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Coronavirus anxiety: why anxious thoughts spiral at night time - and 3 ways to combat them

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Lauren Geall
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A woman worrying in bed

Are you finding that you can’t sleep at the moment due to anxiety? You’re not alone. We asked an expert why this happens, and how to deal with it.

As far as my mental health goes, I’d say lockdown has gone pretty well so far. I’ve definitely had a few down days here and there, but for the most part, I’ve settled into a working from home routine which has helped me to feel grounded during this weird time. If you asked me me how I was feeling on any given day, my answer would probably lie somewhere between “good” and “tired” (falling asleep on the sofa is my new favourite activity).

But ask me that question just before I’m about to fall asleep at night, and you’ll probably get a very different answer. Because while throughout the day (and even the evening) I’m able to maintain a sense of relative calm, when I clamber into bed, switch off the lights and roll over, all of my worries and anxieties decide to make their surprise appearance.

I know I’m not the only one struggling with anxiety at night time. According to new analysis by Happy Beds, Google searches for “can’t sleep due to anxiety” have risen by 242% between April 2019 and April 2020 – a recent study by Kings College London also found that two thirds of the UK aren’t sleeping properly in lockdown.

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As someone who has lived with anxiety for the majority of my life, I’m familiar with these anxious spirals, and know that my anxiety levels will die down eventually. From time to time I understand I’ll have periods of more intense anxiety, but never before has my anxiety hit me so routinely when I’m trying to go to sleep. So why does this happen?

“Many people find that their anxiety ramps up at night when there are fewer distractions around,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy. “Not only is it quieter at night which means we’re left to our own thoughts much more, but the mind tends to be busier and louder after a day’s activities.

“At night time, it’s easy for the mind to ruminate on worries and become overwhelmed with negative thoughts about what you did or didn’t achieve that day, and what tomorrow will bring.”

A woman sat on her bed with her head in her hands
“At night time, it’s easy for the mind to ruminate on worries.”

Touroni’s points make complete sense when you think about how many of us are spending more time than ever using screens during lockdown – our brains are processing a lot of information right now, but we’re not switching off throughout the day and giving them a chance to do that. When we lie down to go to sleep and finally allow ourselves to switch off, our brains are finally offered the chance to go through all our worries without distractions.

According to Dr Touroni, there are a number of steps we can take to deal with this “bedtime anxiety,” including doing a 10 minute mindfulness meditation, and limiting social media and news intake both before bed and throughout the day (“both are likely to amplify anxiety at the moment”). 

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“If you’re struggling with anxiety at night time, you might find that it has also started to impact your sleep,” she adds. “Practising good sleep hygiene is going to help your mind and body wind down gradually. To do this you should:

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine and try not to eat or exercise close to bedtime.
  • Keep your phone somewhere out of reach before going to bed (e.g. charging in the kitchen).
  • Remove distractions (e.g. TV’s) and make sure you only use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy with your partner.
  • Stick to a regular sleep routine. This will help train your body to know when bedtime is approaching.”

For more advice on dealing with night time anxiety, check out our guide here.

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