8 Genius Sleep Ideas That Mental Health Pros Give Their Most Anxious Patients

published Jul 26, 2021
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Young woman sleeping peacefully on her bed at home.
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The Healthy Home Issue is an Apartment Therapy package dedicated to wellness where you live. We spoke with therapists, medical doctors, fitness experts, and more to put together a slew of health-focused tips and resources — find more feel-great insights here. 

Anxiety can impact every aspect of your life. It can affect how you manage from day to day — and night to night. Because, of course, anxiety can also alter how you sleep. Little Rock, Arkansas-based psychiatrist Rhonda Mattox, M.D., compares anxiety before bed to the boogeyman. “It’s just an object or garment that [a person’s] brain has magnified and made scary,” she says. 

The good news is you don’t just have to suffer through insomnia, which can worsen your anxiety, since lack of sleep can negatively impact your mood and cause a nasty cycle. We asked mental health pros for the tips they give their most anxious patients in order to help them finally get some restful ZZZs. 

Of course, if you’re experiencing anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue, you can also speak with your primary care provider and/or mental health practitioner about other options, from talk therapy to medication. 

Credit: Sandra Regalado

First, Create a Sleep Routine

Your circadian rhythm describes the physiological and mental functions that follow a 24-hour cycle and helps to regulate hormone releases, eating habits, and body temperature. If your biological clock is on the fritz, practicing good sleep hygiene, or sleep habits, and creating a steady bedtime plan can help, says New Jersey-based psychologist Xiaolu Jiang, Psy.D. “If you don’t have a routine, it throws our circadian rhythm off,” she says. Here’s what that routine could look like. 

Keep Times Consistent

First and foremost: “Stick to a consistent bedtime and wake time,” recommends Dr. Jiang. Yep, just like when you were a kid. And “even if you don’t fall asleep until much later, still wake up at the same time,” Dr. Jiang says. 

Only Use Your Bed for Sleep (Seriously!) 

Especially during the past year of work-from-home, play-from-home, exercise-from-home, do-everything-from-home, you may have developed a habit of phone scrolling or even working from bed. You may have done it for comfort, because your bed is way cozier than your kitchen island, or you may have done it out of necessity, because your partner was on conference calls in the living room. But, yeah, it’s time to quit that. “It is also helpful when you use your sleep space only for sleep or relaxing activities,” says Brooklyn-based licensed mental health counselor Lawrence Lovell

Introduce — and Maintain — Some Bedtime Rituals

Community health psychologist Jameta Barlow, Ph.D., of Washington, D.C., shares her own routine with her group therapy clients. “I spray lavender on my pillows each evening for a peaceful, restful sleep,” says Dr. Barlow, who also keeps a lavender plant in her bedroom and showers and drinks chamomile tea before heading to bed. “In short,” she says, “rituals help.”

Doing a restorative nightly yoga flow could be part of that. Meditation could prove beneficial, as well. If you want to give the latter a go, Manoj Dias, the cofounder of the meditation platform Open and a breathwork instructor, recommends finding a comfortable spot on a chair, cushion, or couch; taking deep breaths and noticing your breath leaving your body; asking yourself, “Where am I feeling disconnected in my life? Where do I want to feel more connected?”; and then just allowing yourself to feel, letting those answers arise intuitively without questioning or judging them. 

Still Can’t Fall Asleep? Try These Tricks

Even if you’ve done all of the above, there will still be times when you just can’t stop your mind from racing while you’re lying horizontally in the dark. It sucks. But luckily, experts also have some secrets for dealing with that. 

Stock Your Nightstand with a Notepad

If your mind keeps adding to your mental to-do list even while you’re trying to turn it off and get some ZZZs, your best bet isn’t to ignore those racing thoughts. “Keep a notepad next to the bed, and jot everything down,” suggests Dr. Jiang. That way, you’re making a plan to address what’s bothering you in the morning, since there’s likely nothing you can do at 11 p.m. anyway!

Dr. Mattox says this brain dump strategy also works if it’s more ruminations than a to-do list keeping you up. “Jot down the matters of your heart or whatever is weighing you down most heavily,” she says. “Then you decide what to do with it: Rip it up. Tuck it away until you are rested. … Just leave it there and never return to examine it.”

Go Somewhere Peaceful — in Your Head

Want to distract your mind to help the snoozes come? First, the bad news: Dr. Mattox says that counting sheep is likely a myth that “may actually contribute to longer times to get to sleep.” Womp, womp. So instead, she encourages clients to imagine themselves in tranquil scenes, like near a waterfall or at the beach. 

Ground Yourself in Your Room

On the flip side, you can also slow your mind down and practice mindfulness by actively noting your sleep environment, says Dr. Jiang. “Instead of focusing on the anxious thoughts, notice your pillow, notice the darkness of the room, notice your sheets and blankets,” she says. “What do they feel like? Are they cool? Hot? Heavy? Light?”

Breathe Extra Deeply

There’s a reason we’re told to take a deep breath when we’re feeling especially tense: “Deep breathing tends to activate your parasympathetic system and signal to your anxious part of your body that you’re safe,” Dr. Mattox says. 

If you want to take the deep breath concept to bed, Dr. Mattox recommends what she calls progressive relaxation and breathing imagery visualization exercises. “For me, this pairs breathwork with guided imagery to redirect my mind and relax my body,” she explains. 

To try it, lie on your bed with your eyes closed, Dr. Mattox says, and “think about it with this script: Imagine the path that your breath takes [within your body] with attention to how your body feels. Then picture the air you’re breathing out being the vehicle used to wash out fear, anxiety, and tension. Exhale. While breathing out, imagine the stress of the day leaving you. Imagine the air that you are breathing in as a ray of sunshine bursting through a cloudy day or refreshing, rhythmic waves of calmness.” Start out by practicing this for five to 10 minutes, then work your way up to longer.

Get Out of Bed

If all of the above fails, Dr. Jiang says that staying in bed may not be helpful. “If you are wide awake, get out of bed and do something boring not involving screens,” she says, meaning “not watching an exciting movie or reading a murder mystery.” Keep the lights low, too, so that you don’t wind yourself up too much. 

One idea for what your activity could be, courtesy of Dr. Mattox: decluttering. “A clutter-free, organized space can help decrease anxiety,” she says, so “get up, have a glass of milk, and declutter for five to 10 minutes, or do something else that leads to organization until you get sleepy.” 

Apartment Therapy’s Healthy Home Issue was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy editorial team and generously underwritten by Dyson.