Do you often find yourself lying awake worrying in the middle of the night?
There’s a wonderful poem, ‘Things’ by Fleur Adcock* which brilliantly captures something of what it’s like in the night when you can’t stop lying awake worrying.
‘There are worse things than…’ Adcock says, going on to list a few of the things preoccupying her mind as she lies awake worrying. She’s trying to reassure herself and put her worries in perspective.
And then, thud:
‘It is 5a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
And stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse’.
Does that feel familiar?
There’s something about that middle-of-the-night time that seems to magnify worries…
What seems manageable enough (or even possible to ignore ) in the daytime becomes this massive fear-inducing monolith, in the small hours of night.
In Old English there’s even a word for the worries that gather as you lie sleepless before dawn: “úht-cearu” (literally, “early-morning care”).
When you’re lying awake worrying in the night, you urgently want two things:
You want to calm down and not feel so anxious
You wanna get back to sleeeep!
So how can you help yourself to stop lying awake worrying? Let’s look at three areas:
(a) Advance preparation
(b) Things that can help when you’re actually there in bed, lying awake worrying
(c) What you can do if you decide to get out of bed for a bit
Now, I’ll break it down a bit further, and give you 28 actionable tips.28 ways you can stop lying awake worrying. #insomnia #anxiety #sleeptips Click To Tweet
Sleep experts all seem to agree on the same basic guidelines to help people who want to improve their sleep and minimise insomnia (you can read the 12 main tips in my previous post). So start by making sure you’re following those.
What if you’ve been following that advice, but you still can’t stop lying awake worrying?
Things to Do When You Are in Bed Lying Awake Worrying
Although the general advice for people that wake at night is to get up (see tips 19-28 below), that doesn’t suit everyone’s situation. And anyhow, sooner or later you will have to go back to bed and hope to fall asleep again. Here are some ideas that may help when you are in bed with insomnia, and you desperately want to stop lying awake worrying:
1. Write Down Your Worries
Keep a notepad and pencil by the bed. Jot the worries down and promise yourself you’ll attend to them at a stated time tomorrow (this only works if you do stick to your promise, though!)
Or (thinking ahead), at a time of day that’s not too close to bedtime, make a list of your main worries. You’re not trying to solve them; just park them for now. Then set a time for the next morning when you will review your list, think about it some more, and figure out some practical steps to take. Before bed, tell yourself something like, ‘I don’t have to think about this until 9am tomorrow’ (or whatever time you’ve set). Give your internal worry-machine permission to be off duty overnight. A related idea is to spend 5 minutes before bed writing a to-do list for the next day. One study showed that this helped with sleeping.
2. The ‘Park Bench’ Technique
Accepting that you are worried, anxious, fearful or whatever, can be helpful. You may wish the feeling wasn’t there, but it is. The Park Bench technique is designed to help you accept the difficult feeling, and be with it without being consumed by it. Visualise your fear/ anxiety/ worry as an object, shape, creature or character. Picture it. It doesn’t matter whether you envisage it as a blob, a monster, a big grey cube, or whatever. Now picture yourself sitting on a bench in a lovely, well-tended park. Picture your fear (in whatever shape, size or form you’ve imagined it) sitting nearby. Imagine what you can see if you look around. Is there a lake sparkling in the sun? Leafy trees? Flowers blooming? Children playing? A kindly, wise old person sitting nearby? Someone feeding the ducks? Can you hear birds? Smell the fresh grass? Make the visualisation as vivid as possible. Turn your attention back to the fear every now and then, as it sits there, and just allow it to be there, just as it is. Be aware of the sky above, the earth below, and the big, big, space beyond. Continue the visualisation as long as you like. The idea is that you are accepting that the anxiety is there, but you are also connecting with an awareness of something expansive and greater, a space that’s easily big enough to contain the anxiety.
3. Breathing and Subvocalising
Breathing slowly and deeply can be incredibly helpful for releasing insomnia, as it shifts your body into a calmer state. Some experts advise a 4-7-8 cycle (in through the nose for a count of four, hold for seven, and out through the mouth for eight). Others advocate a fairly continuous slow in-and-out cycle, with the out-breath a little longer than the in-breath. I don’t know which is best; you could try both and see which feels most calming. It can also help if you subvocalise (say in your head, silently) “saaaaaa” during the in-breath and “ohmmmm” during the out-breath. Long vowel sounds are calming to the nervous system, even if they’re just ‘heard’ inside your brain.
4. Listen to a Podcast or Audiobook
If you have a smartphone, you can download podcasts and audiobooks, ready to play at very low volume if you’re lying awake worrying. You can set the ‘sleep timer’ on the app, so that it doesn’t play on for the rest of the night. Podcasts are free, and if you don’t like one you aren’t stuck with it but can move on to another. Because you want to feel more peaceful and to fall asleep, you’re aiming for something that is calming, mildly absorbing but which you don’t find too dramatic, disturbing or stimulating. Here are some podcast and audiobook ideas to start you off:
- Something wordy and set in another time, e.g. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Jerome K. Jerome, or another classic
- Something with a spiritual perspective, e.g. Tara Brach, On Being, The RobCast, or The One You Feed (all podcasts)
- Something intended for children, e.g. Paddington Bear or Winnie-the-Pooh
- Nature or history podcasts from the BBC
- A long, dull story designed especially to make you sleepy (there are podcasts and apps which do just this!)
5. White Noise or Other Sleep App
There are apps available with ‘white noise’ or natural sounds such as waves breaking, the wind in the trees, etc. An app that many people find useful is called ‘Calm‘. It has guided meditations (with different lengths) specifically for anxiety, sleep, managing stress, etc. It also has something called sleep stories, which essentially is an audio bedtime story to help adults fall asleep. Other phone apps that have been recommended by other therapists include Insight Timer, Sleepio, Binaural Beats, CBT-i, and Atmosphere. (I haven’t tried any of these myself, but they could be worth looking into).
6. Picture Everyone You Know, Fast Asleep
You may find it very soothing to visualise everyone you know, one by one, lying in bed sleeping soundly. And thinking about how those people are probably doing that right now. (Although if this gets you more anxious because you’re comparing your wakeful self to ‘lucky them’, then you may need to try another approach!)
7. Body Scan Meditation
Lying on your back, slowly track your attention through your body, starting at your toes, noticing any and all sensations, aches & pains etc. Aim for an attitude of acceptance (‘this is how it is’) and avoid judging or labelling anything as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. You can read more about how to do a body scan here.
8. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This can be done as part of the body scan meditation. As you focus on each area of your body in turn, consciously tighten and squeeze, then release and repeat.
9. Cuddly Toy
Yes, even for adults! Holding a cuddly toy with gentle pressure against your heart area can actively help calm and settle your nervous system.
10. Guided Imagery
You can find guided imagery online, as MP3’s or downloads. Belleruth Naparstek has some good guided imagery resources.
11. Picture Your Favourite Place
Imagine your favourite (calm and relaxing) place (it could be a real place, or an imaginary one). Now deepen the experience by seeing if you can bring all your senses into it. As well as visuals, can you imagine the textures, sounds, smells, and tastes associated with this place?
12. Imagine Odd Combinations
This technique is inspired by the fact that the dreaming brain comes up with all sorts of bizarre combinations, for example where a person or animal is in a place they’d never normally be (like a goat in your kitchen), wearing something they’d never wear (your uncle George wearing a deep-sea diving suit), or doing something ridiculous or impossible (your cat dancing on the wings of a biplane). By deliberately going into a daydream-like state, and imagining odd combinations of things, you’re hooking into a pre-sleep state of mind. Or you could consciously construct a dream that you’d like to have. This could help you gently slide into sleep.
Many therapists swear by tapping (sometimes called ‘Emotional Freedom Technique’ or EFT tapping), although others aren’t convinced. Basically tapping involves stimulating parts of the body (often just face and chest) by tapping rhythmically with three fingers. Certain statements can be repeated whilst you tap. You can find tapping techniques for insomnia and anxiety online (for example, YouTube has many videos). If it works for you, go for it! Some people like to use an electronic wristband which provides bilateral pulsing stimulation (‘Touchpoints’ is one brand that has been recommended).
14. Connect to Something Greater
For some people, taking a spiritual approach can be deeply calming. You can pray or meditate in your own way, whether or not you follow a religious tradition. You might add to this by listening to audiobooks by spiritual teachers.
15. Try a Weighted Blanket
These are becoming quite popular. Originally developed to soothe people on the autism spectrum, weighted blankets are now being used by all sorts of people, particularly those who are highly sensitive (HSP), and those with anxiety. The idea is that these blankets do not make you hot (because being hot interferes with sleep) but the effect of their weight on the body calms the nervous system, a bit like a hug.
16. Get a Dodow
Dodow is a small device that you put beside your bed. When you want to fall asleep, you set it to beam a dim blue light on the ceiling, which expands and contracts. When the light beam gets bigger, you breathe in. When it gets smaller, you breathe out. That’s it! The idea is that it helps your parasympathetic nervous system (which calms you) to come online, by helping you regulate your breathing. It also gives you something to look at that you can focus on, a little like a meditation aid.
17. Essential Oils
The best essential oils for sleep include lavender, vetiver, Roman chamomile, and bergamot. Make sure you use certified therapeutic grade oils (the synthetic cheaper oils could do more harm than good) and either use a diffuser or sprinkle on something near your pillow.
18. Buy (or Borrow) a Nemuriale Heartbeat Toy
This is a small cuddly toy which has a battery inside powering a rhythmic ‘heartbeat’ which gradually slows down to the pace of a slow resting pulse. The idea is that your own heartbeat is ‘entrained’ to slow down too, which calms you. They’re designed for babies and young children, but some adults have reported finding them helpful too.
Get Up Instead of Lying Awake Worrying
Many sleep experts advise that when you wake in the night worrying, you should get up, go into another room, and do something. Then go back to bed a while later, when you start to feel sleepy. So what should you do when you get up? Here are some ideas:
19. Have a Hot Drink
You’ll have heard this one before, I’m sure. But for many people it can be genuinely helpful. Barleycup, Caro, Bambu, Ovaltine or weak hot chocolate are all good; or you could try a herbal tea such as chamomile, redbush or a ‘Sleepy Time’ type herbal infusion. Just make sure you avoid any drink containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea or raw cacao. Dark Tart Cherry Juice seems to be helpful for some people. I’m informed that different brands have varying levels of effectiveness, so it’s a good idea to do a bit of research before you buy.
20. Plunge Your Face in Really Cold Water
Apparently, plunging your face in a basin of cold water and holding it there (for a second or so) is meant to trigger the ‘mammalian dive reflex’ which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, calming the system. Personally, I don’t like this idea – it feels a bit too shocking and brutal for the middle of the night when you’re already feeling fragile – but I’m including it here, as some people say it helps them.
21. Learn a Poem
Learning a poem can be quite absorbing and can really divert your mind from your worries. Start with a short poem that you find soothing, calming or just pleasurable. A nonsense poem could be a good choice, too. And when you do get back into bed, you might find that repeating parts of the poem to yourself (in your mind) is something repetitious that can help you fall asleep.
22. Have an Epsom Salts Bath
Mix together 1-3 cups Epsom salts, I cup baking soda, and 3-6 drops of essential oils, and add to a warm bath. Soak. When you get out, the fall in body temperature will induce a sense of sleepiness. You can read more here.
23. Colour or Doodle
A gentle, undemanding and non-screen activity such as colouring or doodling whilst listening to music or a podcast, can be relaxing. If you’re a sensitive person, avoid listening to current affairs or news programmes on the radio or TV during the night, as these can add to your anxiety levels.
24. Refill your Hot Water Bottle
When you get back into bed, a hot water bottle against your feet can help induce sleepiness and a sense of comfort. Don’t hug it to your chest though; the aim is to divert heat away from your trunk and down to your extremities.
If possible, go into another room to read, so that when you return to bed it feels more of a cool and fresh place. Choose a printed book and not a screen; the blueish light that screens emit is thought to increase wakefulness.
26. Write to a Friend
Connecting to others is one of the main ways that humans were designed to regulate our emotions. Your friends may all be asleep right now, and wouldn’t be too thrilled if you phoned them and woke them up, but you can still write to them! This can give you some of the felt benefits of connecting with them, and remind you of your relationship. Alternatively, if there’s a friend in a different time zone who you know will be up, you could call or text them and make contact that way.
27. Plan a Strategy
Don’t try and solve your worries there and then, in the middle of the night! But it’s fine to plan your first step in starting to address things. For example you might plan that this week you will do one of the following (depending on what your situation is):
- Look for a therapist or counsellor who specialises in anxiety (or whatever issue you’re facing)
- Join a support group
- Talk to a financial advisor or another expert, depending on your problem
- Talk with your partner
- Start looking for another job…
…and so on.
Having a clear ‘Step 1’ in place may calm you enough to allow you to go back to bed and sleep.
28. Use Rhythm
Tapping your legs alternately in a constant rhythm, then gradually slowing it down, combined with slower breathing, can help entrain your body’s natural ‘frequency following response’ and help you fall asleep quickly, says TEDx speaker Jim Donovan. You can learn more at https://youtu.be/A5dE25ANU0k
29. Seek Online Support
As well as the ideas above, you might find support in-the-moment. I’m not generally a fan of going online during the night, as it can really inhibit sleep, but sometimes it could be really helpful.
For example, you might be a member of a supportive online forum that has members around the world, for many of whom it will be the middle of the day. Connecting with them can lessen that middle-of-the-night feeling.
You could also browse therapists’ websites, such as this one, and other websites aimed at helping you strengthen your resilience and general mental health. Examples are Greater Good, Good Therapy, Counsellor’s Cafe, Welldoing, LifeLabs, Psychology Today, Gretchen Schmelzer and so on.
Just remember there are things NOT to do online when you wake in the middle of the night. Looking up medical symptoms, connecting with people who bring you down or cause harm, gambling, and anything involving a credit card, are all a bad idea when you’ve been lying awake worrying in the night.
Night-time Worries May Be Enormous, Little, or Anything In-Between
Sometimes our middle-of-the-night worries will seem pretty insignificant in the clear light of day. And indeed, they may be. But sometimes, although they may appear insignificant, they are showing us that something still needs to be looked at, preferably in a safe, structured setting with a psychotherapist or counsellor. And sometimes, whatever way you look at them, they remain enormous challenges.
When Worries Are Existential
Some middle-of-the-night worries are about really big existential** stuff. Like death, sickness, war, natural disasters, social injustice, and environmental devastation. Things that there are no glib, easy answers to.
Maybe you’ll find that some of the ideas in the list above help you calm your worries down during the night, to enable you to sleep and function.
Then you’ll have more energy to mobilise during the day.
Because one of the best ways of dealing with the ‘big stuff’ (like saving our environment, or fighting cancer) is to join with others and DO something together, that in some way contributes to handling the problem.
And if, in conjunction with doing things, you can find a way to feel deeply supported in a more ‘inner’ way – such as through therapy, counselling, or a spiritual practice – you may find that you’re more able to sleep soundly.
Then you can forget you ever needed the tips in this article!
And make sure you read the companion post to this one, called ‘The Creative Person’s Guide to Getting Better Sleep‘.
Looking for a therapist or counsellor to help you process your nighttime (or daytime) worries, anxiety, overwhelm, stress and fears? I specialise in online therapy with thoughtful and sensitive women.
*‘Things’ from Adcock, F., Poems 1960-2000, Bloodaxe Books, 2000
**For a warm, readable discussion of existential issues, I recommend Yalom, I., (2008) Staring at the Sun, Jossey-Bass Publishing