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Can't sleep because of anxiety? The drug-free techniques can help

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Remember in 'Fight Club,' when Jack is so stressed and sleep deprived that he develops a second personality who plans an anti-capitalist revolution and has to shoot himself in the head to kill his hallucination? That’s a hell of a reach, but if you’ve ever been robbed of sleep because of anxiety, it does feel pretty apocalyptic. You could take meds, but that’s generally a temporary fix. Also, if you already take anxiety meds (many of which already make you drowsy), you might not want to mix drugs.

Sleep helps people with anxiety, but anxious folks often also struggle with insomnia. This seems like a vicious circle, but it doesn’t have to be; you can change your anxiety-induced insomnia. But, according to the experts I consulted — psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical sleep specialists — there’s no quick fix. You’re going to have to alter your habits.

Your body’s rhythm changes as you mature so the later bedtime that worked for you as a teen won’t work for you as an adult.

“We are all born knowing how to sleep,” says Nancy Irwin, a California-based psychologist. “We have to learn how to be sleep-disordered, yet this can be unlearned.” Unlearning poor sleep habits might feel a little weird, at first, because we tend to be set in our ways, but it’s worth it because our sleep affects every single aspect of our health — not just our anxiety. Here are some sleep-doctor-approved habits that will give you a better chance at more and better quality sleep.

Have a consistent sleep schedule

“Get into bed at the same time each night,” Irwin says. “As babies and young children, our bodies got conditioned to sleep at certain times. Our brain still functions best with this.” Your body’s rhythm changes as you mature so the later bedtime that worked for you as a teen won’t work for you as an adult.

“As you age, melatonin release reaches its peak earlier in the evening, nudging you towards an earlier bedtime,” explains Sabina Brennan, psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at Trinity College in Dublin. “If you continually refuse to take account of the changing rhythms and pressures of your body, you will push yourself further and further into sleep debt.”

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In other words, when the light of the sun starts fading, your body will naturally become tired. It will happen earlier and earlier as you age. You can ignore it, but as Brennan suggests, it will create a chronic imbalance in your sleep cycle — and that'll inevitably affect your anxiety levels.

Create a sleep-friendly environment

Most of us are accustomed to letting the different parts of lives blend. We send work emails from bars and swipe on dating apps at work. As tempting as it is to squeeze in a little extra productivity before snoozing, this multi-tasking approach won’t work when it comes to sleep. Irwin suggests leaving all reminders of work outside the door of your bedroom. “When you enter your ‘sleep chamber,’ you should feel like you are entering a spa,” says Irwin. “Get into bed in a room that is neat and tidy, clutter-free with no reminders of the mundane. Keep computers and bills to pay out of your sleep chamber. Leave all that in another room.”

If you’re naturally kind of messy, it’s cool. You don't have to Mari Kondo your home to get a good night’s sleep — it just has to feel uncluttered to you.

Turn off your screens

Ideally, our crash pad should be dark and screen-free. “Make your bedroom a technology-free zone,” says Brennan. “Artificial blue light is emitted from digital devices and from LED lighting. Exposure to blue light suppresses the release of melatonin.” She adds that avoiding electronic devices is important both before and during sleep. “If you wake in the night don’t be tempted to reach for your phone or laptop because the device’s blue light will wake your brain and make it difficult to get back to sleep,” she adds. Interrupted sleep can be almost as detrimental to your anxiety as no sleep at all.

But how will I wake up without Siri to remind me? “Get yourself a traditional clock to check the time and to use as an alarm,” says Brennan. This might seem archaic, but if you deal with anxiety, you’re going to want to go the extra yard to make sure you get your well-deserved sleep. “This will prevent you falling down the rabbit hole of checking the time on your phone, which not only exposes you to blue light but also increases the risk of clicking on email or social media notifications.” We all know how hard it can be to resist a neon bubble.

Have a bedtime routine

“One of the most common reasons people have trouble falling asleep is because their routine leading up to bedtime isn’t conducive to falling asleep,” says Vinay Saranga, a North Carolina-based psychiatrist. “In order to fall asleep and set the body up for optimal sleep, the hour or so leading up to when you turn off the lights should be focused on slowing the body down, unwinding and relaxing,” he says. Sounds about right. I listen to podcasts about murder before bed. Very relaxing.

Try a sleep-inducing breathing exercise

What can we do instead of scrolling or bingeing Netflix? Saranga has a no-tech suggestion. “Lay down on your bed with the lights dim or completely turned off,” he says, “Place your hands on your stomach and close your mouth. Slowly inhale through the diaphragm — the belly area — and hold for a few seconds. Then slowly exhale through a small opening in your lips.” Repeat this several times, he says, and watch how relaxed you begin to feel; it literally melts all the stress and tension of the day away.

“Before or after this, you can induce relaxation by slowly tensing various muscle groups, holding for a few seconds, then letting go,” Saranga says. “Most people find it easier by starting at the feet and working their way to the neck or head.”

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