I can remember the exact moment, around nine months ago, when my college declared the rest of the quarter online. I was studying in the library, and all of a sudden I heard a unanimous cheer echoing throughout the floors of the building as students received the email that said we were free to go home for spring break early.
I also remember how this initial feeling of excitement quickly turned into feelings of uncertainty and fear after I had driven home without saying goodbye to my friends and heard that the entire last quarter of our senior year would be online. There was absolutely no time to process anything for those first couple of months when we were abruptly sent home, realizing this pandemic was far bigger and scarier than we had imagined.
Mid-summer, after having to move out of my apartment unexpectedly soon and permanently moving back home, I received my study abroad acceptance letter. Though instead of joy, I felt dread. I desperately clung to a tiny fraction of hope that somehow, I’d still be getting on that plane in September and starting a new adventure. There’s no way I wouldn’t, not after dreaming about it for so long. But that day came, and that dreaded realization hit. I would not be getting on that plane. I would not be returning to my college campus or seeing my friends again and would have to graduate online. Cue the anxiety.
My sleep anxiety experience
If any of this sounds familiar to you, I wouldn’t be surprised. As college students in the midst of our most important years, going through such abrupt and unfathomable change has thrown us through an entire manual of emotional distress. It’s understandable that we might be feeling higher levels of anxiety, worry, stress, or depression as we continue to live through this pandemic.
In the first few months of quarantine, I began to suffer from sleep issues caused by anxiety. I’ve felt anxious before many times, but never on this level. I could tell that it was affecting me differently and more strongly. I would wake up randomly in the middle of the night with my heart beating out of my chest, breathing rapidly and feeling extremely disoriented. I would have to force myself to breathe deeper and wait for my heartbeat to slow before attempting sleep again. This happened a few times, and sooner or later my body began to associate my bed with feelings of anxiety. I wouldn’t look forward to going to bed because I knew the same thing would happen, or I’d just toss and turn for hours before being able to fall asleep. It was a vicious cycle.
As a night owl who tends to go over everything in their head right before bed, this newfound anxiety just exacerbated those thoughts to a whole new level. Sleep Foundation states that “people who are plagued with worry often ruminate about their concerns in bed, and this anxiety at night can keep them from falling asleep.” The type of vicious cycle I was experiencing also has a name: “anticipatory anxiety,” when even just the anticipation of another restless night can cause more anxiety. The culmination of this leads to insomnia.
I've become somewhat better at maintaining my anxiety levels, especially as I’ve learned to adapt to my current circumstances and have had more time to accept what’s changed in my life. However, I still can’t fall asleep until around 1 or 2 a.m. and often feel worried or restless in bed. I have not found a cure-all method, but I’ve tried a few things, and some have helped more than others. It will take time to find a sleeping rhythm and routine that works for you, and if you find that nothing is helping and your insomnia is interfering with your day-to-day life, you may need to seek professional sleep therapy.
But if you’re just looking for somewhere to start, here are a few of the steps I’ve taken in order to start changing my sleeping habits and take control of my insomnia.
Waiting until I’m falling asleep
The first tip I’ve tried was recommended to me in a sleep book my dad lent me called Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep. You simply wait until you’re literally falling asleep to get into bed, however late that may be. The problem I was facing is that if I got into bed too early and just laid there, nothing would happen. So instead, I watched Netflix or did something else on my couch until I’d get really sleepy, and then move into bed. Beginning to associate bed with nothing but sleep can help decrease those anticipatory feelings.
Another tip that I’m sure we’ve all heard a million times by now is to decrease your amount of screen stimulation while in bed. I’m sure I’m not the only one guilty of mindlessly scrolling through my phone while laying in bed or texting my friend until the late hours of the night. It’s easy to do, and a difficult habit to break. In the long run, though, it’ll be much easier for your mind to settle down if you aren’t consuming media right before shutting your eyes. I’ve been doing my best to read a little instead.
Even if you don’t get sleepy until 2 or 3 a.m., don’t get into bed until you’re falling asleep. What time you go to bed is less important; first you have to train your body to only associate your bed with sleeping and relaxing activities.
Creating a relaxing environment
In order to maximize my sleep, I tried creating the most relaxing and anxiety-reducing space that I could. This involved making sure my room was clean before going to bed (space clutter = mind clutter), using a lavender scented pillow spray, keeping my white Christmas lights on because sleeping in complete darkness doesn't work for me, and having some white noise like a fan on (if you can sleep in total silence, I’m not sure I can trust you).
I even started using a weighted blanket, which has been proven to help reduce anxiety and stress because it provides a comforting heavy pressure on your body as you fall asleep. I highly recommend trying one out! It feels like you’re being gently pressed into the bed, which produces a feeling of safety, and as a result your nerves begin to subside.
Those are some of the environment changes that have helped me, but I suggest doing whatever makes you feel the most calm, whether that means having the TV on in the background or putting on some relaxing music. Make sure your environment won’t cause you any extra anxiety.
As someone who can never quiet their thoughts, I’ve always been apprehensive of sleep meditation or meditation in general. I’ve never successfully been able to calm the thoughts in my mind and don’t always have the patience to try. However, a particular sleep meditation episode was introduced by the Calm app a few months ago, and if you know me, you know which one I’m talking about.
The Harry Styles was featured, guiding you through an hour-long sleep story called “Dream with Me.” If you’re a fan, you most likely heard about it in advance and listened to it literally the second it was released (because who in their right mind wouldn’t want to listen to Harry’s sultry, slow and calming voice guide them on an enchanted sleep journey?). The premise is that you’re going on a magical adventure through beautiful and romantic places together, slowly falling more and more in love. Are you kidding? Sign me up. That’s a sleep meditation I can get behind.
So, of course, I started my free week-long trial to listen to Harry’s episode (unfortunately, you have to have the Calm app and subscribe to listen to this one). Once I was in bed, I made sure I was as comfortable as possible before starting. My overall impression: if you aren’t a Harry fan, this would without a doubt guide you right into sleep. It’s imaginative and sweet and the music is peaceful. However, if you are a fan, this might end up producing the opposite effect. The first time I listened, I was far too concentrated on the fact that Harry was lulling me to sleep to even become relaxed. Every time he mentioned something about us walking through meadows and holding hands, I would squirm and giggle, thus defeating the purpose.
With that said, I do believe guided sleep meditations are effective. They allow your mind to become blissfully distracted from thoughts and worries. My only suggestion is to listen to people you have no overwhelmingly emotional connection to. Headspace, Calm, Audible, and Apple Podcasts are all great resources to find more sleep meditations. I also recommend the Ambient Worlds YouTube channel; they have hundreds of relaxing and enchanting music from your favorite movies and TV shows including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and GOT.
Planning in advance
If you’re anything like me, you love making lists of all kinds to help keep track of your life and stay organized. I wouldn’t function without my Notes app or my Passion Planner. However, one of the main things that keeps my brain too active at night is going over everything I still need to get done, things I forgot to do, mulling over the past and worrying about the future. It’s easy to get lost in these kinds of spiraling thoughts, and sometimes I’ll be trying to fall asleep and then suddenly remember something I need to write down on my phone. In order to change this habit, I’ve been making sure to go over my lists and planner before getting into bed so I can have a clearer mind. I check off or delete every task that was done and add new tasks and plans for the day or week ahead, as well as write anything else down that’s taking up space in my mind.
More often than not, I’m actively crossing things off as I finish them during the day. In doing so, I eliminate any stress about whether or not I’m on track when it’s time to shut my eyes. If you find that your mind is still clouded with thoughts, it can also be helpful to brain dump everything out into a journal (sometimes I even type out my thoughts and feelings on my computer). This is especially helpful if you’re going through some emotional distress or don’t have anyone to talk to; getting those feelings out onto something physical can be freeing for your mind.
Like I mentioned before, none of these tactics have been a cure-all method for my sleep anxiety and insomnia. I have accepted that it will take some time for any major habit changes to take effect. However, I do believe that the combination of these methods, or methods of your own, can produce positive effects over time — and if they don’t, they won’t be doing you any harm. It’s absolutely worth a try if you have found yourself struggling to sleep, and there’s no shame in reaching out for support or talking to a sleep therapist if you need extra help. The past year has challenged us to adapt to sudden changes in our routine, disturbing our mental health and emotional well-being. Be patient and kind with yourself as you navigate these changes.