Why it keeps us awake at night and what we can do about it

Every time I try to sleep at night, many disturbing thoughts and embarrassing memories come to my mind. Why is this happening;

Every time I try to sleep at night, many disturbing thoughts and embarrassing memories come to my mind. Why does this happen and what can I do to prevent it?

Whatever’s keeping you awake, it’s normal for your worries and fears to surface at night, experts say.

Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine, Dr. Rafael Pelayo says evening anxiety has an evolutionary purpose.

“Sleeping is the most dangerous thing we can do,” he says, and being aware of the environment allowed our ancestors to spot any danger.

But when stress keeps you awake, not only are you missing out on the health benefits of sleep, but you can start a vicious cycle of poor sleep and increased stress that can be difficult to break.

Neurologist at the University of Cologne, Germany, Dr. “Sleep loss is often a precursor to anxiety disorders, and anxiety causes sleep loss,” says Sarah Chellappa.

If your overactive mind is keeping you awake, you can, according to experts.

The difficult relationship between stress and sleep

Candice Alfano, director of the Houston Sleep and Anxiety Center at the University of Houston, says anxiety can strike at any time, but there are reasons why we feel it most acutely while sleeping.

“Most of us are incredibly busy during our waking hours. Our attention is diverted, so we don’t have time to think about our worries,” he adds. “But at night, when we’re lying in bed, there’s not much to distract us from our disturbing thoughts,” he explains.

So we can’t sleep because these anxious thoughts make us think we’re not safe, which makes us more alert, increases our heart rate, and tightens our muscles.

In fact, the body can’t tell whether the source of our problems is a physical threat like a tiger about to attack us, or an upcoming presentation at work that’s stressing you out—it’s just getting the message to stay awake.

Basically, “feeling threatened or under pressure is the same for the brain,” says Dr. Pelayo.

Worse, sleep loss has been shown to lead to more anxious thoughts. In a 2019 review of 13 studies published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, researchers concluded that insomnia is a significant predictor of anxiety among other mental health conditions. Sleep helps us distinguish between what’s dangerous and what’s safe, so without enough sleep, we’re not as good at responding to stress, fear, and anxiety, the researchers explained. This in turn means more negative thoughts that can affect sleep.

The good news, experts say, is that sound sleep can also improve your anxiety over time.

How to slow down anxious thoughts at night

Since better sleep helps reduce stress, good sleep practices like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and avoiding screens before bed can help both ways.

The following tips can help curb anxious thoughts before bed.

  • Limit caffeine
  • Write down your concerns on a piece of paper

If it’s your responsibilities that are causing you stress, try writing down what you’re thinking and what you need to do, such as: “I need to buy milk,” “I need a new job,” “I never thanked Uncle Tade for the gift he brought me five years ago.” That way, you can prevent ideas from appearing later, and if they do appear at night, you have a reassuring answer: Everything important is already recorded in the notebook.

Just focusing on your responsibilities can help make sleep a little easier. In a 2019 study, researchers found that people without clinical anxiety who spent 5 minutes writing a to-do list before bed fell asleep faster than those who wrote down what they had already done.

  • Give yourself something to look forward to. “If you lie in bed thinking, ‘I hate my job, I hate my commute,’ of course you won’t sleep well,” says Dr. Pelayo. But if you can give yourself something to look forward to in the morning—a nice breakfast, a walk, your favorite podcast—you have positive thoughts to attract, she explains, which can replace some of the negative thoughts that keep you awake. .
  • In general, optimism is associated with better sleep. For example, in a 2019 study of 3,548 young people, researchers found that people who scored higher on a questionnaire measuring optimism reported better sleep quality than those who scored lower.

And as Dr. Pelayo said to his patients: Know that “if you’ve ever slept well, you can sleep well again.”

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