How to stop worrying in the middle of the night

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about things you need to do, about your job, about life, the universe and everything? If that never ever happens to you, what can I say… lucky you! But if you tend to have an overactive brain prone to worrying and anxiety, the wakings might be quite regular.

What can you do when you’re wide awake at dawn-o’clock and would very much like to go back to sleep, thank you? Of course, presuming you don’t have to, say, deliver a report you completely forgot about at 8 am the following morning. Here are some things you can do – try them out the next time you’re staring at the ceiling in the dark, waiting for the alarm!

    1. Write it down – Your brain tends to worry about any “open loops” you might have: unfinished projects, unfulfilled commitments (to yourself or others), things left waiting, decisions you’re still mulling on… The best scenario would be to close the open loops, but it’s unrealistic to expect that’s going to happen in the wee hours of the night. Instead, write down everything. This helps your brain stop thinking about it constantly and release the worry. Write down all the tasks you’re thinking about, the projects you’d like to take on, the smart things you should’ve done and the not-ideal things you did instead, what your friend said to you, what your boss said to you, what your kids said or might say to you if/when you have them… You can even use GTD’s trigger lists, but beware – as the name says, they might trigger even more anxious thoughts.

    2. Can you and should you do something? – With things you’re worried about, ask yourself: Can you do something about it? And should you do something about it? There’s a difference between things that are in your control (and you can do something about them) and things you’re responsible for (and you should do something about them). Don’t let yourself take on too much by doing things that are not your responsibility. And if you can’t even do anything about it, try to rationally recognize that there’s no point in worrying about it either.

    3. Make a decision – You might worry because you don’t have a clear course of action, you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do, you’re weighing pros and cons and can’t decide… Take a deep breath and realize: there is no way to make a perfect decision. There could always be factors you forgot to take into account or the situation could change suddenly through someone else’s actions. Just make a decision, any decision, and you’ll instantly feel better – or at least less anxious. You can still change your course later if you find that the decision you made wasn’t in your best interest.

    4. Self-soothe – In addition to previous steps, it’s always a good idea to practice self-soothing activities. Try counting sheep (to fixate on something other than your worries), drink a cup of warm milk laced with honey, do some light stretching or other light exercise, read a calming book, listen to music, meditate… Don’t do anything too active, so you don’t get even more worked up.

    5. Skip screens – Although it’s very tempting to reach for your smartphone, tablet or laptop when you can’t sleep, try not to do it. All these devices offer a myriad of engaging activities that will only wake you up even more. In addition to that, the screens’ bright light can disrupt your sleep cycle and your hormones. If you must use an electronic device, try to choose activities that aren’t too engaging – reading literary classics is fine, but it’s probably better to skip social media or political commentary – and dim your screen or use an e-ink device.

    6. Have designated “worry time” – Sometimes it helps to decide on a time (and a space, if possible) that you’ll use exclusively for worrying. Then, when you start worrying in the middle of the night, tell yourself it’s not your “worry time” and you’ll think about it tomorrow/on day X. When the designated time comes, set a timer and worry away – let yourself get as worked up as you want, but only until the time runs out. Think of it as reverse meditation. You let your brain jump in all directions so it would be easier to reign in the rest of the time.

You can try all of these ideas, but don’t feel you need to do them all. Choose one or two and try them out, see if they help. If not, try another. There’s always something you can try and see if it changes your life for the better.

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