3 Ways to Sleep Better (Even If You're Stressed)
Anticipatory sleep anxiety occurs when someone can’t sleep the night before an upcoming event.
That event might create worry (for example, giving an important presentation or having surgery) or excitement (leaving for an international vacation).
Even the best sleepers can find themselves awake with anticipatory sleep anxiety.
Anticipatory sleep anxiety may affect the body, manifesting in restlessness or an inability to get comfortable. It may affect the mind, as one may over-plan, re-rehearse, consider possible outcomes and more. In many cases, the anxiety affects the body and the mind, making sleep feel like an impossible feat.
The importance of sleep before an important event
When the upcoming event is work-related, getting refreshing sleep the night before can have a significant impact on its outcome.
Whether you’re giving a presentation or meeting with investors, sleep deprivation can leave you fumbling to recall important information when you most need it. Lack of sleep [also] hinders working memory, so you’re more likely to miss valuable opportunities to connect an in-the-moment remark to your ultimate objective. Sleeping poorly will impair the consolidation of memories too, resulting in fewer meaningful takeaways from the experience.
Studies have shown that poor sleepers have an unconscious tendency to see more “pros” than “cons." In other words, without proper rest, disadvantages are minimized while rewards stand out enticingly. Even those who are typically contemplative deliberate less. Choices are made more impulsively; decisions carry more risk. Whether you’re on stage or driving a colleague to your next meeting, you’re making important choices that can have lasting consequences.
As a sleep-wellness coach, I meet with many clients who express fear about upcoming events; they worry they might freeze up or “choke” when the unexpected occurs. A typical response to such worry, especially from type As, overachievers and perfectionists, is to practice harder or prepare more — often borrowing from precious sleep-opportunity time. Yet “lack of sleep [has been shown] to hinder cognitive flexibility, reducing [one’s] ability to adapt and thrive in uncertain or changing circumstances.” While we cannot foresee or plan for every contingency, sleep is your best guarantee of a poised, professional response.
Don’t let anticipatory sleep anxiety become your worst nightmare. Here are three tips to help you work through it.
1. Practice (or plan) efficiently
The belief that “practice makes perfect” has long been in our lexicon. However, when we strive for perfection, we put undue pressure on ourselves. Like stress, a bit of pressure can be motivating, but a lot can be crippling. And pressure is the perfect antidote to a good night’s sleep.
Contrary to what you may have been taught, you’re not being productive if you’re over-rehearsing. You’re not going to prevent disaster by planning for everything that could possibly go wrong. Rather, you’re practicing the art of self-sabotage.
Practice or plan to the best of your present ability. Learn to do it efficiently. Then let it go.
2. Reinforce your memory of past successes
The brain (mind) is naturally drawn to the negative as an evolutionary, protective mechanism. And we always have a choice about whether we follow such patterns of thinking. While there might be real negative consequences of the upcoming event going poorly, there is an equal chance that something truly fabulous could result.
Even if the event creating anticipatory sleep anxiety is brand new or differs in size or context from what you’ve done before, it’s likely you’ve been in a situation with some similarities.
Brainstorm the similarities between your upcoming event and one where you’ve already experienced a positive outcome. Where have you already been successful when faced with a similar challenge? If you have trouble, consider other roles you play in your life or the different stages you’ve lived through.
Then, name and focus on the feelings that arise from connecting with that experience. For example, pride, joy, contentment or confidence.
3. Leverage a longer bedtime routine
To sleep well before an event you’re anticipating, you may benefit from an extended, richer bedtime routine. If you’ve been practicing or planning, shut down your devices earlier than you normally would.
Then allow yourself to get quiet, both physically and mentally. Whether it’s prayer or meditation, reading fiction, quality time with your family, or taking a hot bath, do something that brings you peace.
Give yourself permission to let your mind move away from the event, trusting you’ve done everything possible to ensure the best possible outcome.
One of my favorite affirmations is from Louise Hay: “I now release the activities of the day, and surrender to sleep, knowing that tomorrow will take care of itself.”
Anticipatory sleep anxiety doesn’t have to interfere with your nights or days. And getting a refreshing night’s sleep is a secret weapon when it comes to being your best.