It happened for a string of nights in a row. I woke up hours before my alarm, my thoughts already attached to an anxious worry. For a couple nights, it was a particular deadline. I am definitely going to miss it. How will I explain myself? What more can I do? Then, I started waking up anxious about a trip home. What if I give my parents COVID? Do I have time to get a test? Should I push the visit back?
I tried to relax back into my REM cycle, but the best I could do was to sink into an unsatisfying half-sleep. The frustrating thing was, when I woke up properly, I could see the anxious thoughts that had been making me feel sick were illusory. I would meet the deadline — but even if I didn’t, it wasn’t a big deal. I’d been quarantining for two weeks and planned to get a test before seeing them; I probably wouldn’t give my parents COVID. But once one worry was sorted out (I met the deadline), another one smoothly took its place (is that a new mole?).
“It’s important to understand that the anxiety that a person is experiencing in their sleeping state is usually some of the unresolved anxiety that they’re experiencing in their wake state,” says Mariel Buquè, PhD, a therapist and professor at Columbia University. When you’re anxious or coping with unresolved feelings throughout the day, you carry that into your sleep. “Your body’s ability to engage in relaxation is going to be compromised,” she says. “You’ll experience a heightened state of arousal while you’re sleeping.” If it’s intense enough, she continues, it’ll wake you up in the middle of the night or the early morning with your thoughts racing and your body tense. It could also give you night terrors or leave you feeling exhausted when you wake up.
When I ask Dr. Buquè why my thoughts seem to run away from me during these episodes, transforming very minor concerns into legitimate-seeming fears, she says, “Your mind is involved in a lot of creative thinking around that time. During sleep, the memory centers of the mind are consolidating info, compartmentalizing it into long-term memories and generally making meaning of it all. That’s part of the reason the mind might be on overdrive.”
If your daily stress levels are causing you to wake up anxious, there are things you can do to prevent it from happening before you fall asleep, Buquè says. She breaks down her most useful tips, ahead.
Create a truly luxe relaxation routine
So often we think of “sleep hygiene” as a chore, but in truth, your pre-bedtime routine should be something you love and look forward to — it should also be relaxing. A routine I could fall in love with would look like this: a just-baked cookie (I keep dough in my fridge at all times), a warm shower, a stupidly elaborate skin-care routine (facial gua sha optional), a fresh pair of incredibly comfy PJs, capped off by slipping between the sheets, lighting my favorite candle, and reading a few pages of a fun book.
Yours might look different, and that’s fine. The key is to get yourself “to the best point of relaxation that you can be in,” Dr. Buquè says.
You don’t have to meditate
To tell you the truth, I do meditate most days — but even so, I hate when experts tell me to do it. It just feels like so much pressure, and I never know if I’m doing it right. That’s why I cheered (silently, so she didn’t think I was weird) when Dr. Buquè told me that you don’t have to meditate to melt away the stress that’s keeping you up at night. Instead, she suggests listening to meditative music while you’re doing your relaxing routine. Genius, yes?
Specifically, she likes binaural beats. These are songs that play a different frequency of sound in each ear (so you have to listen to them through earphones) to essentially trick your brain into producing relaxing brainwaves. “Last night I listened to that for 30 minutes prior to going to sleep. Everything I was doing had binaural beats in the background: I drank my calming tea and I ended up going to sleep about 20 minutes earlier than I’d planned because I was so relaxed,” Dr. Buquè says.
If you’re going to try it out, she encourages you to experiment with different tracks to find one that works for you. “There are a ton of binaural beats on YouTube. Some I find don’t really vibe with me; I don’t like the tunes or the instruments,” she says. “It took me almost a year, but I found my one that I love.” (You can sample her fave here.)
Avoid these three sleep ruiners
The big three: news, alcohol, and caffeine. Huma Attari, MD, a psychiatrist at UC Davis, says these things can all significantly reduce the quality of your sleep — though many people don’t realize they’re to blame. Anything that disrupts your zs can worsen your anxiety, Dr. Attari says. “It’s really a vicious cycle. Anxiety is known to cause sleep disturbances, but not sleeping will also worsen anxiety. Then, a person may feel anxious that they’re not sleeping, or anxious about the fact that they’re waking up feeling stressed out early in the morning – they’re worrying about the worry.”
So, stop watching the news or scrolling through Twitter at least an hour before bed. Trust that if something earth-shattering happens, you’ll find out one way or another. Everything else can wait until morning.
Same with alcohol. “If people are drinking more to fall asleep, that will backfire,” Dr. Attari says, citing a CDC study from August. You may fall asleep faster, but alcohol ultimately worsens sleep quality. A glass of wine or a beer with dinner or shortly after is probably fine, though if you’re already having trouble sleeping, you may want to experiment with going a few nights without.
As for caffeine, you may be thinking duh. But people don’t realize that even drinking coffee or tea as much as six hours before bed — around 5 p.m., if you hit the hay at 11 p.m. — can affect your sleep that night. Try to switch to decaf by 2 p.m. or so to play it safe. Oh, and watch out for sneaky sources of caffeine too — including chocolate, which contains a not-insignificant nine (for milk) to 12 (dark) milligrams of caffeine per ounce.
Experiment with relaxing therapies
Dr. Buquè likes acupuncture, and though more research is needed to confirm that the technique can treat insomnia, a review of 46 trials involving over 3,800 patients indicates it does. Personally, I love lying on an acupressure mat, which looks like a yoga mat studded with plastic spikes, meant to stimulate your acupressure points to relieve stress and muscle aches, for a few minutes before bed.
Dr. Buquè acknowledges that these treatments can get pricey, so she also suggests playing around with sleep-promoting activities, products, and therapies that may seem a little out there, but that fit your budget. Progressive muscle relaxation, for instance, where you lie down and methodically relax your muscles, one body part at a time, can be super-helpful. So can different tea blends or supplements (but proceed with caution and talk to your doctor before trying something new).
Seek professional help
Dr. Attari says that if waking up anxious is disrupting your life, it’s worth seeking out some extra help. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological intervention that focuses on spotting, challenging, and shifting unhelpful behaviors and patterns, is proven to help resolve sleep issues, often very quickly, according to Stanford Healthcare.
You can find a therapist who’s trained in the technique. But you can also try it out solo, too. “There’s a free app from the US Department of Veteran Affairs that I tell a lot of patients to use, and people find it very helpful,” Dr. Attari says. It teaches you about sleep, and provides a structured way to adopt strategies that are proven to improve your zs. It may feel like a serious step — but if you’re really having trouble shaking off your early-morning anxiety, it might be worth it.
What ultimately helped me was identifying what was causing me stress during the day (a mix of a few things, really), making a concerted effort to unwind my anxiety around those topics (in part by using tips I picked up from Oprah’s podcast, to be honest), and — yes — leaning into a OTT bedtime routine that had my eyes fluttering shut within minutes of my head hitting the pillow. It’s not perfect (I still scroll through TikTok before turning off the lights), but it feels do-able. Most importantly, it works. Now my first thought upon waking up is more likely to be about coffee than my to-do list — and I couldn’t be more grateful.