Night-time anxiety: how to deal with feelings of stress and worry before bed

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Kate Faithfull-Williams
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A woman suffering from anxiety at night

A new survey into the sleep habits of adults across the world has revealed that a combination of worry and stress is the number one thing that’s stopping us from getting a good night’s sleep. Here, a longtime sufferer of night-time anxiety explores how she copes.

At first glance, I maintain a pretty good facade of looking like a woman who has her sh*t together. But beneath my illuminating concealer lies an anxious husk of a human who is often wide awake panicking between 3am and 5am, a frustration I’ve lived with on and off for most of my adult life.

In the dark, I’m anxious about everything from how I’ll meet the deadline on this feature to whether that lump behind my ear could be the start of a brain tumour. I’ll stress about the floorboards I painted white in the spare room (in a bid to create  a calm space) and whether I’ve trashed yet another Victorian feature of my home, thus devaluing it (the closest thing I’ve got to a pension), and wrecking my chances of retiring before I’m 80. I’m in a spin, even panicking that my level of night-time anxiety is not serious enough to qualify me as the best writer for this story. It’s catastrophe thinking (having anxiety about having anxiety) at its worst. 

As I write this in the calm, sane light of day, I realise my personal hell does not exactly have the tightrope tension of The Girl On The Train. But, in the moment, worrying about all manner of smaller concerns can take on an apocalyptic quality. 

This is the unique horror of night-time anxiety. And it’s a serious issue, according to the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences because, over time, it can impair our sleep so badly that it leads to a weakened immune system, increased risk of heart disease and, you’ve guessed it, more anxiety. 

The trouble with night-time

“Eighty per cent 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 anxious about, so our reaction becomes the problem and we start feeling anxious about being anxious.” It’s heartening to discover I’m not alone but like many other sufferers I know, come daybreak, I wouldn’t really call myself anxious. So why does it strike so hard after dark?

“It’s down to the lack of distractions,” says Lidbetter. “Our days are often frantic and, at night, when activity slows, we’re forced to confront our thoughts.” This resonates with me deeply – as perhaps it will with you. All day, I’m frantically busy, running to meetings, juggling emails, making lists, on high alert in case I drop a ball.

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Herein lies the problem, says Dr Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology and author of iDisorder. “Anxiety is caused by our body reacting to chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, chiefly cortisol, the stress hormone,” he says. “The anxiety we feel during the day is masked by the intensity of other neurotransmitters firing in our brains. Night is when our bodies tick through vital repairs to ready us for the next day – but because there’s little else going on during this downtime, cortisol takes over and our bodies react even more strongly to the surge of neurotransmitters. This overrides relaxing chemicals like melatonin and serotonin needed for sleep.” And kapow, you’re awake again, panicking. “Instead of drifting into the deep, restorative stage of rest, your mind is processing information from the day,” continues Rosen.

Ironically, knowing these are the vital hours when my body is carrying out essential repairs and that I’m potentially sabotaging the opportunity to feel better makes me more anxious the next time I find myself awake at 4am. In fact, it only takes a few twisted leaps of logic to conclude that I’m clearly heading for a serious illness thanks to my inability to achieve a good night’s rest. 

“What if I forgot to unplug my straighteners?”
“What if I forgot to unplug my straighteners?”

I’m not the only one losing much-needed sleep due to uncontrollable catastrophising. “I mostly worry about money so I torture myself calculating what might happen if I lost my job and berate myself for buying so much as a posh sandwich,” confesses Louisa, 35. “The tiniest thing, like my husband’s breathing, sets me off,” says Catherine, 28. “That spirals into anxieties about whether we should have a baby because we’re both ratty when we’re tired. Within a few frustrated wakeful hours I’ve completely pulled our future apart in my head.” Indeed, a study from the American Psychological Association shows that millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – are reporting more perceived anxiety and stress than previous generations, which is emerging in an explosion of night-time anxiety.

“We see far more cases [of night-time issues] now and increasingly serious ones, too,” reports Neil Shah from The Stress Management Society. He supports the theory that night-time anxiety has grown in relation to the busyness of our days, which leave little time to work through our thoughts or reactions to events. “A combination of technology and economic pressures means we’re constantly bombarded and expected to respond,” he warns. “Our working hours have extended to the point that whenever we’re conscious, we’re on duty.” Multiple studies, including a survey of 7,446 people for Facebook, show that most of us keep our phones on all night, with 80% of us reaching for them first thing. So, short of ditching our smartphones (*gasps in panic*), what can we do?

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Well, first of all, we’ve got to stop freaking out; from a biological perspective, waking at night is totally normal. In his book At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, Professor Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech reveals that the idea of eight hours’ sleep only dates from the Industrial Revolution, when the working day was first regulated. “It’s OK to get six hours if that’s what your body needs,” agrees Lidbetter. “So don’t beat yourself up for waking as that only serves to exacerbate your anxiety.”

I feel heartened – and resolve to follow expert advice in the next few weeks, to see if I can eliminate my nocturnal anxieties for good… 

Monday: time to disconnect

Lidbetter believes that the key to achieving calm is to focus on your day, rather than your sleepless night – a strategy supported by every single expert I speak to. She suggests taking five minutes every day to be silent and disconnect. Sounds easy but the urge to text a friend and email a client is overwhelming.

On Monday I try (and fail) at lunchtime, then again while waiting for the train home. Every time I’m distracted. In the end I try four-square breathing, or ‘box breathing’, which researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health credit with calming your nerves and relieving stress. It’s also said to bring the respiratory system back into alignment and end the shallow breathing that results from the fight or flight response mode from feeling stressed in the middle of the night. The next time I wake, I make a toilet trip, then give it a try.

You’re supposed to sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap, but I try it in bed instead. I close my eyes and mouth and breathe in slowly through my nose. I count to four as I inhale, holding my breath for four seconds, concentrating on my tummy, and noticing how it moves when I inhale. Then, slightly opening my mouth I slowly exhale to a count of four. I hold the exhale to another count of four and repeat the exercise for four minutes. I do feel a lot calmer having a specific rhythm to focus on – better still, I’m asleep in 20 minutes.

“It’s just me, a tropical beach and Ryan Gosling”
“It’s just me, a tropical beach and Ryan Gosling”

Wednesday: stop overthinking

Two days later, I find myself staring at the ceiling worrying about a work deadline, which soon becomes a worry about my career and eventually fully-fledged panic about my future. Ironically, I’m too tense to try the breathing technique so I act on counsellor Sally Brown’s ( earlier recommendation to try thought stopping. “Don’t engage with your negative thoughts,” she said. “Instead, tell yourself, ‘I know I’m overthinking. I won’t think about this now. I’ll think about this tomorrow.’” It certainly calms my rapid breathing. I then, slightly self-consciously, start arguing with myself. It’s not as strange as it sounds. Psychologist Emma Kenny is an advocate of disputation techniques where, when you have a negative thought, you argue against it in your head. So, if you become convinced you’re the worst friend ever you remind yourself of the time you dropped everything to console a friend over her break-up. “Basically you retrain your brain to reshape negative thoughts into positive ones.” It’s pretty effective and I manage to gradually calm myself down and doze off.

Saturday: cyber curfew

It’s the remedy I suspect will be most effective but the one I’ve been dreading: a digital curfew.

A Harvard study proves the blue light from electrical devices turns off a neural switch in the brain, decreasing production of melatonin. “Turn screens off an hour before bed,” says Shah.

Brown also recommends avoiding films and TV shows that stimulate your emotions late at night. “Recently I watched Happy Valley and was then in a state of heightened anxiety just before bed. You can’t expect to achieve a calm state of mind after that.”

After a good run of unbroken sleep I hit a bad patch. On Saturday, I read a book the old-fashioned way but wake up later and turn on my phone to see what time it is. This fills our bedroom with a light so bright that my husband wakes up, too. There is swearing, followed by nearly two hours of ‘I can’t believe we rowed’ anxiety on my part. Only getting up and physically leaving my bed – a technique Harvard researchers call ‘sleep restriction’ – breaks the 5am anxiety vortex. 

I vow to continue reading at a more reasonable hour and switch to airplane mode after 9.30pm. 

A study in the journal Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise shows that working out not only helps you sleep, it can help to control anxiety, too. Performance coach Dalton Wong warns me against exercising after 8pm as our bodies need time to process the extra cortisol – the get-up-and-go hormone is vital for exercise but the enemy of sleep. So at lunchtime I blitz strength-training circuits in the park, then, heeding Wong’s advice, soak a cup of Epsom salts in my bath before bed. “The magnesium-rich crystals will relax you and help you sleep,” he says. I’m out like a light. In the morning I feel like a real superhero – it’s my best night yet.

It’s the end of the working week and there is wine. Three big reds send me to sleep the instant I crash at 11pm. But a few hours later, me and my furry tongue are wide awake, replaying fuzzy conversations in which I shot my mouth off about my friend’s lazy husband. To her face.

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Dietician Helen Bond explains: “Though wine may help you go to sleep, alcohol is a stimulant, really dehydrating and sets up your blood sugar for a crash that will wake you up and make you feel anxious.”

Saturday: build good habits

Determined to crack this, I throw everything at my night-time anxiety. I go to the gym, take my mindful five minutes, eat leafy greens, bathe in Epsom salts while reading my book and even drink camomile tea, which is proven to aid sleep. I am the pyjama-clad embodiment of what experts call ‘good sleep hygiene’. And guess what? I toss and turn until 1am.

“Obsessive night-time rituals can be counter-productive as they turn sleep into a high pressure event, which makes you anxious,” warns Lidbetter. “All you can do is set the scene for relaxation and let sleep take its course.”

Sunday: time to let it go?

I sense it’s time to cut myself some slack. Sunday nights are easily the most anxiety-inducing of the week and my experiences have taught me I need to accept that, occasionally, being awake at night is normal and that a little anxiety helps me remember things I might otherwise forget. Brown says, “Anxiety is very normal and you can control it. The upside is it often means you are creative and emotionally intelligent – it takes a good imagination to convince yourself things are going so wrong.”

Accepting that being awake is not the end of the world makes me less anxious – and eventually sleep takes over. I hope it works for you, too.

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Kate Faithfull-Williams

Kate is an editor, health coach and author of The Feelgood Plan. She likes chocolate and working out in equal measure, and only ever drinks house wine. Her one mission in life is to find a yoga move that smooths out her iPhone claw hand. Follow her on Instagram: @katefaithfullwilliams

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