Can't Sleep Anxiety, Explained By Someone Who's Been There

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When I was dealing with depression, I had a period of about five months when I didn't sleep at all.

It was awful.

And it was made worse by something that I did.

And now I'm up in the middle of the night.

It's 3 AM, and I can't sleep.

This doesn't happen very much at all anymore, fortunately.

But simply reading the reports of the first U.S. presidential debate last night set off a flurry of thoughts, which eventually led to short-lived feverish dreams. I tossed and turned until I decided to just get out of bed and write this newsletter.

That, and I realize I had coffee way too late in the afternoon yesterday--and had way too much coffee in general yesterday (darn it, International Coffee Day)--which turned my overthinking a tangled mess of thoughts and feelings.

Still, I've learned something from a childhood of troubled sleep and my bouts of depression years ago.

Something that is critically important for me to get back on a good sleep schedule.

And it's probably not what you think.

Sleep, Anxiety, and Overall Mental Health

Before we get into the one thing I learned, let's quickly review the extreme importance of sleep when it comes to maintaining good mental health.

Do yourself a favor and read this book, Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker. It solidified everything I had learned about sleep up until the point I read it.

Sleep doesn't just make you feel better. It's crucial for helping your brain get rid of the junk that builds up in it throughout the day.

Sleep helps with hydration. It affects mood. It's also when your body undergoes physical repair work.

If there were one miracle drug in this world to take, sleep would be it.

That's why I make such an effort to practice good sleep hygiene these days.

But yesterday I didn't do that, and my thoughts about the sad state affairs of political and pandemic stress in this country snowballed my brain into some very bad, very old habits.

Here's what I did wrong :(

  • I read articles late at night.
  • I spent too much thinking deep thoughts right before bed.
  • Surely, my body was still trying to wind down from too much coffee.
  • And I coupled that with eating acidic food for dinner.
  • It was perfect storm.

But the way I'm handling it now gets to my point of how I handle myself when I don't sleep

I know. I know. You got out of bed instead of ruminating away and associating your bed and bedroom with not being able to sleep.

You might be thinking that, and, well, you wouldn't be wrong. But you wouldn't be fully right.

There's still one important mindset change left to share.

A Crucial Mindset Shift When You Can't Sleep

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When you can't sleep, there's one thing you shouldn't do.

Here's what happened to me when I was dealing with insomnia years ago.

Now, I should start by saying that saying that insomnia was rare for me as a child. I struggled to sleep well as a kid, but I didn't have severe insomnia. I didn't feel like I never got a good night's sleep in months like I did years ago.

Because 2015, the year I dealt with insomnia the most, was different, and it taught me something about myself.

Now, what I'm about to share is not a cure-all. It's not going to guarantee that you get back to good sleeping habits as soon as you implement the mindset shift. If you're dealing with months of insomnia and depression like I was, please, please, seek help from a medical professional.

But if you can't sleep--and I could not sleep- this change in mindset can work wonders for you.

Going from Can't Sleep to Will Sleep

The one thing that I did when I wasn't sleeping well all those years ago was worry about how much I wasn't sleeping.

I focused on the problem and expected to find an answer in it. It was a critical mistake I didn't realized I was making.

What I mean exactly is that is that, during the year or two of troubled sleep that turned into insomnia, I may have been sleeping better than I thought. I made such a big deal of not sleeping, and how I would never sleep, that I never checked to see if I was sleeping at all.


I was too.

About a year or so after my insomnia, I started to regularly use a Fitbit to track my sleep. And what I found during the nights that I claimed I didn't sleep well at all is that I actually slept more than I thought.

I didn't get ONE measly hour. Maybe I got three or four. That's what my Fitbit told me even thought I was sure I was awake for almost all of the night.

It doesn't seem like much of a difference, but mentally it was a huge one for me. Learning that I actually slept better than I realized triggered the start of a mindset change. I went from doubting myself and my ability to sleep to trusting that I actually could sleep more than I thought I could.

I started to wonder how much my mental state was affecting my ability to get restful sleep each night.

And I realized how worrying about something in my life to point of rumination never resolved the issue. I eventually had to learn to meditate to learn to let go. This skillset coupled with mindset change turned the tides of my rocky, restless nights.

And I had an epiphany: worrying about my lack of sleep was contributing to my lack of sleep. Rather than just accepting that I got a lousy night or two of sleep, the thoughts consumed me.

To use a somewhat adjusted but still worn-out phrase, I made a sleep mountain out of a molehill.

Now What I Do When I Can't Sleep

Now I'm typing my story and sharing it with you.

I never would have done this years ago. I never would have had the awareness to get out of bed in the first place.

This change in behavior was sparked by my decision to read what I could about sleep hygiene. It was spurred by my effort to learn about sleep from an objective point of view--not an extremely frantic subjective one.

When I wasn't sleeping, all I could do was obsess over the saga of my lack of sleep.

Now I know that there will be some sleepless nights. It's just reality.

Hopefully they are few and far between like they have been for years, but, still, I know that they will occasionally arrive like the lurking, creeping clouds that they are.

But I don't get caught up in the saga. I don't beat myself up for it. I know that I'm human, I know I have anxiety that runs through my genes, and I know that a human mind can only handle so much during a pandemic sweeping the world.

People close to me in my family and at work have been getting COVID tests because of symptoms and exposure to others.

It's scary.

But what doesn't need to be scary at this point in my life is lack of sleep. Yes, it's a critical factor for establishing solid mental health, but it's not the only one.

Acceptance is still a huge part of the story. I've only ever made big breakthroughs with tough emotions and difficult situations by accepting what is right in front of me. And so it is with sleep.

It took me years and years and lots of hard lessons to get to this point. But now I'm here. And I'm writing my story.

If one person reads this and has the breakthrough in mindset that I had, it will all be worth it.

Take sleep seriously.

But not so seriously that you lose sleep over it.

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