Experiencing nighttime anxiety? This is how to cope

Science and Health

If you find yourself tossing and turning in bed at the end of the day, unable to calm your mind enough to fall asleep, you’re not alone. Turning your brain off can be challenging as you replay every second of your interactions, conversations, or actions from that day. 

While anxiety is a normal human emotion, it can disrupt your daily and nightly life, leaving you more stressed and poorly rested. Treating your nighttime anxiety is important to get good quality sleep and be your best self.

What is nighttime anxiety?

Nighttime anxiety is defined as the feeling of unease, worry, or fear that occurs at night. It is sometimes confused with insomnia, but it is important to note these are two different issues. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, whereas nighttime anxiety is the anxious feeling felt at night.

Nighttime anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways, but here are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Nervousness or restlessness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Palpitations
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Worry about not being able to fall asleep
Illustrative image of a person sleeping. (credit: PIXABAY)

This list is not exhaustive, and their frequency and severity can vary.

What causes nighttime anxiety?

Your days are chock full of people, places, and things, and your mind is constantly distracted. Fully processing the day can be difficult with such a busy life, leaving your mind to race and wander as your body quiets for the evening. You may find yourself replaying the day’s events in your mind, or find yourself worrying about events in the future.

Daytime thoughts, stresses, and interactions can contribute to nighttime anxiety, but there are many other reasons you may feel anxious at night. Other common causes of nighttime include anxiety disorders, a history of trauma or abuse, depression, certain medications, and high-stress levels due to work, school, or family life. 

Quality sleep is important. Without it, we may feel anxious during the day, unable to concentrate, and tired or irritable. It can leave us feeling hopeless, but take heart–there are things you can do to ease your symptoms. 

How to reduce nighttime anxiety

Nighttime anxiety can be unsettling and may take a toll on your mental health. When anxiety is present, there are several ways to navigate it and reduce it:

Take a walk

Gently moving our bodies by getting out of bed can help us relax. Make a warm beverage (caffeine-free, of course!), keep the lights low, and take a stroll around your home until you feel calm. You might notice this helps with younger children as well. Whether you’re trying to put your own children or your grandchildren to sleep, walking around the house with them while they’re anxious can help them go to sleep easier.

Write it down

Journaling before bed can help take your racing thoughts and solidify them on paper. As you write, you can release those thoughts for the evening, knowing that you can tackle whatever is making you anxious when you wake.

Think of something fun

When you’re struggling to sleep, thinking about something fun or something that brings you joy can help calm your mind. Once you think of something, focus your mind on it. Even if it’s a dream that you don’t think will happen, simply picturing it in your mind can help you relax. 

Grounding exercise

If you feel yourself nearing a panic attack because of the anxiousness you feel, take some deep breaths and try a grounding exercise–exhales should be long and slow, inhales should be short. Do this by engaging your senses. Find five things that you can touch, four things you can see, three things you can hear, smell two things, and finally, taste one thing. This activity doesn’t require a lot of thought or energy but allows your thoughts and body to calm down.

Sensory distractions

What happens if you’ve tried all these tips and find yourself experiencing a nighttime anxiety attack? Distract yourself and remember that all feelings pass at some point. A distracting sensory experience is a great way to “shock” yourself back to the right headspace. 

Do so by reaching for something warm, such as a washcloth with warm water, to touch your face, neck, and behind the ears. Alternatively, you could use aromatherapy to bring yourself out of the anxiety attack (even a pungent onion could do the trick).

Practice deep breathing

Deep breathing can have a profound impact on reducing feelings of anxiousness. Breathe in as you normally would and exhale for as long as you can to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Focus on breathing through your nose, and then slowly releasing the breath through your mouth. Breath-regulating activities are very effective in reducing adrenalin levels and calming the nervous system.

Soothe your nighttime anxiety

Nighttime anxiety can cause a major disruption in your life, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If nothing seems to help your nighttime anxiety, schedule a meeting with your physician or therapist, who can help you navigate any underlying concerns

Working with a professional to manage your nighttime anxiety is an effective way to quickly get to the root of your nighttime anxiety–discover our sleep course here. At Bloom, we offer more than behavioral therapy and do more than treat symptoms: we support families & children everywhere, providing unique resources to meet you at your point of need. Join our community.

Miriam (Manela) Frankel OTR/L TC is a mental health occupational therapist, founder of the online platform ChildrenBloom.com, and The Thrive Group, with offices in New York and New Jersey. ChildrenBloom.com provides toolkits for parents and educators to deal with struggling children. Miriam is the author of The Parent-Child Dance and an international speaker.