When you have anxiety going to be can be the worst part of the day. When you want to fall asleep you have to lie still and be alone with your thoughts. And for someone with anxiety, your thoughts can get scary.
Sometimes anxiety thoughts are fairly innocuous, “did I leave my oven on?” every time you’re about to leave your home (regardless of whether you’ve actually recently used your oven). It’s not a big deal to go back and double check. But at night time, when you have nothing else to do but think your way into sleep these things can snowball. “I haven’t heard from Sam tonight” can turn into “I bet Sam is planning on breaking up with me.” There’s nothing to prevent you from taking each of the day’s worries and drawing them out to their worst possible conclusion.
I’ve noticed at one time or another all my friends who have anxiety have picked up some kind of habit that subconsciously allows them to bypass this period of time: weed, a few glass of wine at night, sleeping pills, or falling asleep watching TV every single night. I don’t have a set work schedule so I catch myself working very, very late at night until I’m uncontrollably tired and I know I’ll fall asleep as soon as I get into bed. Or I sleep with talk radio on all night so I have something else to occupy my thoughts.
When things are rough in my life or I feel unsettled about anything, I dread going to sleep. That old adage about never going to be angry — well, I have no choice but to follow it. I simply won’t be able to. Last year I wrote about what it felt like to have anxiety:
A sore muscle that you can’t place. Only, it’s not a muscle, it’s something internal that’s off–but you need to flex the bad feeling in order to remember what you did to hurt in the first place. Remembering that there is a pit in your stomach and going through the usual suspects: money, health, relationships until you find whatever it is that you’re currently worrying about.
When you identify the object of your misery, you can talk to yourself about it. You might even make a list of why you’re being ridiculous—your fears will never come to fruition—or if they do, what good is worrying about it? But anxiety feels like something you can’t stop, that’s the point. It doesn’t matter how much self talk you engage in, how unlikely your fear is, it keeps gnawing away at you despite all your efforts.
Trying to fall asleep at night means going through all of these steps, for each individual thing.
It’s a battle, something to be geared up for, something to actively work on. It’s something that can only be helped along by working on your anxiety, by learning little tools or tricks that don’t make it go away, but at least make you feel calm enough to stop obsessing. I’ve literally gotten out of bed and written an email, packed a lunch, cleaned my room — anything to feel more settled, to appease my brain, to allow it to let me relax.
It can feel like failure, like all the work you’ve done to improve your anxiety hasn’t amounted to much. But that’s not fair. Even people without anxiety have trouble being alone with their thoughts. It’s good to remind ourselves where we are at with our own battles, a good night of sleep being the carrot dangling in front of us, moving us towards the next thing that might help. But it is a nightly reality for those of us with anxiety, and it’s not fun to deal with.