I have been experiencing some pretty intense anxiety since last summer. I had never truly understood what people meant by “panic attack” until I found myself short of breath, chest tight and unable to sleep one night. While the past few months have demonstrated that my anxiety seems to be here to stay, I have learned to manage the most extreme symptoms via self-care. Specifically, reading and deep breathing have been really helpful in slowing my heart rate. And also, hugging (read: squeezing) my sweet dog Nitro to my chest.
However, recently I have had two episodes of insomnia related to my anxiety. Each case was different. The first night, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and was unable to return to sleep. I was bummed, but I didn’t fight it. I grabbed a book from my nightstand and began reading, hoping that I would drift back to sleep and wake up in a few hours to find the book lying on my chest. This wasn’t the case. At 6:30, I decided to give up on sleep and got up for the day.
But less than a week later, I was plagued by insomnia again. It was much worse. I was in bed reading by 9:00, in preparation for sleep. But I ended up watching the time pass from 9:00 until 3:30 in the morning. I finally dozed off at some point between 3:30 and 6, but I woke up panicked at 6:07 a.m. I text my best friend/neighbor and asked that he come over and let Nitro outside for me, as I was still in bed. He kindly did so, and upon completion came upstairs to my bedroom and said, “Rache, what’s up?” In response, I simply burst into tears.
Through violent sobs, I told him I had been up all night. I explained that I couldn’t lower my heart rate enough to sleep and that all night, I could feel my entire body pulsing. When he asked me what I was thinking about while trying to go to sleep, I didn’t have a response. Nothing. And I honestly can’t emphasize this enough to anyone out there who is trying to understand generalized anxiety. I don’t have an explanation. It is not as though I am troubled by one specific aspect or problem in my life. I’m not all consumed by a singular worry. I just know that for whatever reason, my chest feels perpetually heavy. As much as I dislike admitting it, it is like a fear of the unknown.
I am several weeks removed from these rough nights and I have been actively pursuing relief, sans expensive supplements and prescription medications. I am pleased to report I am making real progress! Here are three, free life-hacks to help alleviate anxiety-induced insomnia.
Despite the bitter cold and dreary weather, I spend as much time at the off-leash dog park as possible. I drudge through slushy wet hiking trails. I am filled with joy, watching my sweet animal happily explore the snowy terrain.
Exercise was already a central part of my life, but increasing it has proven beneficial. Shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Yes, even on work days. This may mean walking over your lunch hour, or getting a tread mill desk. (Bring a change of shoes if you don’t walk comfortably in your heels!) Personally, I walk during my lunch hour and then again in the evenings with Nitro. It’s worth it, whatever it takes. I am eager for springtime so that I can safely run outdoors. And of course, I make time for yoga classes. If your fitness watch is giving you anxiety, try turning your notifications off and only allow yourself to check your step count/heart rate after exercise sessions.
For me, being anxious means living in constant anticipation (fear?) of what is yet to come. I realized that I was more concerned with being prepared for “what’s next” than enjoying my life! Mundane, every day tasks can actually be quite enjoyable if we allow ourselves to live in the moment. Try showering in reverse order. Shave your neglected legs. Take your time moisturizing and dressing. Put on some of your favorite music and cook a nutritious meal. Take small bites and chew thoroughly. If you have a companion animal, really tune in the next time you touch them. Immerse yourself in the texture and smell of their fur. Modern life is insanely busy. Set an intention to be present. Allow yourself to fully experience the task at hand. Take your time and enjoy. We deserve it.
In the past I had always thought meditation was “thinking about nothing.” I have come to understand it’s more like the opposite of that. Let your mind take you where it needs to go. Personally, I like to meditate first thing in the morning. I like to keep my bedroom dark during meditation as it helps keep me from feeling distracted or rushed. I just set a timer on my phone, but if you find you need more structure there are countless free apps like “Calm” and “Headspace: Meditation & Sleep,” to name a couple. If you are intimidated, as I certainly was, start small. I started with 5 minutes a day. After a week I was feeling like I wanted more, so I increased it by a couple minutes. Let it be natural.
These changes have proven incredibly helpful. Like most things, the pursuit of alleviating anxiety is a process, not an end. But I haven’t had insomnia since that last night, so I aim to continue incorporating these practices into my life.
Have you ever had anxiety-induced insomnia? How did you find relief?
Photo: Samantha Gades via Unsplash and R. Coker