Sleep anxiety is one of those vicious, self-fulfilling cycles where worrying about not being able to fall asleep or being sleep deprived makes you more likely to not fall asleep and be sleep deprived. While you can optimise your environment for sleep and use useful tips for getting more shut-eye, if your mindset isn’t right, everything else is going to fall by the way-side. A big chunk of the population suffers from some form of anxiety surrounding sleep and it is especially common with people who are aware of the immense value of sleep.
Why is this? It would seem that the more someone is aware of the positives of getting enough sleep, or aware of the negatives of not getting enough, is sufficient to produce some level of sleep anxiety about getting enough of the good stuff. Like with something that we attach to our identity, it is often the case that the more value we place on something, the more likely we are to treasure it and worry about losing it, if we aren’t careful.
As a result, many people, including myself, have had many restless nights of worrying and experiencing some degree of sleep anxiety. Nights worried about getting eight hours or worried about getting enough REM or Deep Sleep. According to the best-selling Why We Sleep book:
Getting too little sleep across adult life span will significantly increase risk of Alzheimer’s. Amyloid plaques build up in deep sleep generating regions (also memory cementing regions) when you have insufficient sleep. Loss of deep NREM caused by this assault lessens ability to remove amyloid from the brain at night, resulting in more amyloid, resulting in less deep sleep etc. Vocal advocates of little sleep (Thatcher, Reagan) went on to develop the disease.
Although data might be true, it isn’t always helpful if used in the wrong way. It is facts like these that would stick in my mind as I laid awake worrying about all of the amyloid plaques that I was accumulating while I was fighting to get to sleep. Not fun and definitely not helpful.
Thankfully, there is a solution to this sort of sleep anxiety that I have found to be particularly effective. It is called ‘Quiet Wakefulness’.
What is Quiet Wakefulness?
In a nutshell, Quiet Wakefulness is simply the act of resting with your eyes closed. Whether you are technically napping or technically trying to fall asleep, the idea of simply resting with your eyes closed takes away most of the stress and anxiety surrounding the ‘fall asleep immediately and get eight perfect hours or die’ mindset.
Quiet Wakefulness is best done lying flat on your bed but can be done wherever is comfortable. Many of you may have already experienced some form of Quiet Wakefulness before but may have just lacked the specific word for your experience. If you have lain down for a short 20-minutes or less with your eyes closed and been drifting in and out of consciousness having weird thoughts and visions and images popping up, you have probably experienced it before.
Why it might work for sleep anxiety
There are a number of reasons why Quiet Wakefulness might work for sleep anxiety. Here are some of the most popular:
- Takes away the stress and stigma surrounding sleep. Much of the anxiety comes from all the benefits that sleep is known for, all of the drawbacks of not getting enough of it and the associated pressures that these two sides come with. If you are just lying down for a rest, where’s the worry in that?
- Slip into sleep easier. The ‘time to rest’ rather than ‘time to sleep’ mindset not only relaxes you more, it usually helps you to fall asleep much quicker and easier anyway. Two for one.
- Feel more refreshed. While bomb-ass naps that last two and a half hours might feel satisfying, they also leave you not knowing what year it is, how you got there and in an extremely groggy (and sometimes grumpy) state. Some studies have shown that reaction times post-sleep rather than post-rest are slower. Not ideal if you have other things to be getting on with.
- Cognitive Benefits. Although sleep itself is king when it comes to rest, recovery and all-round great health, rest shows some signs of also having similar cognitive benefits. One study on rats found that during their form of quiet wakefulness (lying in one place, grooming themselves etc), they replayed and contextualised past events in order to inform future choices. Another small study out of the University of California suggested that for some cognitive tasks, the benefits of resting are equal to those of actually sleeping. Although the studies are relatively small and focused on non-humans, there is a strong implication that not only is Quiet Wakefulness useful for sleep anxiety, it also has many exclusive benefits of its own.
While Quiet Wakefulness certainly isn’t a replacement for good old sleep, it can serve as a fantastic supplement. Not only does it help to facilitate quicker sleep, it takes away much of the sleep anxiety that stops sleep from happening in the first place.
The next time you can’t sleep because of stress or worry, tell yourself that you are just going to have a quick rest with your eyes closed instead. You can thank Quiet Wakefulness when you wake up refreshed the next morning.