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Sleeping with anxiety

Thursday, 18 April 2013 Annie

Annie blogs about not being able to switch off and sleep, and how she copes with anxiety.

It's 2:30am.

You're staring at the ceiling, perfectly still and eerily quiet.

Yet inside, you feel like you're sweating through your teeth and your mind's swarming like a flock of angry bees.

Yeah, you can't drift off. And I'll bet my figurative hat that it isn't the first time.

Sleep, as we all know, is absolutely vital for bodily repair, cognitive function, and general all-round health. That's a no- brainer. It's generally recommended that we get eight hours of sleep a night – but for those suffering from anxiety, that's not something that comes so easy.

When you're suffering from anxiety – or any other mental health condition, I'm sure – your mind whirrs at night.

"You can't 'switch off', and you're pleading with your brain to just give you a break, just for a few hours, at least."

You wake up in the morning feeling grouchy. You're irritable, sluggish, and your cognitive function suffers. Extended problems with sleep have been proven to increase our risk of heart disease, developing diabetes, and having a reduced immune system. 

When you're suffering from anxiety, your adrenaline levels are constantly running higher than 'normal'. It's essentially like being put through the 'fight or flight' response 24/7, for no discernable reason. It's forgivable that your body doesn't want to fall asleep when it thinks that it's in danger and needs to be moving pretty quickly, pretty sharpish. But it's hard to feel emphatic when you're where I mentioned before. 2:30am, and on the brink of tears. It's hardly relaxing, is it?

My personal problems with sleep started in my first year of University. I would suffer from debilitating panic attacks – sometimes skipping lectures in order to stay in my room, where I felt – not safe, but more safe than I was outside. I was trapped in a bubble that I saw no way out of, and the only way to get myself out of this vicious circle of stress – no sleep – anxiety – stress was to put on some television as I was falling asleep.

"I found myself irritable in the day, and always felt out of kilter. After I started this, these symptoms gradually backed off."

I used to watch an American TV show, that shall remain nameless for now. I used to have the full box set, and I'd put on this funny, light, not-mentally taxing conversation that wouldn't stimulate my mind so much to keep me awake, but enough to keep my mind busy so that I could keep my mind off the demons and get stuck into falling asleep. I'd also count backwards from 100 in French. It's something that was repetitive, but required a little thought to keep my mind occupied on other things.

I'd recommend the above techniques, over and over again, until the cows came home. I'd recommend, at first, making sure you're fully wound-down after a long, stressful day. Don't exercise in the three hours before you go to bed. Don't eat in the two hours before you go to bed. If you can, have a hot bath or do something relaxing. Going on your smartphone or laptop is not one of them, as the backlight will keep you stimulated for hours.

Cut down (or cut out completely) on caffeine and alcohol. I don't drink caffeine after midday, if at all.Make sure your room is a comfortable temperature, well ventilated (cracking one window will be enough) and your bed is comfortable. Make sure you're not interrupted by a partner, pets or children.

If, after doing all this, you're still not drifting off, get up and do something gentle. I sometimes put a load of laundry on, or slowly wipe down the kitchen. Nothing loud, all calm and gentle. Trying too hard will only make it worse, and odds are you’ll suddenly be overwhelmed with a desire to get into bed and not do that horribly boring housework. I’d also recommend Sleep Cycle app – which monitors your patterns of sleep and wakes you during a light stage of sleep so you don't get that horrid groggy feeling in the morning.

More sleep tips

If you are having trouble sleeping take a look at these tips from Jonny and Becca. 


See Mind's information on coping with sleep problems and anxiety

Our Infoline can also help you find information about local support and services which may help. Find out how to contact them here 

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