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What to do when the night-time anxiety monster comes calling...

by Hana Manthorpe from The Mental Movement

I suspect that many of you will know what I mean when I talk about ‘the night-time anxiety monster’. That feeling of utter dread and panic which comes between you and your precious sleep, all too often on a night when you need some good zzzzzz’s the most.

And there’s something particularly cruel about this flavour of anxiety because it has the superpower to turn run-of-the-mill worries into giant, hairy, heart-attack-inducing monsters – all because we’ve turned off the light and decided it’s time for sleep.

I had the pleasure of a recent visit from the night-time anxiety monster (who we’ll now fondly refer to as NTAM) and it was bad enough for me to want to get curious about what I/we can do to survive a night with a NTAM. So that we can return our brains, our hearts, our stomachs and our stress hormones to a normal level as quickly as possible.

The list below is a combination of tactics which I attempted to, and somewhat successfully, used through the course of my experience and ones which, with the beauty hindsight, I wish I’d had a go at.

N.B. I am writing this from the perspective of someone who, fortunately, does not suffer from a condition such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder – where worries are pervasive and persistent – if you are concerned about your level of worry (it feels out of control/excessive, on more days than not, for a prolonged period >6 months) then please discuss this with your GP.

The priority is sleep

There’s a limit to how much problem-solving you can do in the middle of the night. You can make plans but there’s rarely much opportunity to take action. So the #1 priority is doing whatever you need to do in order to calm your mind and body and allow sleep to happen.

If you’re wrestling with a real problem (see below) then you may have to accept that you’re going to need a bit of time to do some processing before your body’s calm enough for sleep.

The realness of the problem

Some NTAM’s grow from genuine and important issues that we’re currently wrestling with, whilst others are born from niggling worries which, with the announcement of bedtime, unconsciously evolve way out of proportion into a full-on mental obsession. Stop for a second and recognise which one you’re dealing with. If it’s the former then, like I said, there may be more work to do (read on) before you’re ready for some shut-eye. If it’s the latter, then it’s time for a sense check – acknowledge that this worry is not something which needs to be dealt with now and is not something that is more important than your sleep.

Get up

So, on the assumption that you’re now working with a real and significant NTAM here, my suggestion actually be to get up. According to all the sleep experts, it’s important that bed is associated with sleep and not with lying awake. So if you know that sleep isn’t happening any time soon then you’re better off getting up and trying again later when your body is in a more relaxed state.

Only work with what’s true

Make a list of things which are 100% true in this scenario and then identify the thoughts you’re having which are either definitely, or even just possibly, not true. Commit to only working with what’s true, discredit and mentally ditch the rest.

Plan your action

Work out what is the one tiny step that you’ll be able to take first thing in the morning that’ll make you feel that you’re moving in a positive direction and towards a resolution. Commit to taking this action and acknowledge that this is enough and that it’s all that’s possible right now.

Avoid catastrophising

Try to notice if you become tempted to follow the avalanche of thoughts that career towards the highly unlikely destination known as ‘worst-case scenario’. Keep your thoughts in the real world and within the realms of what’s probable.

Find a silver lining

If you can find a positive spin-off, an alternative perspective or some glimmer of amusing ridiculousness in this whole debacle, then grab it with both hands. It’s like kryptonite to the NTAM.

This too shall pass

Acknowledge the NTAM. Call it out. Say to yourself (or out loud if that won’t scare the bejesus out of whomever you share your bed with) “I see you Mr Monster. I know why you’re here. I know you’ve blown this out of proportion just because it’s night-time. I’ve done everything I want to do with this problem. It’s now time for you to bugger off because I intend to sleep. Thank you and goodbye.”. Know for certain that the problem will seem SO much less scary in the morning. And that within a few days or a few weeks this problem will be an old worry. Something that happened in the past and is now old news.

As always, my very favourite mantra comes in handy “This too shall pass”.

Breathe and feel

So you’ve now got your action plan, you’ve steered yourself away from any catastrophic/spreading thinking and you’ve reassured yourself that ‘this too shall pass’.

But, I’m not going to lie, sleep may still evade you. At this point, you’re ready for the very last stage of NTAM slaying – it’s time to wheel out the mindfulness exercises.

Here are two simple favourites of mine:

  • 4 x 4 breathing – focusing your attention on counting your breath. Inhale for the count of 4, exhale for the count of 4. (This would actually also be a great one to do when the monster first appears.)

  • Body scan – focusing your attention on physical sensations in your body. Think about each body part in turn (each of your toes, the top of your foot, the sole of your foot, your ankle etc etc) and notice how it feels, notice the sensation of that part of the body as it touches your duvet or the mattress.

  • Or if you’re a fan of a guided meditation then my favourite app is Insight Timer. And, in case you care, Tara Brach is my favourite teacher.

Final thoughts

My recent experience with the NTAM made me realise that I now have buckets loads of awareness and the ability, through practice, to remember to put myself in the role of the observer. And in doing that, I’m able to catch myself in the act and halt the runaway-thought-train before it drives itself off the cliff. Knowing that I have that skill means an awful lot to me. I hope that the NTAM doesn’t knock on my door again any time soon – he’s really not welcome. But if he does, I know that I now have the armour and the weapons to defend myself and the confidence to know that I can survive his night-time skulduggery.

I hope that you now feel the same.

I’m Hana. I’m a recovering overthinker and depression survivor. You can read my story on the LWL Launch Pad. I work as a Life & Mindset Coach to help women

improve their experience of life. I love talking to women whose lives look great on the outside but that’s not how they feel on the inside.

The next intake of my group programme, Minty Fresh Thinking, is now open for registration.

It’s a monthly online programme, run within a secret Facebook group and it’s perfect for people who are keen to explore the way that they think but who don’t currently want or need 1-1 coaching. We start on 1 June and you can book your place here.

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