5 Tips For Sleeping When You're Anxious About The Next Day

How many times have you tried to get a good night's sleep before a big day, only to find yourself still lying awake at 2 a.m.? Maybe you're trying to wake up bright and early to get ready for an important work presentation or a brunch date, but no matter what you do, you can't seem to drift off.

Often, this is because your brain is too busy churning with anticipation and nerves. Anxiety always seems to crop up at the worst possible moment, which is bad news for your sleep cycle, because anxiety is one of the key factors behind insomnia (via WebMD). And unfortunately, stress has been running rampant in recent years. As reported by the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression soared by more than 25% worldwide in 2020. In fact, anxiety is considered the most widespread mental health disorder in the U.S. (via Cleveland Clinic).

"My general advice is 'don't force it' because that worry about getting those zzz's will begin to ruminate in your mind, making matters worse," Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an associate professor of clinical medicine, tells CNN. "The reality is that often the harder we try to relax and transition into sleep, the more we worry that we're losing precious sleep time, making the elusive 'good night's sleep' more difficult to obtain." But if you can't outright force your brain to quiet down and let you rest, what steps can you take to soothe anxiety and slip off into peaceful sleep?

Limit caffeine and sugar before bed

It probably comes as no surprise that consuming a load of sugar and caffeine has the potential to disrupt your sleep. But you may not realize how long these substances can affect you. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reveals that coffee can impact your system for a full six hours, so if you're anxious and hoping for a good rest, limiting yourself to "No coffee after dinner" probably won't be enough to help your body wind down. Rather, experts suggest avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and evening — meaning, pretty much anytime after 2 or 3 p.m. (via CNBC). So even if you're combatting your afternoon slump, don't give into coffee's siren call, or you may regret it come bedtime.

By the same token, you may want to skip dessert the night before an important event. When you're already feeling anxious about something tomorrow, adding in a bedtime sugar rush won't help matters. Another study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reports that high sugar intake is associated with less restorative sleep — exactly the opposite of what you need before facing a high-pressure day. So if you're hoping to tame anxiety and get plenty of rest, try limiting your caffeine and sugar well in advance.

Skip the nightcap

When you're feeling anxious, it can seem tempting to reach for a stiff drink — especially since there's a common misconception that a nightcap before bed can help you nod off. As a depressant, it's true that alcohol can have a sedative effect on your brain. But the quality of that sleep is negatively impacted, growing worse the more you drink. According to SleepFoundation.org, low amounts of alcohol can decrease your sleep quality by 9.3%, moderate alcohol intake decreases sleep quality by 24%, and high alcohol levels decrease sleep quality by a whopping 39.2%.

Think of it this way: alcohol isn't really helping you sleep so much as it's helping you pass out. So it likely won't deliver the quality of rest you were hoping for. Instead, try skipping the nightcap for a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea or tart cherry juice — which naturally contains melatonin and, according to a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food, may help ease insomnia.

Turn down the lights and put a stop to screen time

If anxiety is keeping you up at night, you may need to try a few physical tricks to lull your body into a more relaxed state. One of the easiest and most impactful methods is to lower your light exposure in the hour before you head to bed. Not only can this set the mood for your subconscious, but low light levels make it easier for your body to produce melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle (via Harvard Health Publishing).

During this time, it's also crucial to avoid sources of blue light — a.k.a., backlit screens like your cellphone, tablet, laptop, or TV. Blue light essentially tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it's daylight and time for wakefulness, disrupting your melatonin production and natural sleep cycle (via Scientific American). So put that phone on Do Not Disturb and leave it to charge unchecked. As a bonus, putting aside mobile devices before bed will discourage you from scrolling endlessly, eliminating another source of unproductive stress.

Embrace your inner bookworm

No joke, reading before bed can be key to a good night's sleep. Many of us enjoy curling up with a good book, and it turns out that this pastime can also help our minds unwind for a full night's rest. Specifically, it may help decrease insomnia-inducing stimulation in your brain, promote longer sleep duration, and increase overall sleep quality (via Healthline). Why? In addition to reducing stress, reading a good story can distract your thoughts from personal problems or anxieties about tomorrow.

Of course, it's important to note that this reading tip only applies to physical books and e-readers that aren't backlit with blue light. As we explained above, backlit e-readers or reading apps that do use blue light are prone to disrupt your sleep cycles. So unless you're rocking a blue-light-free device, look for a good old-fashioned book or magazine. This should help your brain slow down and get to sleep — as long as you stop promising yourself one more chapter.

Try meditation or breathing exercises

Once you've retired to bed, what if sleep is still elusive? Should you turn to the old standard of counting sheep? While a study in Behaviour Research and Therapy debunked this method of relaxation, there is something to be said for mindful focus at bedtime. But rather than keeping your brain active by counting, consider using meditation or breathing exercises to help lull yourself to sleep.

Meditation has been shown to lower your heart rate and slow your breathing, which sets the stage for deeper rest (via Headspace). And if you practice meditations with an element of visualization, focusing on a relaxing scene can keep your mind from falling down a rabbit hole of anxieties. Similarly, breathing exercises give your thoughts something to focus on while intentionally calming your physical body into a better state for sleep. So the next time you're stressing about tomorrow and can't seem to drift off, give your mind a healthy distraction.