A Little Night Thinking

I was going to do research on an alternative treatment option this week and then my life went into exploding comet mode: you know, shredding through space at unholy speeds while jettisoning random and arbitrary exploding particles. It happens and when it does, my usual night thinking goes into overdrive. I will lie down and my brain knocks on my skull and says, “Oh, hey! You’re not busy. Good. I have some things I’d like to talk to you about.” Then this little spectacled man pulls a scroll from mid-air, holds one end while the other rolls down to his feet, bounces across the floor and disappears into the horizon. He clears his throat and starts reading from a list titled “Things to Do and/or Panic About”.

Mental illness and sleep disorders have this twisted symbiotic relationship. Mental illness can cause and/or make sleep issues worse and sleep disorders can cause and/or make the symptoms of mental illness worse. It is estimated that 50% of people with an anxiety disorder have some sort of sleep disorder and the majority of people with depression, some studies show up to 90%, have some form of sleep disorder. That’s a lot of missed sleep.

People with mental illness tend to have an overactive brain to begin with. No joke…even during the day our brains are firing away at rates higher than those without mental illness, so when night rolls around, our hyperactive brain is still going strong. And, to compound the problem, somewhere around 11-ish at night, our frontal cortex turns off. That’s right; the part of our brain that does the logical decision making is designed to take a nap, leaving us to spin our wheels in improbable ‘What if’s”, dark unlike-lies  and poor impulse control.

There is some real danger to this night thinking.

Beyond the panic attacks and zombie walking the next day from lack of sleep, insomnia carries a higher risk of suicide. According to a 2014 study by the University of Pennsylvania, suicides are three to six times greater late at night. The suicide rate rises after midnight, peaks between 2 and 3 a.m. and drops between 6 a.m. and midnight.

For those of us who have spent dreadful sleepless nights alone with our own spinning thoughts, this makes a lot of sense. For years, study after study showed that suicide was more likely during the day until they realized that they didn’t take into account the fact that most people are asleep at night. (Seriously…can I get an exaggerated eye roll and a face-palm here?) When sleeping people were factored in, it soon became clear that suicides spiked for people who were actually awake during certain times of the day.

Ok, so here we are. Our brains are going comet speed, our frontal cortex has gone to dreamland without us and we are stuck staring at the long hours of the night. What do we do? The deceptively simple answer is to get better sleep. Try not to laugh sarcastically and give some of these a try.

Things to Try for Better Sleep:

  • A Piece of Paper. This is very helpful for the overactive mind that starts running down the to-do list for the next day. Keep a piece of paper or a notebook by your bed and write down the things you are worried about getting done or you are afraid you will forget to do. The next part is crucial…tell yourself you wrote the dumb things down so you won’t forget them in the morning and that there’s nothing you can do about it at night. It takes practice.
  • Melatonin. This is good for helping you fall asleep, but you will want to try an extended release tablet if you have trouble staying asleep. It has little to no side effects which beats most over the counter sleeping pills.
  • Chamomile Tea or Extract. I haven’t tried the extract, but I have friends who swear by it. Hmmm…I might have to try that over the tea.
  • Vitamin D, Calcium and Magnesium are perhaps the best vitamins for calming and helping you sleep. In fact, you can find several different types of magnesium products that are made specifically as a sleep aid.
  • L-Theanine. This was actually recommended to me by my whole health psychologist instead of raising my medication during a particularly bad bout of anxiety. It has proven surprisingly helpful. The one caveat she made was to use L-Theanine instead of the regular Theanine. Theanine is derived from green tea and the regular version still reduces anxiety, but could raise focus and alertness. Not something you want when you’re looking for Z’s.
  • CBD Oil. This stuff is awesome! Whether it’s hemp oil or from a low/no THC cannabis plant, this has been a go-to of mine for reducing anxiety and calming me before bed. You will have to play with the dosage to see what works for you. You will also want to research a good brand. There’s a bunch of shady versions out there. One thing to be careful of: there is some talk that a certain amount of THC is actually more helpful for mental illnesses than no THC, but the prevailing research shows that THC likely makes anxiety and psychosis worse. Proceed with caution if you choose this route.
  • Lavender. My cousin is an essential oil purveyor and she turned me on to putting a drop or two of uncut lavender on the soles of my feet to help me sleep. Sounds like a bit of hoodoo, but it works to calm you much faster than just breathing in the scent. It works particularly well on children.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is becoming a mainstay of every facet of mental health. Nighttime is often when negative thoughts really start gearing up, so it is a good idea to have some kind of tool in place to keep these thoughts at bay. Over time I have built this great little imaginary place in my head where nothing bad ever happens and no one asks me to do anything. By focusing on the cool little details of this place, I can push back the negative thoughts. It’s great, but it really does take work to make it a habit to “go to your happy place” when you are wound up in depression/anxiety-land.
  • Relaxation Exercises/Meditation. Have I told you already that I stink at meditation? I stink at meditation. I tend to stick to relaxation exercises because Zen and I are on different highways. There are many methods, but I like two in particular. One is to focus on relaxing each body part from your head to your toes, or vice-versa, really noticing what muscles are tense and then releasing them. The second one I learned in yoga class. Mentally try to feel a body part without actually moving that part. It is surprisingly difficult and when you get it, you find yourself really focused on nothing but your big toe, for example. Bye, bye negative thoughts; hello, third toe from the left.

There really is a ton of advice and options out there to help you get better sleep. You have the standard insomnia advice like no electronic devices an hour before bedtime, have a sleep schedule, create a bedtime routine and the like, but I found that I needed to play around with different combinations of methods. There isn’t likely going to be that one magic potion. Each night I take calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, L-Theanine and CBD Oil. If I find myself particularly keyed up, I take melatonin and/or put lavender on my feet. I have been working on making CBT and relaxation exercises a mainstay of my sleep routine. Even with all of this, I have those nights where my brain just says, “Nope”. On the whole, though, my sleep has improved over time and my spectacled night thinking man has to hang up his scroll and play solitaire.

Have any tips on how to get better sleep? Leave them in the comments below.



“Suicides are More Likely Late at Night, Researchers Find” by Abby Phillip, The Washington Post, June 4, 2014.

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While the articles are written to inform, entertain and support those who visit the site, the Anxious Artist is not a licensed medical professional and the information on these pages is not intended to replace regular medical care. Research and testimonials may show promising results with alternative treatments for mental illness, but these should always be discussed with a qualified medical practitioner before being implemented.

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