Nighttime used to be the absolute scariest time for me. As soon as the sky began to darken, I knew my crippling anxiety was approaching. The night became one of my biggest triggers, and like clockwork, I would start to feel short of breath as soon as my head hit the pillow. The dreaded tightening of the chest and heart palpitations would join in soon after. Perhaps the worst part, though, were my irrational racing thoughts.
This is it, I’d think. Tonight is my last night on earth. Let me text all my family members that I love them just in case I die right now.
This is the difficulty of panic attacks. Even though they aren't, on their own, fatal, they feel that way. But that's just all the more reason why it's important to learn how to cope with them, which is exactly what I did after years of dealing with them. Now, when an anxiety attack tries to bring me down in the middle of the night, I feel equipped and ready to handle it. Here are the hacks that help me, and that you can use to get through anxious nights. And, of course, if you are dealing with mental health issues, seek out the advice of a medical professional, as well.
Grounding is a technique which is used to help you stay present and in the moment when you feel like you’re spiraling out. The goal is to get in touch with your senses and surroundings. Let’s say you’re lying in your bed. Notice what your sheets feel like. Are they crisp? Are they extra-soft? Do they smell like fresh laundry detergent, or do they smell like they need a wash? What color are they? Is there a pattern on them? This is just one example of a type of grounding exercise you can do that I find effective when I'm in bed having a freakout. Grounding can bring you back to reality, a place to which we often lose our connection during anxiety attacks. You can try out a bunch of different grounding exercises to figure out what works best for you
I love using online therapy in the middle of the night because I can get all of my negative thoughts out right as they’re happening. In-person therapy is obviously great, too, but I find substantial benefit in being able to record a voice memo or leave a text message for my therapist explaining what I’m feeling in the heat of the moment. As with any type of therapy, it feels great to get everything you're feeling off of your chest, to help externalize the emotions that you're feeling. I use an app called Talkspace which I love, but there are a few other services out there you can check out, as well.
Occupy your mind
The worst thing for anxiety is an idle mind because it allows your thoughts to wander to dark places. During the day, it can be a little easier to get out and stay occupied. You can go outside, take a walk, go to the store, grab a treat from the bakery, etc. This can be harder in the night when it's not as safe to take a walk and every store around you is closed—but there are other ways to get occupied! You can do a crossword puzzle, play a game on your phone, read a book, or break out your coloring book. The more the activity occupies your thoughts and challenges your brain, the better. Just remember, if you’re using your phone, make sure you have it on night mode so that the blue light of your screen is canceled out.
Get out of bed
While it may seem counterintuitive to leave bed and get moving, staying in bed tossing and turning, trying to catch your breath, and finding the perfect position to sleep in doesn't do you any good when you're in the middle of an anxiety attack. Moving around can help you “snap out of it.” Head over to your kitchen and heat up a cup of hot milk (my grandma swears by this!) or have some decaffeinated tea. Sit on the couch in your living room instead of your bed for a change of scenery. Hey, you can even try to do some yoga! There are plenty of videos on YouTube specifically made for bedtime relaxation. Bonus: Yoga can really help regulate your breathing which gets totally out of whack during an anxiety attack.
Mind your mantra
Have a mantra and repeat it in your head, in writing, or even out loud into a mirror. Again, practice to see which method works best for you. Mine used to be, “Nighttime is not a time for panic!” I would write it in my journal over and over again, and then when I hit the sack, I would repeat it in my head while trying to do some deep breathing techniques. Your mantra doesn't have to be as specific as that one. It can also be something like, “I am strong enough to handle this” or, “I am not in danger.” You can even use these during the day when you are experiencing anxiety so they become almost second nature to think about.
I’ve had hundreds of nights I thought would be my last, but I'm still here. The main thing to remember is that anxiety is a chemical reaction. It's your body going through its natural fight-or-flight response. It can be scary, especially at nighttime, but you can train yourself to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable. The more anxiety attacks you conquer at night, the more comfortable you'll feel when you head to bed. Eventually, anxiety attacks might become something you can just brush off. How's that for a sweet dream?