Write everything down

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed when you first get into bed, try writing your thoughts down to try and alleviate some of those feelings before you try to sleep.

“Think about your day and write down what went well, what didn’t, whether you can do anything about it and what you need to remember tomorrow,” recommends Sue Peacock, consultant health psychologist and author, specialising in sleep issues.

“These factors are usually the ones that keep us awake, but by doing this we have had the chance to process the day before going to bed.” 

A woman writing down her thoughts before bed to reduce anxiety and help her sleep better
Can't sleep? Start by writing everything down.

2. Change your perspective

Instead of talking to yourself in absolutes, try to be a bit more flexible with the way you think about sleep.

“Try not to catastrophise,” says Jason Ward, senior psychotherapist and DBT specialist at DBT London.

“Remind yourself that you need rest, and aim for reverie (i.e. dreaminess) and resting your brain. Do not decide to give up on sleeping for the night and get up for the ‘day’.”

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3. Practise ‘thought switching’

If your mind is full of racing thoughts, try this simple exercise.

“Think of a place where you feel calm and relaxed – it could be a beach, a country walk or your garden, for example,” Peacock explains. “Describe it in great detail to yourself, mouthing the words as you speak rather than keeping them in your mind.

“This is much more effective than counting sheep!” 

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4. Try the 9-0 meditation practice

This combination of breathing and gentle mental exercise is a great way to unwind.

Ward explains: “Breathe in deeply and breathe out slowly, saying in your mind the number nine. On the next breath out, say eight; then say seven; and so on until you breathe out saying zero. Then start over, but this time start with eight, followed by seven and so on. 

“If you get lost, start over with the last number you remember, and continue until you fall asleep.” 

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5. Use ‘thought stopping’

Simple and effective, ‘thought stopping’ is a great technique to use when you’re struggling to focus.

“Say the word ‘the’ every two seconds – rarely will you get beyond five minutes before you are sleeping,” Peacock explains. “This works as it blocks your negative thoughts and because the word ‘the’ doesn’t have any emotion attached to it, your mind won’t wander, either.” 

Tired of anxiety affecting your sleep? Join us at The Stylist Restival on 19 March (World Sleep Day) for the part sleep spa, part workshop that will place you in the hands of our sleep specialists for a truly restorative Friday night relaxation session.

If you’re struggling to control your anxiety at night or would like some more advice on how to cope, make sure to contact your GP.

For more advice on looking after your mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.     

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