5 Tips for Falling Back to Sleep Faster During an Age of Anxiety

What to do to keep from tossing and turning when anxiety takes hold

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Although I’m a physician, I’m not immune to the occasional bout of insomnia, so it was no surprise when I woke up at 3 AM this morning, long before my usual wake time.  This has been a particularly anxiety-provoking week, with results of our recent election still not finalized.  Our brains hate uncertainty, and 2020 has been nothing short of one uncertainty after another.  So, with my mind activated on thoughts like, “I’m going to be so exhausted if I can’t fall back to sleep,” I implemented a few of the tips that I regularly recommend to others.

1. Get out of Bed.  That’s right.  If you can’t get back to sleep within about 15 minutes of waking up, then getting out of bed and going to another location until you’re sleepy can reduce the pressure you feel to get back to sleep, as well as train the brain to see the bedroom as a place for sleep, not wakefulness.  

2.  Keep lights low.  Even when going to the bathroom or sitting in another room, keep light to a bare minimum.  Bright light reduces the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin, which is why daylight triggers our wakefulness.  I usually keep a dim night light on in the bathroom in order to navigate my way around without having to turn on any overhead lights. Avoiding lit-up screens are also key.

3.  Breathe.  Taking a few, slow deep breaths helps to activate our bodies’ parasympathetic nervous system, releasing chemicals that allow us to relax naturally.  It tells our body that, “No, in fact, the bear is not chasing us now.”  One simple method I use is to think of my lungs expanding like a giant balloon for a slow count of 4 or 5, holding that breath for a similar count, then slowly deflating the balloon.  However, I recognize that that, given the death of George Floyd and the manner in which he died, this might not be the go-to option for everyone.  If that’s the case for you, one of the ideas below might be more beneficial. 

4.  Perform a non-stimulating activity.  One activity might be reading a novel (in low light). Maybe because I associated being read to as a child with sleeping, I like to listen to soothing stories.  I’ve used the app Calm in the past, but even a few minutes of an audiobook can work.  Mindfulness meditation is also beneficial.  This consists of finding a focus, whether your breath, body part or sensation, then returning to that focus when thoughts arise.  When I meditate, I often use a simple mantra to maintain focus, and I don’t beat myself up when my mind wanders.  

5.  Write.  I keep a notepad on my nightstand for those times when I wake up and feel that I absolutely need to get something off my chest – whether it’s a reminder to not forget something in the morning, an interesting dream, or jotting down something making me feel particularly anxious.  That way I can release the thought to the universe and get back to sleep more easily in the process. 

By implementing a few of my favorite “tricks”, I managed to get a couple more hours of shut-eye, enabling me to feel more rested when my day finally began.  Regardless of the outcome of this election or whatever else is happening in our lives, we all have the ability within us to sleep with more ease. 

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