Most of us know too much junk food changes our health. Now what about Junk Sleep? Our habits and actions by day can impact our sleep at night. According to Sleep Advisors Dr. Chris Winter and Jade Wu, Ph.D., our cultural expectations around sleep — believing we should be able to immediately switch from awake to sleep — can damage our well-being.
“We’re trying to make sleep happen on demand, as if it were a button we could press to shut down,” says Wu, in conversation with Winter, for Sleep.com’s Unjunk Your Sleep initiative.
Some of this belief comes from our addictions to productivity, screens, and stimulation, which have us wired for instant gratification. This habit also sneaks into our ‘quiet’ moments and downtime — two vital ingredients for healthy sleep.
And the harder it is to attain good sleep, the more anxiety you may feel about getting good sleep, leading to an overwhelming and negative feedback cycle.
Why do I get anxiety at night?
Stimulation and over-productivity can cause the body to operate in fight-or-flight mode, like there’s a tiger lurking around the corner, says Wu. She identifies this state as an inhibitor to relaxation. If it builds enough, it can cause an all-too-common scenario: suddenly looking at the clock, realizing that there is not enough time to sleep, and feeding our need to ‘rush sleep.’
As Wu and Winter explain, ‘Junk Sleep’ isn’t just a feeling. It’s the type of sleep that comes as a result of habits and behaviors. Not taking time to wind down before bed or not keeping to a consistent schedule to help stabilize your circadian rhythms are some examples but judging your sleep habits as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is another culprit too.
“One of the biggest sleep issues is putting too much emphasis on sleep problems,” Winter explains. For instance, some people think one night of insomnia means they’re a terrible sleeper while others may believe falling asleep on demand makes you a star snoozer. Even an overemphasis on Junk Sleep could further cause Junk Sleep, as beliefs like these can feed sleep anxiety.
To figure out how to slow down, you also need to know what feeling is triggering your fight-or-flight mode. We spoke to sleep psychologists and specialists to help identify these emotions and how to calm them.
How to calm nighttime anxiety
1. Remind yourself not every night has to be perfect
Sleep research shows a direct connection between perfectionistic tendencies and insomnia. For example, one study found that perfectionistic males were twice as likely to struggle with sleep disturbances as their peers.
“[Perfectionism makes you think if] you have a night of poor sleep, it's going to ruin your entire day,” says Jennifer Mundt, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Northwestern University. The problem with striving for perfect sleep is that you can’t prepare for the unexpected, and the disappointment that comes with not being prepared could cause anxiety insomnia.
Winter reminds his patients that “failure to think about details makes people good sleepers and better performers.” Even if your sleep was poor last night or every once in a while, history doesn’t litter the present moment, he reminds us.
Perfectionists tend to hyper-focus on bad days and dismiss the good times, but Winter suggests doing the opposite, keep track of what's going well, and don't panic if you have one night of sleep that isn't great.
2. Identify (and move away from) fear-based motivations
The feeling of anxiety is a “future-oriented response to a threat,” explains Joel Minden, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist. If you’re caught in the belief that your personal pursuit of perfect sleep is the answer to life satisfaction, research shows this way of thinking can feed anxiety.
And the irony of leaning too far into “take charge” beliefs is that it ends up eroding our trust in ourselves and sends us on an endless chase for bigger and better solutions — but when those solutions stop working, anxiety finds a way to sneak back in.
Notice where your motivation for sleep comes from. Fear-based messages that motivate action — think "poor sleep causes hypertension" or "bad sleep leads to cardiovascular problems" — can make anxiety grow. Doomsday messages don't help poor sleepers feel relaxed, says James Wilson, sleep behavior expert and educator.
Consider reframing sleep as the activity rather than an avenue for other benefits. As a night owl, Wu has a rule about spending the last hour before bed in “being” mode, rather than “doing.” This helps prime her brain to slow down and see bedtime as a period for rest and digest, and not fight or flight.
3. Sleep goals seem impossible? Simplify and reset them
“I’ve worked with many poor sleepers who purchased magical potions, mattresses, meditations, and sleep apps to improve their sleep,” Wilson shares. “When these tools don't work, some of these people felt confused, scared, and slept worse than ever.”
Too many trackers and hacks may end up inducing more stress, worry, and an over-reliance on them. This behavior can induce “orthosomnia,” a preoccupation with sleep data that makes it difficult to sleep, Winter points out.
“How you feel the next day is the best way to judge whether you slept well. If you feel rested, don't worry about what the tracker says,” Mundt advises.
If you find yourself struggling to meet your initial goal, break your approach into smaller goals. Revamping sleep can be like a marathon, and your body needs all the practice it can get. Don’t forget that part of that practice is implementing compassionate encouragement for when anxiety gets the better of your sleep.
4. Look to yourself for validation
Where there are guidelines and recommendations, there may also be anxiety. Minden shares how people may fear being judged when their health stats don't garner praise on social media or from friends. This need for validation can distort facts and feelings, including how rested you feel.
“Anxiety can make people feel like their sleep is worse than it actually is,” Winter shares. For instance, tossing and turning may get misinterpreted for chronic insomnia. Psychologists call this “emotional reasoning,” a thought-trap that causes us to mislabel feelings as the truth.
Winter suggests trying to step "outside of the fear" with perspective-taking exercises. Ask yourself: “What’s a reasonable sleep goal?” and “What can I control?”
5. Distract yourself sans screens
One way to lessen sleep anxiety is to draw your attention towards something else, says Mundt. For instance, pay attention to routines that feel good and relaxing. Perhaps it’s making a cup of tea before bed or listening to your favorite song. Whatever it is, entertain the relaxing activity for its own sake.
Another tip: Try deep-breathing exercises or light exercise. Doctors say these exercises body can lessen performance anxiety by calming down the body’s stress response.
6. Focus on small wins and joys
Shame clouds judgment, making us believe there's a direct relationship between who we are and what we do, Minden tells us. This spiral can lead to learned helplessness, which blocks core emotions like joy, happiness, and anger. When we can't rely on these emotions to guide us, we feel stuck in whatever stressful situation arises.
To break this cycle, Minden recommends “focusing on the behavior instead of your worth as a person.” For example, try to identify small wins like going to bed a few minutes earlier, or moments you didn’t let self-critical thoughts get the best of you.
7. Get into a routine
Anxiety often stems from a fear of the unknown. But having a consistent bedtime routine can provide guardrails against intrusive thoughts about the unknown because it gives your brain something to expect: Sleep, which happens to also be the ultimate solution to sleep anxiety.
If that feels hard to wrap your head around, don’t worry. Remember the tip about breaking down large goals into smaller ones? That comes in handy here.
To start, Wilson recommends identifying your sleep chronotype. The two most well-known chronotypes are owls and larks. Owls prefer to stay up late, while larks are natural-born early risers, however most people are in between. Knowing your sleep type can help you determine what sleep time is right for you, which can help you find what works best with your body’s natural rhythm.
“In the end, it’s best not to fight nature,” says Wilson. If worrying about sleep is taking away from your ability to relax and fall asleep, remind yourself that the nature of sleep is a personal journey.
What steps you need to achieve good sleep will look different from someone else and may take some time to figure out. It can also change, depending on the season or where you are in life. Wu leaves us with one key factor for achieving good sleep: Patience.
“If you’re driving 80 mph on the highway, you can’t stop suddenly, you need to slow down first,” she says. With a high-adrenaline emotion like anxiety, slowing down may just be what the sleep doctors ordered.