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Don’t Worry: You Can Learn How to Calm Anxiety at Night

Overstimulation is a big obstacle to meeting your sleep need (second only to light exposure). But these science-backed tips will ease your mind for better days.
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It is exactly 3:27 a.m. You know because, in between tossing and turning and racing thoughts about problems at work, you’ve been checking the clock compulsively. With each passing minute, your mind is tabulating the sleep you’re losing, and soon “next-day exhaustion” makes its way to the top of the list of anxious thoughts keeping you awake. 

If this scenario sounds familiar, you probably know first-hand what it feels like to be caught in this vicious cycle: anxiety disrupts sleep, and sleep loss worsens anxiety. 

Unfortunately, anxiety at night is all too common — and especially pernicious. Because when left alone with its thoughts — with no one to talk to and nothing to distract it — the brain often seizes the opportunity to get caught up in the anxiety of a concern or situation. It’s easy for minor worries to snowball into major problems. When catastrophic thinking triggers a stress response, the body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. After your nervous system gets pushed into overdrive, is it any wonder you're having a hard time falling asleep?

While there may be a number of different ways to break free of this cycle, the various approaches usually fall into one of two categories. 

1. Address and work on anxiety issues.

2. Improve sleep hygiene to get the sleep you need.

There may be overlap in some of these techniques and strategies, which is hardly surprising when you consider the ways anxiety and insomnia can intertwine and even feed off of each other. The good news is, anything you do to improve one will likely improve the other, either directly or indirectly.  

In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between anxiety and sleep and go over some science-backed techniques that can help tame anxiety at night so you can feel and perform at your best during the day.

Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice from a healthcare professional. The RISE app is designed to support natural sleep and good sleep hygiene, but it does not treat health problems like anxiety disorders.  

What Is Anxiety Doing to Your Body?

Simply defined, anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. It’s different from fear, which is defined as an emotional response to an imminent threat. In other words, fear is a response to a known or understood threat, while anxiety is usually about an unknown or poorly defined threat, something that may or may not happen in the future. 

Both fear and anxiety can trigger your body’s stress response. Also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, it’s a physiological reaction to something your body has perceived as a threat. 

In response to a threat, your adrenal glands pump extra adrenaline and cortisol — hormones that trigger the release of blood sugar and fat into your blood — giving you a boost of energy. These hormones also increase your heart rate and blood pressure to help more blood reach your muscles, heart, and other organs so that you’ll be ready to fight or run away from whatever is threatening you. In your brain, the extra oxygen sharpens your senses and increases alertness.  

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s easy to see how the body’s stress response would be critical to our survival as a species. Whether it was a saber-toothed tiger or an attack from a rival tribe, our prehistoric ancestors had plenty to fear as they fought to survive another day. 

It’s also easy to see how the hormonal surge of a stress response is NOT conducive to sleep. The common stressors of our modern lives — the possibility of failing a test or being passed over for a promotion, for example — might not be life threatening, but the anxiety they cause can still elicit a stress response. 

This type of chronic stress that runs in the background for long periods of time is dangerous because the body doesn’t receive a clear signal to return to normal functioning. Chronic overexposure to stress hormones can put you at higher risk for serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers, depression, and anxiety disorders. 

But you don't have to have a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder to feel the effects of chronic stress, especially when it disrupts your sleep.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep

how to calm anxiety at night: woman sleeping soundly while covering her face with her arm

According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” 

These are hardly ideal ingredients for a good night’s sleep, by any standards. But there’s more to the story. Let’s take a look at some key terms that will help delineate the relationship between sleep and anxiety.

  • Bidirectional: Anxiety and sleep loss have what is called a bidirectional relationship — meaning they each feed into and promote one another, creating a self-perpetuating cycle without a single clear root cause. Anxious thoughts can cause or worsen sleep problems, and lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety
  • Rumination: For an anxious mind, the quiet and stillness of bedtime provide the perfect breeding ground for negative thinking and rumination. Merriam-Webster defines rumination as “obsessive thinking about an idea, situation, or choice especially when it interferes with normal mental functioning.” Constant and repetitive thoughts about a problem or a possible future problem can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
  • Sleep latency: Sleep latency is the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. When stress and anxiety from your waking life follow you into bed, it will likely take you longer to fall asleep. And when anxious thoughts delay sleep onset, it isn’t just about the minutes or hours of sleep you’re missing. You may also start to feel anxious and frustrated about the prolonged sleep latency — one more thing to ruminate over. 
  • Sleep fragmentation: Another problem sometimes caused or exacerbated by nighttime anxiety is sleep fragmentation, the repetitive short interruptions of sleep that can make you feel tired the next day. If you wake up in the middle of the night and your mind immediately seizes on the anxious thoughts you went to bed with, you might be back at square one experiencing prolonged sleep latency that will further cut into the amount of sleep you’ll get. 
  • Sleep debt: Sleep debt is the running total of the amount of sleep you missed — as compared to the sleep your body needed — over a 14-day period. When anxiety makes it difficult to get the sleep your body needs, your sleep debt will undoubtedly go up. High sleep debt causes cognitive impairment and impedes your ability to feel and function at your best. And over the long term, high sleep debt or chronic sleep deprivation can increase your risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, stroke, and other health problems. 

Getting caught up in the vicious cycle of anxiety and sleep loss is all too easy, and it can escalate quickly. Before you have to pull yourself out from under hours and hours of sleep debt and possibly even crippling depression, do what you can do nip it in the bud. Take stock and take action, the sooner the better.

Escaping the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety and Sleep Loss  

how to calm anxiety at night: two people in a discussion

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders. And people with chronic insomnia are at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Because these problems can become a particularly difficult knot to untangle, the ADAA recommends seeking medical advice to address potential mental health conditions, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions. 

A qualified mental health professional can help you investigate and address the underlying cause of your anxiety and may offer treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, and relaxation techniques. (Visit adaa.org to learn more about treatment options.) 

You can also approach the problem of nighttime anxiety by taking steps to improve your sleep. Adopting good sleep hygiene habits is the best place to start. 

Sleep hygiene refers to the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep. At Rise, we recommend following these guidelines to keep your sleep debt low so that you’ll have the energy you need during the day:

  • Be strategic about the timing of your light exposure. Expose yourself to light (preferably sunlight) soon after waking to signal to your brain that the day has begun. And avoid or limit exposure to artificial lights after dark to help support your body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Dim the lights and avoid blue light (or wear blue-light blocking glasses) in the 90 minutes before bedtime.
  • Don’t consume sleep-disrupting substances in the hours leading up to bedtime. Avoid caffeine 8-10 hours before bed, and avoid alcoholic beverages 3-4 hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise regularly, ideally during daylight hours and not within the three hours before bedtime. The release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol during physical exertion raises body temp and keeps you in a state of alertness. These hormones delay the release of melatonin, preventing you from feeling sleepy.
  • Create a comfortable, sleep-friendly bedroom by keeping it cool, dark, and quiet. A white noise machine, ear plugs, blackout curtains, and an eye mask can help. 
  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, and don’t nap in the late afternoon or evening. Consistency is the key to maintaining your circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock.

Using data from your phone and proprietary, sleep science-based models to map your unique circadian rhythm, the RISE app can tell you exactly how to time these sleep hygiene habits.

Next, we’ll go over additional sleep hygiene habits and bedtime routines aimed specifically at helping you unwind at the end of the day, and suggest relaxation techniques and other tactics that can help counteract nighttime anxiety.

Unwind With a Relaxing Nighttime Routine

how to calm anxiety at night: woman writing in her notebook

Just as slowing your car down before you slam on the brakes can make it easier to come to a stop, mental deceleration before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep. Setting aside time to unwind and relax at the end of the evening can help keep anxiety at bay and make the transition into sleep as smooth as possible. Here are some tips for a sleep-friendly nighttime routine:

  • Put it down on paper: Taking five minutes to get your worries on paper and off of your mind can make it easier to fall asleep. It’s what’s sometimes called a brain dump. (In the RISE app, you can add a “brain dump” habit with a nightly reminder.) This may look like making a to-do list or even planning out your entire schedule for the next day. Having a plan of action ready to go can eliminate some of the uncertainty that fuels anxious thoughts. For a brain that’s prone to nighttime rumination, some experts suggest scheduling “worry time” into a particular time slot the next day. An anxious mind that has a hard time letting go of worrying thoughts entirely might find it easier to relax if it knows you’ve set aside time to think through and address those problems the next day, at a time that will not disrupt your ability to get the sleep you need.
  • Schedule an evening wind-down period: In the 1-2 hours leading up to bedtime, take steps to detach from the stress and busyness of the day. (The RISE app can help. Go to the "Energy" tab and add the "Evening Routine" habit to your energy schedule.) You might brew some chamomile tea, listen to calming music, tune into a podcast, or read a chapter of a novel. 
  • Don’t engage with exciting or addictive content: Choose your bedtime inputs wisely, and avoid excessive scrolling and edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Endless social media feeds, TV episodes that end in cliffhangers, and video games that tempt you to keep going to the next level cause cognitive arousal, so save them for the daytime. A physical book is better than a blue-light-emitting tablet or phone. Either way, wearing blue-light blocking glasses is a smart way to prevent whatever light you’re using from interfering with your body’s natural melatonin production.  
  • Take a warm bath or shower: It may sound counterintuitive, but warm water can help lower your body temperature in a way that promotes sleep. The heat of the water raises your blood vessels closer to the surface of your skin so that when you emerge from the bath and your skin is exposed to the air, your body accelerates the process of cooling itself down to prepare for sleep.

Relaxation Techniques Can Help Ease Anxiety at Night  

sleeping woman with her headphones on

Good sleep hygiene habits and a relaxing bedtime routine can help you get the sleep your body needs. But on nights when stress and anxiety from your day threaten to keep you up at night, it helps to have tools to interrupt the body’s stress response. By adding relaxation techniques to your evening wind-down period, you can train your mind to release anxious thoughts and get into sleep mode. Rise recommends experimenting with these techniques to see which ones work for you:

  • Autogenic training is a technique that uses verbal commands to encourage deep relaxation through mental imagery. The goal is to make the body and mind respond to self-cues, but you can start with an autogenic training podcast that teaches you how to tell your body things like, “My legs are becoming warm and heavy.”
  • Progressive muscle relaxation helps prepare your body for sleep one area at a time. Starting from your toes and moving up the body, focus on tensing and then relaxing each muscle group before moving on to the next. Relaxing your tongue and jaw can be especially calming. According to neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., opening your mouth slightly and letting your tongue go limp sends a signal to your limbic system to turn off adrenaline and cortisol. Minimizing these stress hormones opens the door for the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and tell the body to rest and restore. 
  • Relaxing sounds from a white noise machine or other device can help induce feelings of calm and serenity. Experiment with different sounds — gently rolling ocean waves or a mountain breeze rustling the leaves of a tree — to find the ones that help put you at ease.
  • Breathing techniques that promote relaxation can be especially helpful at night because they help draw your focus away from your thoughts and onto your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing is a deep breathing technique designed to engage the diaphragm to lower heart rate and stabilize blood pressure. Another breathing technique that can be especially helpful at bedtime is 4-7-8 breathing. Based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, 4-7-8 is central to the work of University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine director Dr. Andrew Weil, who describes it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” When you control and elongate the exhalation of your breath, you send a signal to your brain that it is safe, that you are not in danger — which helps pull you out of fight-or-flight mode. Here’s how to do it: Empty the lungs of air and then inhale through your nose to the count of four. Hold the breath in for seven, and then exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth to the count of eight. Repeat four or five times or until you fall asleep.
  • Yoga encompasses conscious breathing and movement, both of which can help you calm down at the end of the day. Movement and yoga specifically have been shown to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that slows activity in the nervous system, calming stress and neutralizing associated negative feelings. Stress can inhibit GABA production, and low levels of GABA are linked to anxiety and poor sleep. So boosting GABA at bedtime may be enough to tamp down worries and help you sleep.

In the RISE app, you can add a nightly relaxation session to your habits and customize it with guides/recordings for autogenic training, relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation, and diaphragmatic breathing.

What to Do if You Wake Up During the Night

Through a combination of good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques, you managed to quell your anxious thoughts and finally drift off to sleep. So it can be especially frustrating when you wake up just a couple of hours later and have difficulty getting back to sleep. When this happens, try to avoid getting caught up replaying anxious thoughts by immediately launching back into your favorite relaxation technique.

You might start with 4-7-8 breathing or progressive muscle relaxation until you fall asleep. You can also add guided imagery to your tool kit. Visualizing something serene and pleasurable can help calm the mind and body.

If you still can’t fall asleep, don't stay in bed for too long. Instead, do a sleep reset. Also known as “stimulus control,” a sleep reset helps prevent your brain from forming — or strengthening — an association between your bed and wakefulness. To reset, get out of bed and do something relaxing (read a book or listen to soft music) while sitting up. When you start to feel sleepy, return to bed. Repeat as necessary. (The RISE app will guide you through a sleep reset, to prevent you from spending too much time tossing and turning and wondering why you can’t sleep.)

More Sleep, Less Anxiety

blue light app

By avoiding artificial lights and donning a pair of blue-light blocking glasses, it’s relatively easy to get past the most common obstacle to meeting your sleep need: nighttime light exposure. Eliminating anxiety and excessive mental stimulation in general are the second key to getting enough naturalistic sleep. It's important to do what you can to escape the vicious cycle of sleep loss and anxiety before it gets out of hand.

Diagnosing and treating crippling anxiety and anxiety disorders should be handled by a physician or other healthcare provider. But anyone can take steps to improve sleep hygiene and adopt relaxation techniques that make it easier to calm down and fall asleep.

And you don’t have to go it alone! The RISE app will help you track your progress toward lowering your sleep debt, set up reminders for sleep hygiene habits, and guide you through relaxation techniques to help you ease into dreamland. Because when it comes to having the energy you need to win the day, there is no substitute for sleep!

Sleep better. Sell more.

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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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