What came first: the anxiety or the difficulty sleeping? If you’ve been suffering with nighttime anxiety and interrupted sleep, it can be difficult to tell which started first. What is known is that anxiety is one of the most common reasons for sleep disturbances, and that sleep and anxiety have mutual causality (which means they impact one another). Poor sleep can result in lower cognitive functioning, lower motor functioning, lower frustration tolerance, along with health issues such as obesity, reduced immune system function, and lower sex drive. Long term sleep deprivation can also lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke. I think it’s safe to say, if you are having difficulty sleeping it is very important that you address it right away.
Military life can be stressful and can cause anxiety which can impact your sleep. The good news is, anxiety and sleep disturbances are treatable!
Here are some SMART tips for calming anxiety and improving sleep.
SMART IS AN ACRONYM
The S stands for Structure your environment. Structuring your sleep environment is all about creating a sleep routine and setting the stage (your bedroom) for optimal sleep success. This is often referred to as having good sleep hygiene. Creating a sleep routine (and sticking to it) is easier said than done. However, it is one of the first methods most professionals will recommend. A sleep routine should be between thirty to sixty minutes and consistent. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and can include sipping warm tea, reading, taking a bath, journaling, or listening to relaxing music while washing your face and brushing your teeth. Your bedroom should be comfortable and void of distractions.
The M stands for Movement. Multiple studies show exercise improves sleep quality and decreases anxiety. In fact, solid evidence shows exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly. You could choose low impact stretching or yoga right before bed or try at least thirty minutes of aerobic activity at least one or two hours before bedtime. If you are experiencing overwhelming anxiety you could also try the 3:3:3 method. This is a simple tool for emotional grounding. It focuses on sight, sound, and movement. Look around the room and identify three physical objects and name them. Focus on the details of the objects. Then listen and identify three sounds. Name them and focus on the details such as pitch or cadence. Then move three parts of your body. You could wiggle your toes, tap your fingers, or shake your head side to side.
The A stands for Avoiding. Here is a list of things you should avoid in order to set yourself up for sleep success:
- Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and possibly caffeine up to four hours before bed. A study by Florida Atlantic University and Harvard Medical School showed that drinking alcohol or consuming nicotine significantly impacted quality of sleep. No such correlation was found with those in the study who consumed caffeine before bed, however the researchers added that individuals who have a sensitivity to caffeine should also avoid caffeine. While this study focused on the impacts of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine with sleep, many other studies do show a direct negative relationship with alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine with anxiety.
- Avoid napping throughout the day but if you must, limit the nap to twenty to thirty minutes. Setting an alarm during your nap is an effective way to not oversleep.
- Avoid screens one to two hours before bed. Many people have created the pattern of falling asleep with the television on. This could have started as a distraction technique to keep their mind focused on something other than their racing thoughts. This is only treating a symptom and not the cause. For better, more restful sleep, focus on treating the racing thoughts instead of avoiding them.
- Avoid hard conversations before bedtime. Increasing your emotions is the last thing you need for a calm night’s rest. Unresolved issues can increase anxiety; however, those conversations will go better after you sleep on it.
The R stands for Relaxation. An anxious mind is the opposite of a relaxed mind. One of the best methods for relaxing an anxious mind is through mindfulness practices. The essence of mindfulness is being in the moment with full awareness to the task at hand. This means focusing on what you tell your mind to focus on. This is extremely difficult for those who have anxious or intrusive thoughts. It takes practice, practice, and more practice to become effective at controlling your thoughts. Try listening to a guided meditation, doing a breathing exercise, or practicing a contemporary form of meditation based on yoga techniques called IRest.
The T stands for Talk to a professional. An occasional night or two having difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night isn’t a cause for concern. It is normal to have a hard time sleeping before a job interview, starting a vacation, or during a crisis in the family. If this is regularly occurring however, or if you are constantly feeling fatigued after a night’s sleep, it is important to talk to your doctor. Don’t wait. Your doctor may discuss techniques like the ones I’ve just discussed, they may recommend a sleep study, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), or possibly medication support. It is important to remember that your doctor is a resource. They are there to offer professional opinions and advice, but ultimately you are the decision maker. The best decisions you can make are informed decisions.
Richelle is a Marine Corps Veteran and military spouse. As a mental health counselor, she has eighteen years of clinical experience working with government agencies as well as in private practice. She is the founder of Her Ruck and creator of the workbook and workshop, Unpacking Your Emotional Ruck, which has provided opportunities to serve military and first responder families worldwide. Learn more at her website.