What Really Works When You're Too Anxious To Fall Asleep

02/05/2015 08:14 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2016
Dan Saelinger via Getty Images

Why is it that just when our heads hit the pillow our thoughts take off in a sprint?

Our brains have this annoying tendency to ruminate on worst-case scenarios and other negative reflections at night -- and all that worry is seriously disrupting our ability to fall asleep.

"Anxiety is an emotion that actually wakes us up," Steve Orma, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good, tells The Huffington Post. "There are all kinds of physical changes happening that ramp you up, which is the exact opposite state of what you need to be in when you're trying to fall asleep."

The good news is that since anxiety is often triggered by our own thinking, we also have the ability to think our way to better sleep, Orma says. Below are some tips to help you banish that anxiety so you can drift off to dreamland faster -- no sleeping pill required.

Identify what you're worried about.

insomnia

Dissecting the source of your anxiety is the first important step to banishing it, Orma says. If you're suffering from insomnia, you're likely feeling anxious about sleep; if you're suffering from general anxiety, you're likely unable to drift off because your thoughts are preoccupied with other stressors.

"You have to identify what it is that's causing you to stay awake and deal with that before crawling into bed," he explains. "People worry about all kinds of things when they're in bed, and that's not the time to think things through."

Get out of bed.

night kitchen

"Most people stay in bed and hope they'll get tired and fall asleep, but generally that doesn't happen," Orma says. As a result, people start subconsciously associating being in bed with being awake. If you don't fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes, get up and go to a different room.

Address what's on your mind.

journal night

Research suggests that putting our worries into something tangible and physically throwing them away can help clear our mind of negative thoughts.

"Get a pad of paper and dump everything that you're worried about, whether that's sleep, your job, your relationships or otherwise," Orma says. "You can't deal with that stuff now. An active mind will keep you awake." If you don't want to throw it away, he suggests setting the list aside to return to the next day.

Change your bedtime.

insomnia

If you're constantly having trouble drifting off, you may want to readjust your sleep schedule, Orma says. This may mean going to bed later.

"This is a mistake a lot of people make -- they get into bed because that's their bedtime, whether they're sleepy or not," he says. "People have a racing mind when they crawl into bed not because their anxiety is keeping them awake, but because they're not tired enough and their mind just starts going."

If all else fails, quietly engage your mind.

meditation candle

If you simply just can't sleep, try reading a book ("Textbooks are great for this," Orma says), drinking some tea, listening to music or practicing a little meditation. Whatever you do, just make sure you don't gravitate toward your phone or your laptop, Orma warns. Your devices will only wake you up more.

When it comes down to it, Orma says to take solace in the fact that an anxious mind doesn't have to be a permanent problem. If your insomnia or anxiety is starting to affect your everyday life, he advises seeking a professional for guidance.

"They are both extremely common," he says. "A lot of people think there's something wrong with them when they experience these conditions, but it's important to know that it's normal -- even though it's certainly not a pleasant experience. It's just a problem in their thinking and their behavior patterns. It's very treatable."

This GPS Guide is part of a series of posts designed to bring you back to balance when you're feeling off course.

GPS Guides are our way of showing you what has relieved others' stress in the hopes that you will be able to identify solutions that work for you. We all have de-stressing "secret weapons" that we pull out in times of tension or anxiety, whether they be photos that relax us or make us smile, songs that bring us back to our heart, quotes or poems that create a feeling of harmony or meditative exercises that help us find a sense of silence and calm. We encourage you to visit our other GPS Guides here, and share with us your own personal tips for finding peace, balance and tranquility.

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