Are you gifted with the ability to doze off instantly every night, sleeping until the moment—or just before—your alarm goes off? No? Then you can probably relate to being woken up in the middle of the night by terrifying, irrational thoughts.
“Why didn’t Sarah respond to my email? Is she upset with me?”
“What if I have an illness I don’t know about?”
“Am I spending too much money on online shopping?”
“Did I act like a jerk at work?”
“Is my mom going to be OK?”
This is a pretty precise example of my mental thought loop on nights I can’t sleep. And it’s exhausting—physically and mentally.
If you struggle with anxiety, insomnia, or a combination of the two—this will sound familiar. Lately, with multiple projects on my plate, I have been waking up around 2 a.m. and staying awake until around 5 a.m. It’s hell.
Fortunately, I’ve come up with some strategies to help me relax that don’t involve reaching for my phone and firing up my tired mind with email and Instagram. These four tried-and-true tricks help me calm down and eventually drift back to sleep.
1. Acknowledge (most of) your worries are absurd.
There is nothing like the pitch-black silence of the middle of the night to make us see things in a totally irrational light. Nighttime doesn’t offer the distractions that daytime does (such as other people, activity, and work), so our minds can easily go into overdrive unless we are careful. If your thought loop is anything like mine, you know that these thoughts simply don’t arise any other time of day.
The morning, on the other hand, brings a totally fresh perspective. When I wake up, sit up, and recall my overactive worries, I roll my eyes and shake my head at myself. I try to remember this eye roll and head shake during my next 2 a.m. panic attack.
2. Write it down.
If you come up with a million things to put on your to-do list or anything constructive (one benefit of early-morning silence is those random lightbulb moments of inspiration), simply write it down. Keep an old-school notebook and pen on your bedside table, so you don’t whip out your phone and get lured into a 45-minute social media affair. There’s nothing like dumping out what’s on your mind, including important to-dos, notes, and ideas, to feel instantly calmer.
3. Take a deep breath.
Once you’ve acknowledged the illogical nature of your worries and/or emptied your mind onto paper, the next step takes some discipline. In The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington says that she pictures a tranquil lake to fall asleep.
She also calls breathing the ultimate sleep hack: 25 deep breaths and visualizing an image of something calm can have magical powers, I swear. Try it and see (and not just two deep breaths and a fleeting image). Commit to it! What’s the alternative?
4. Remind yourself you’ll be OK.
What’s the worst that can happen if you lose some sleep? You feel tired the next day? Buy an extra large coffee (or two) and go to sleep earlier the next night. Unless you have something like an important work event, you can probably cancel the following evening’s plans. I’ve done this a few times recently and people are surprisingly supportive when I tell them the truth: “I haven’t been sleeping well. I was awake at ungodly hours last night. I’d be really terrible company tonight.” People get it. Almost everyone has experienced this at some point in their lives. It happens.
Funny enough, this final piece of advice is what really helps me fall back to sleep in the end. I picture a quieter day, a large Starbucks soy miso on my desk, and the following night spent watching trashy reality TV on my couch. And I will chuckle when I recall my midnight panic the night before.
Originally featured in Greatist.