Waking Up with Anxiety? We Talked to Oprah’s Sleep Doctor About How to Get a Better Night’s Rest

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Right now, thanks to COVID-19, our brains are more overwhelmed with worries than ever. But if you’re waking up with anxiety night after night—or having trouble drifting off to sleep in the first place—that can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. That’s why we checked in with Oprah’s go-to sleep guru Dr. Michael Breus to get his advice for getting quality shuteye during a pandemic.

1. Start By Giving Yourself an Electronic Curfew

Cue the media diet: To get a better night’s sleep, it’s smart to log off at least 90 minutes before bedtime. This means no more Instagram scrolling, no more scary headline reading, no more texting back and forth with friends about the stresses of the day. Instead, the priority is on relaxing and unwinding—a tall order during this time, but a necessary one, too. Logging off well before bedtime also reduces your exposure to blue light, which simultaneously helps your body ramp up its melatonin production, a natural (and needed) sleep trigger.

2. Treat Your Bedtime Routine Like You Would a Toddler’s

The time you wake up matters. The time you go to bed matters. Consistency is a big step in training your body for the moment it’s time to fall asleep. Think about it this way: With kids, we rely heavily on a step-by-step bedtime routine. (First, the PJs, then the white noise, then a couple of bedtime books, for example.) Now’s a great time to zero in on a routine for yourself, not to mention an actual bedtime (say, 10:30 p.m.) that doesn’t waver night after night.

3. Practice the 4-7-8 Breathing Method

It’s true: A lot of times, we forget to breathe properly as we go about our day to day. But the right technique matters, especially at night, since deep, slow, self-aware breathing is one of the best methods for releasing stress and tension during this time. That’s where Dr. Breus says the 4-7-8 Method comes in. Here’s how it works: First, inhale for four seconds, then hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale slowly for eight seconds. When you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep (or if you wake up with anxiety in the middle of the night), put this technique into action. It will not only help kick off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, it will help reduce stressful thinking, too.

4. Count Thankful Thoughts vs. Sheep

The hard part about middle of the night wakeups is the anxiety dump that happens when we’re alone with our own emotions in the dark. But instead of fixating on your finances or your homeschooling failures (these things can trigger your fight or flight hormones) focus on daily moments you’re thankful for instead. This could be anything from your health to an open window that allowed you to get some fresh air during the day. Bottom line: It gives you something positive to concentrate on and hopefully a calmer thought pattern that helps you drift off.

5. Experiment with Progressive Relaxation

Just like the breathing exercise mentioned above, this mind-body relaxation technique can help cultivate an awareness of the places in your body where you’re unconsciously holding on to stress and tension. How? It starts by tensing and relaxing different areas of the body as part of your nightly wind-down routine. For example, tense your feet first (the lowest point on your body) for 10 seconds, then relax them. Then, go body part by body part—legs, hands, arms, stomach, etc.—until you work your way up to the top of your head. This method helps you drill down on the physical places you’re harboring stress, which should lead to letting go of some of the emotional baggage at the same time.

6. Consider a Melatonin Supplement

Per Dr. Breus, melatonin is the “engine for sleep.” He recommends taking 1 to 1.5 milligrams about a half hour before bed, especially for anyone in their 50s or 60s, a time in life when melatonin production begins to dip. Whether produced naturally or via a supplement, this and a dark room are the ultimate gateways to good sleep, he says.

7. Eat a Spoonful of Raw Honey

While it might seem like anxious thoughts are waking you up in the middle of the night, sleep is a physical process, Dr. Breus explains. That means anxiety is merely an influence when there may be other factors at play. One example? Hunger, which is where raw honey comes in. As it turns out, raw honey is actually quite difficult to metabolize, so it keeps your blood sugar stable and helps you keep asleep if you have a spoonful right before bed.

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Rachel Bowie

Royal family expert, a cappella alum, mom

Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...
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