Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part II: ‘But My Anxiety Is Keeping Me Awake!’

insomnia and anxiety difficulty sleepingLast month I wrote about the importance of getting adequate sleep to alleviate anxiety, based on studies showing that sleep deprivation may actually be one of the primary contributors to anxiety problems.

Several people commented saying that their anxiety was the thing keeping them awake—if only they could fall asleep, maybe they could feel better. People end up in a vicious cycle between lack of sleep and feelings of anxiety: the more anxious they feel, the less they are able to sleep, and the less sleep they get, the worse their anxiety becomes.

If you want to learn to feel peaceful and calm and tame the occasional anxiety flare-up, there are two things you will need to do: learn breathing and grounding skills and use them daily, and change the underlying thinking habits you have developed.

More often than not, there are stress– and anxiety-inducing circumstances going on in your life which need to be addressed. The anxious feelings you have are driven by the whirling thoughts in your head; they didn’t just appear out of the blue one day.

Anxiety and the Future
Anxiety, when not induced by medical conditions or chemicals like medication, alcohol, or caffeine, is often driven by the racing thoughts in your mind. Even when you try to distract yourself from the thoughts, you are still paying attention to them. As you find yourself getting carried away by your racing thoughts, you are most likely breathing very shallowly or holding your breath, which makes the symptoms even worse.

The key is to break the cycle, to take attention away from the thoughts altogether. Anxious thoughts are all about the future: What if this happens? What if that doesn’t happen? What am I going to do? While it is wise to make plans and prepare for future events, worrying accomplishes nothing and is detrimental to your mental and physical health. The future doesn’t even exist, except as a thought in your head: it’s important to learn how to take your attention away from thoughts about the future and focus on what is going on at the present moment.

Breathing and Grounding Exercises
Focusing on your breathing is a great way to do this. The more deeply and fully you breathe, the better. Take full, slow breaths, inhaling and exhaling completely. People often don’t want to spend the time it takes to learn and practice their deep breathing and grounding skills. If they do remember to breathe, they take a few breaths, practice for maybe one or two minutes, and then give up. If you are going to learn to calm your body and your mind, you are going to have to practice, practice, practice. It will take two to four weeks of dedicated practice to get really good at these breathing and grounding exercises.

When you feel panic or a wave of anxiety starting, such as when you’re trying to sleep, immediately begin the deep breathing and focusing exercises, and keep them up for at least ten minutes: the longer, the better. It takes your body time to undo the damage from the chemical dump you put it through when the anxiety started. Your brain has a deeply ingrained habit of worrying and panic. That is why you must practice multiple times a day for several weeks. If you do, it really pays off. You can learn to calm yourself within minutes.

Grounding your energy is another way to quiet your mind and calm your body. There are many different ways to ground your energy,  all of which involve using breathing and your body, especially your legs and feet, to open up the flow of energy through your entire body. When you’re anxious, you tense the muscles in your body. You tighten your diaphragm in order to breathe shallowly or hold your breath. Your energy then gets trapped in the upper half of your body. Grounding helps open up your whole body again, allowing excess energy to travel all the way from your head down to your feet. Less energy in your head means less energy running those rampant thoughts.

A simple, basic grounding exercise is to stand with your feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. Flex your knees and exhale as much air as you can. Then inhale deeply while gently bending your knees as if you were getting ready to squat. As you exhale, gently straighten your knees again, lifting your body from the very bottoms of your feet. Imaging you are lifting your entire weight with the balls of your feet. Repeat this sequence for at least three or four minutes. Inhale as you lower your body, exhale while pushing yourself back up from the bottoms of your feet. You may feel your legs start to vibrate—this is good. It means more energy is being used by your legs and feet and less energy is being used in your head. The more you practice grounding your energy, the better your body gets at returning to a grounded, calmer state.

Dealing with Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts, Negative Beliefs, and Stressful Life Circumstances
The second part of learning to feel peaceful and calm is to understand that your body reacts to your thoughts. If you’re feeling anxious, then you triggered it by your thoughts. You have developed unconscious beliefs and thought patterns which induce anxiety and fear. You will need to spend some time uncovering your unconscious beliefs and thought patterns and replacing them with new, positive ones.

It usually takes the assistance of a good therapist to help you discover and change negative beliefs and thought habits. Negative, anxiety provoking beliefs and thought patterns are usually formed during early childhood, and a competent therapist can help you become aware them and change them. You probably also have current life circumstances which are causing you stress and anxiety. Your therapist can help you learn to cope with them, change them, if possible, or be at peace if it’s not possible to change the circumstances.

Many times people feel they need to solve their problems on their own, or that they should be able to manage their problems by themselves. Learning to change your thought patterns and unconscious beliefs is much easier with a therapist guide. It’s like finding your way out of a forest in the dark: you might be able to eventually find your way out on your own, but it’s much easier and quicker if you have a guide who knows the way and is willing to hold the flashlight for you!

© Copyright 2010 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC, therapist in Mckinney, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • eugine

    May 4th, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    although there is no single major issue n my life,I am very anxious about common things like academics and my relationship.although most others can cope with these common things quite easily,I feel very anxious.I have trouble sleeping and lay awake all night long.I thought of taking sleep-inducing pills but then decided against it.I shall now try and follow things mentioned in your post and the previous one and will hopefully see a therapist soon.Thanks a lot.

  • jena

    May 5th, 2010 at 2:38 AM

    I try really hard to deal with all of my anxieties during the waking hours so that they don’t haunt me at night when I would much prefer to be sleeping. Sometimes it hels sometimes not, but it is better to face them head on during the day when you can think somewhat straight instead of in the middle of the night when there is really nothing that you can do about anything except lay there and worry about it until morning.

  • Joey

    May 5th, 2010 at 5:35 AM

    I suffer from not being able to fall asleep in the night for no apparent reason and after reading this post yesterday,i observed and yes,I was not breathing too well when i was in my bed trying to fall asleep.I hope regulating my breathing and getting rid of the anxiety will give me some peace and good sleep

  • PAULA

    May 5th, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    I really cannot work properly if I have not had a good night’s sleep.Sleep is something of a recharge technique for me and I am able to put in extra efforts if I have had the right amount of sleep.

  • Janie

    July 15th, 2010 at 1:29 AM

    I have sleeping problems and suffering from depression in the last few months. My therapist gave me antidepressants, tranquilizer and sleep inducing pills and my conditions have been getting worse. I have never tried any breathing and grounding skills before. Now that I have read this article, I think I will try and let you know if it helps.

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