15 Sleep Prescriptions for Worriers

Clever ways to stop anxiety and embrace restorative sleep.

By Ellen Michaud with Julie Bain from Sleep to Be Sexy Smart and Slim

When worry drives your life, studies show you’re more likely to develop chronic insomnia. Here’s how to prevent that — and get a good night’s sleep.

Reign in your work life. Give your heart to your work, but be a little more stingy with your time. Decide how many hours a week is reasonable to get your work done, add 10 percent in case you’re wrong, then walk away.

Swim. Or run. Or bike. Or skate. Or skip rope with some kids on the neighborhood playground. You get the idea. Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise reroutes all the adrenaline that worry generates.

Work on stress. Since a study at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health revealed that stressful events are twice as likely to trigger sleeping problems in those who experience anxiety, keeping a lid on daily stressors is important. Skim over the stress-reducing tips on the previous pages, pick out your favorites, and use them to do just that.

Put worry on a schedule. “In today’s busy world, we don’t have time to do normal worrying until the lights go out,” says Mary Susan Esther, M.D., director of the Sleep Center at South Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, and president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Yet everyone needs a worry time,” she adds. The trick is to schedule it on a regular basis, early in the evening — any time before 8:00 P.M. Sit down with a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and ask yourself, “What am I worried about?” Then write down one worry on each card. When you seem to have written down your last worry, go back to the first card, reflect on the worry it describes, and give yourself a reality check.

Does the worry involve a problem that you can do something about? If not, rip up the card. If there is something you can do, write down possible actions and tuck the card into a worry box. You can give it more thought in the morning and decide what to do.

Stay off ebay. In fact, shut off your computer altogether, urges Dr. Esther. A lot of people with worry insomnia are tempted to go online before bed and play computer solitaire or check eBay to see if they’ve won what they were bidding on. “But the computer is interactive, so you can’t just watch, you have to respond,” says the sleep specialist. “And that interaction is stimulating enough to keep you up half the night.”

For instance, one Florida woman boots up every night around 10:00 P.M. She intends only to check her bids on eBay. Since she feels she has a sleep problem, she intends to be in bed by 11:00 P.M. But without fail, she’s still online at 3:00 A.M. “What can I do?” she asks with a helpless shrug. “I just can’t sleep!”

Head for the bathroom. Once you’ve shut down the computer and had your scheduled worry session, a warm bath before bed will not only relax you, it will also adjust your body’s temperature to a point that signals your brain: “Hey, honey, it’s time for sleep.”

Hide the clocks. “Digital clocks blare time at you,” says Dr. Esther. “It’s normal to wake throughout the night, but if you look at a clock and see the time, it’s likely to increase your anxiousness about not being asleep.” If you need a clock to wake you in the morning, just turn its face to the wall right before bed. You’ll hear it just as well.