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 a bit special and 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 visit from the monster on Sunday evening (I imagine the most popular night of the week for the NTAM as we shall now call it) off the back of an unpleasant exchange with my hideously anti-social neighbours. An unfriendly note through your door from someone you’re mildly petrified of at 11.45pm on a Sunday night is rarely going to be the beginning of a beautiful slumber.
I got up to collect the note, read it on my way back to bed and, almost instantaneously, felt my heart pounding against the inside of my ribs so hard I thought it was going to break out of my chest, run out of the house and down the road to safety.
I’m a Life Coach, I help people to regain control of their thinking for a living. At 11.47pm on Sunday night my mind was already well on its way to a full-blown rampaging bender. And I pretty quickly realised that I had a lot of hard work ahead of me to regain the control of my mind that would be needed to calm my body, in order to make sleep a possibility for that night.
Between midnight and 3am on Sunday night/Monday morning, I’d probably have rated my NTAM around 9.7 on the anxiety Richter scale – ridiculously unpleasant. I did then sleep – but, of course, it was fitful. And somehow, when the NTAM visits, I find that sleeping is almost worse than being wide-awake because my thoughts are this freaky, repeating chimera of part reality and part vivid nightmare.
I know I’m lucky because I’ve probably only been visited on a handful of occasions – at several stress-inflection points in my old corporate life, a nasty run of a couple of months when a relationship was slowly and painfully dying and then on Sunday.
But this recent experience was bad enough for me to want to get curious about what I/we can do to survive a night with a NTAM and 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 Sunday night into Monday day 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. Do that processing intentionally and purposefully so that once you’re done you can consciously give yourself permission to 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. Then consciously give yourself permission to sleep.
So, on the assumption that you’re now working with a real and significant NTAM here, my suggestion (which isn’t what I did on Sunday) would 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.
I’d also encourage you to do some of the next steps by writing things down – and that’s rather hard to do lying in bed in the pitch black – so get a notebook out and start scribbling.
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.
What are your options
Make a list of all the options that might be available to either solve or at least start to deal with this problem. If there are obvious decisions you can make about which options are palatable and which are not, then do that. You’ll be left with a short list of realistic ways to move forward.
Plan your action
Take your short list of options and determine what is the one tiny step that you will be able to take first thing in the morning that will 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.
Who can support you
If knowing your options and action-planning haven’t succeed in fully subduing the monster, then thinking about support is the next step. Who can you call on that might understand or be able to empathise with this problem? Who is the person that is always able to make you feel better about life? Who do you know that can help fix this problem? Commit to getting in touch with them in the morning.
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.
During my ‘visitation’ on Sunday, I caught myself in the act of imagining that I’d have to move house because of how bad the situation with my neighbours was going to get. That scenario is highly unlikely (and not one of my palatable options) but the emotions attached to it were very strong and very unhelpful on the sleep front.
Watch out for ‘the spread’
This is a biggie for me. One of the main learnings from my previous experiences of depression is that I have to be very careful about what I fondly refer to as ‘flipping my lens’ – when one bad thing happens and I allow that to change my perspective on everything else in my life. A NTAM would, for me, be very fertile ground in which this could happen.
Again, on Sunday, I caught myself thinking about how on earth I was going to cope on my own in the future with any big decisions, like moving house, without the support of my parents. This is a brilliant example of both catastrophising and ‘spreading’ all neatly rolled into one gnarly thought.
People are funny creatures
If your worry relates to the behaviour of or an interaction with another person then remembering that people are funny creatures can help you gain some perspective. Know that part of this might be about you but part of it will most certainly be about them. And you can’t take any responsibility or have any control over what’s theirs.
Also know that, although the interaction might be looming large in your mind, it’s pretty likely to be old news and long forgotten by them.
This was something that really helped me on Sunday. My neighbour, very sadly for her, is a very angry lady. I was flavour of the day on Sunday/Monday but I’m pretty confident that someone or something else will have stepped in to take my place since then.
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.
At the same time as I was quaking in my boots about her next door, I was also able to think about how lucky I am to have the wonderful Afghan family of 7 on the other side – they would do anything for me and I know how much they value and respect their home. And, without going into too much detail, one of the physical effects of the intense anxiety was multiple trips to the bathroom in the night which meant that, by morning, I’d shed about 1.5kgs and had a flat(ish) stomach for the first time in a few months! I’ll bank that as a Brucie Bonus, thank you very much.
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’. You will have created conditions in which the NTAM should know it’s time to back-the-f-off and your heart will know that it’s safe to retreat back to where it belongs.
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 (with thousands of different types and styles of meditation, including ones specifically for sleep and anxiety) is Insight Timer. And, in case you care, Tara Brach is my favourite teacher.
The purpose of these exercises is to further calm your nervous system and to provide a distraction from any lingering, loitering, thick-skinned NTAM who may not yet have got the message.
It’s been a long one. Good on you if you’ve made it this far! But my experience had the potential to be so de-railing that I wanted to give these insights my full attention and make sure I gave us all some useful tools ready for the next time we have to go to battle with a nasty NTAM.
Perhaps most importantly though, this experience has given me confidence in my awareness. You may have noticed that, on several occasions, I talk about ‘having caught myself’ in the act of thinking something. With everything that I know, it’s still not possible to stop the thoughts – no-one has that skill. But I do have buckets loads of awareness and the ability, through practice, to remember to put myself in the role of the observer. And in doing this, I’m able to catch myself in the act and halt the runaway-thought-train before it drives itself off the cliff.
And 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. 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.