3 Ways To Manage Anxiety At Night

Hello, loves. It’s that time of year when autumn has returned in all of it's glory, with her crunchy leaves, toasted yellow sunlight, and crispy nip in the air, and I am reminded of the darkness that takes us in before we feel we're ready for it.  The 4pm grey that soon turns to night in the blink of an eye, the strangeness of feeling desperately sleepy at 7pm, and the surreal experience of witnessing a hopeful sun peak through a wall of grey clouds.  This can be very difficult for many people and can bring on a whole host of feelings: anxiety, dread, depression, lethargy, mood disturbances, somatic reactions, and an overall change of pace.  


Anxiety at night is a difficult thing to experience.  Before you know it the day is gone, the responsibilities are likely accomplished (or not, if you're like me), everyone is at home with their loved ones winding down, and suddenly you are faced with the enormity of feeling alone with your thoughts, without the coffee breaks, errands, and work meetings to distract you.  The long night ahead feels less than desirable and you find feeble ways to distract yourself without much success.


The first thing I would recommend is to create a meaningful ritual for yourself. It doesn't have to be complex, prescriptive, or rigid; It just needs to be meaningful to you.  A ritual can take many forms and one ritual I’ve adopted that I have found particularly useful for starting a wind down is: doing a 10 minute clean up of my surroundings.  This sets a nice tone for the evening and creates space for calming energy to move about.

Next, I usually take a shower or bath to wash off the day and prepare me for a comforting night ahead. Then, I do some pampering like a face mask or lighting incense that evokes a warm and safe atmosphere. For those of you who might be thinking, "I already do that and I STILL have anxiety" bear with me a little longer.   This is not a guide to get rid of anxiety, because who can actually do that? Rather it is about managing it effectively.


Examine the pattern of thoughts showing up in your mind.   Do you find that almost always after sunset you feel a pang of sadness, a pit in your stomach, a flurry of fear, and a sudden, yet persistent focus on how deeply alone you feel?  If you notice this, or a variation of this taking place, become a curious bystander.  Do not engage the beliefs that are showing up, but instead watch them like an interested scientist taking part of a study.  

These thoughts and feelings emerge as the result of us feeding them.  At one point you may have noticed the sun going down, freaked out over the existential crisis you were having, and associated night time with that very feeling.  Prior to this, you may not have even noticed the sun dipping down and went about your night like you owned the damn thing.  What does watching our thought patterns do for us?  It helps us detach in a way that allows us to shift our perspective just enough so that we can gently begin to untangle our sticky icky thoughts. 

"Ummm,  yeah, but how do I just examine my thoughts? They just happen! I don't know how to watch them", you just said to yourself as you read this.  A valid question.  Watching your thoughts takes skill, patience, and gentle persistence.  Essentially, watching thoughts is akin to meditation (that's exactly what you're doing when you meditate).  

To get started with this process, start with 5 minutes a day using apps like headspace or insight timer to guide you into the practice of observing your thinking.  Usually, within about a week or so, you start to dispassionately notice your thoughts and learn to see them as just thoughts.  Things that happen based on links, memories, smells, sights, feels, etc., all taking place at such a rate that Einsteins head would spin. Your thoughts are not facts.  Your feelings do not last forever.  Your thoughts and feelings are the result of stimuli, which you can discard, keep, challenge, or reframe whenever you want. 


A sample thought watching experiment might go like this. It’s about 6pm and you notice that the sun’s light is waning. Suddenly your stomach starts to feel a bit fluttery and you’re intently focused on what lies ahead. If you decide to watch this experiment you might say, “There’s that familiar feeling…okay, my thoughts are starting to become panicked and now I feel anxious. I’m noticing that my brain is scanning the room and feeling overwhelmed. I also feel like I want to distract myself from this feeling.”

Then you might ask yourself some reframing questions like, “How true is this thought? Well, not very. How does it feel to believe this thought? Pretty bad. How would it feel to gently move into a meaningful activity? Probably a little bit scary, but good overall. What am I focusing on that’s making me feel bad? My thoughts and zeroing in on the anxious feeling in my stomach. Can I focus on anything else? Yes. I can make dinner, I can read a chapter in a book, etc.” Essentially, you start to get more skilled at talking back to your anxious thoughts in a kind and supportive manner. Eventually, this whole thing becomes a lot easier over time.


Make night time your jam.  This one takes some creative thinking and is totally dependent upon what you like! For me, I purposefully make nighttime a space where cozy things happen.  Other people make nighttime a space where social interactions happen (i.e. family dinners, meetings, outings, etc.), or where sleep/sex happen, where movies happen, books happen, emails happen (though this one doesn't sound all that fun), etc.  Make it your own and make it meaningful! 

I’ve learned (over time) to associate night time with a sense of safety. A few years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. I used to feel a heaviness wash over me at the idea of having to spend the last few hours of the day alone, bored, stuck, etc. Those moments really felt awful and distractions would only work so well. When I became the owner of my night time experience, I noticed a subtle shift take over and I suddenly felt more empowered to do more of what made me feel safe.

A mantra you might find helpful for your night time: “I am safe right now. This will fade away. I am not in danger. I am getting enough air. I am starting to relax. I feel calmer. I am going to be okay.”