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Getting Better Sleep: For Anxiety Sufferers

When it comes to getting better sleep, sometimes the straightforward general help guidelines don’t work for anxiety sufferers. Many people with anxiety attempt to calm the restless mind’s rattling while lying in bed with varying results. Here are some tried and true tricks that can help soothe your mind, body, and soul enough to get some quality zzz’s.

Many of my anxious clients first come to me complaining of an endless nagging worry that keeps them from sleep. Some of them struggle with something I’ve also struggled with in the past, which I’ve affectionately dubbed “hamster ball” syndrome (not a clinical term). Folks in this category are going, going, going all the time, and if they ever physically stop (only for sleep) their mind races ahead without them at top speed, picking apart every action of the day, every task ahead, and every vague worry. Those with this consuming low-level fear need to train both their body and their brain that it is safe to slow down, and that the worries of the day cannot be solved in this moment. My first assignment generally is asking my clients to write a worry list in a journal, which consists of just setting a timer for five to ten minutes and writing down all the tasks, worries, and fears that are crowding up one’s mental space instead of allowing oneself to sleep. If the material from the list comes up again one can redirect their mind with one of the following statements: “All these things making me anxious can’t be resolved in this moment. I can deal with them tomorrow when I am rested,” or “Things will be the same whether I worry or not.” Repeat it and try it for yourself! An alternative strategy is to write the worry list, and then write some things you are grateful for, which helps your brain switch gears to focusing on material that nourishes it rather than picking it apart.

Those of us on perpetual hyperdrive also benefit from body/mind interventions like Progressive Muscle Relaxation (or PMR), which is a fancy way of asking you to tense and release all of your muscles up from your toes to your face in sequence. Doing a practice like PMR cues your body that it’s time to wind down and allow oneself to finally relax, which can allow the brain to relax in turn. Many people I have worked with have found this to be a useful part of their bedtime routine, as well as something they can do if they wake up from anxiety-related nightmares. Here’s an example of a progressive muscle relaxation practice you can listen to before bedtime.


Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.

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