What Is Sleep Anxiety — And How Do You Deal?

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My first night home from the hospital, I slept for eight hours. I know this because it’s written in my baby book and my mom always talked about what a great sleeper I was. It wasn’t because I was a wonderful child sent from the heavens with wings, it’s because I need my sleep — lots of it.

Just the other night I was watching a movie with my teenage daughter and her eyes swung my way every few minutes to see if I was awake. She knows all too well her mama usually falls asleep on the sofa between eight and nine at night, no matter what’s happening around her, if she is relaxed and comfortable.

My boyfriend knows not to make plans for us unless they start before five and we can have the early bird special beforehand, because I turn into a pumpkin by the time the sun goes down.

I’m just one of those people who needs at least eight hours of sleep at night, but I prefer nine or ten. I can do seven hours a night for one night, but six hours or less literally makes me feel like I’ve been hit with a log several times across the head.

So when I know my sleep is going to be cut short because I have to get up early, I’ve gotten busy doing something and turn in later than usual, or I can’t fall asleep, I start to panic. I worry I won’t be able to function the next day. I think about when I’ll be able to take a nap. I know my mood will be horrific and I will feel hungover. I know the headache will start pounding as soon as the sun rises and my eyeballs will look like pissholes in the snow.

I start to get really anxious as soon as the clock hits 11:00 p.m. if I’m having trouble drifting into dreamland. This stressed state of mind never helps me fall asleep.

It was probably the worst a few months ago when I was trying to fall asleep but had a lot on my mind. Time was ticking away, and my melatonin, lavender, and relaxation techniques weren’t working. By the time the clock read 1:30 a.m., I was in sheer panic mode and I was more awake than I have ever been in my whole life. I didn’t sleep a wink that night and it took me days to recover.

It wasn’t until then that I realized I had sleep anxiety: I was so anxious about getting to sleep, I wasn’t able to fall asleep.

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States and affects over 40 million Americans. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it hard or impossible to fall asleep for an extended period of time, and it affects three million Americans. But sleep anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety, says Alexander Obolsky, MD in an article for WebMD.

Basically what happens is you get so anxious about not getting enough sleep, your brain isn’t able to shut off and let you fall asleep.

Another reason why some people may suffer from sleep anxiety is that they have nightmares. Of course you don’t want to fall asleep if you are having scary or troubling dreams every night.

If you suffer from sleep anxiety, what can you do about it? Teen Vogue says Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, “a type of therapy that focuses on challenging disruptive, anxious thinking through behavioral changes and a realigned thought process,” can be very effective in alleviating sleep anxiety.

Something else to remember is to not put so much thought into falling asleep and realize it is okay to go with less sleep — especially if you are healthy. This is something I’m so guilty of, and as I’ve said, lying awake worrying has never made me feel tired. It does the exact opposite — until the next day, that is.

If you are starting to get anxious about getting your Zs, plan something fun that you love for the next day. This way, Teen Vogue says, you won’t have these dreadful feelings attached to the day after a bad night’s sleep. It doesn’t have to be anything grand — get yourself your favorite ice cream, or buy those earrings you’ve been wanting. Just something to look forward to instead of telling yourself that the next day is going to be awful.

One of the best pieces of advice I got from my doctor is to get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep. She said to go walk around the kitchen, read a book on the sofa, or do something you find relaxing and soothing instead of lying in your bed counting down the minutes of sleep that you aren’t getting.

For me, that has worked the best, and I’ve realized if I don’t get all the sleep I think I will need, the world doesn’t fall apart the next day.

Not getting enough sleep can take its toll on you, but lying in bed worrying about it won’t help you at all — take it from someone who has had her share of sleep anxiety. If you’re struggling, try these tips and hopefully they will help you like they’ve helped me. We could all use one less thing to be anxious about, right?

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