“In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, five, six yourefineyourefineyourefine seven, eight. In, two, three four…”
I said the words in my head like a crazed conductor, sternly scolding my chest when it tried to contract again too soon. My lungs preferred hyperventilating to this slow, rhythmic exercise. I felt like I was choking every time I breathed out for too long. But eventually my heart rate slowed. The air stopped feeling oppressive. I stopped counting as I drifted off to sleep.
For a few weeks, this was my bedtime ritual. As soon as I got under the covers, I would immediately feel guilty that I hadn’t completed all these tasks. But during the day, when I had the time and energy (and daylight) to devote to working, I only remembered a fraction of them. They seemed to hold back, waiting to rush at me the second I turned out the light.
It was like a protracted Easter egg hunt. Some eggs, hidden in obvious places, were easily spotted and placed safely in my basket – the completed tasks that I had already planned on doing. Then there were others that I glimpsed as I went about my day – the random, little things I suddenly remembered and addressed even though they weren’t part of my original list.
And then, when it got too dark to look for Easter eggs, my workaholic little brain piped up: “You can’t go to bed yet. We didn’t find all of them.”
“It’s fine. They’re plastic. They won’t hurt anything if we don’t find all of them until tomorrow.”
“But what if we don’t find them in time and the candy in them melts? Or what if someone gets annoyed that we didn’t collect them all? No, we should keep looking.”
“I promise you, it’s fine. We’ll look with fresh eyes tomorrow.”
“Did you check under the sofa? I think I saw one under the sofa.”
And on it went. As much as I told myself that I had time, that I hadn’t missed any deadlines or accidentally forgotten to reply to someone, my anxieties had a new worry for every one I dismissed. The most compelling of these was, “But if you forgot to do it today, what if you keep forgetting until you completely forget?”
Cue racing heart and shallow breathing.
My mental state, whether in the midst of my depression or just a lot of stress, has always been the most frantic at night. I have trouble with the concept of “rest” when I feel I haven’t earned it, whether that be letting go of emotions until I am better equipped to address them or getting some sleep even though I haven’t exercised/written/worked “enough” that day. So bedtime, when I put away all distractions and wait alone with my thoughts before falling asleep, is a great time for my mind to rebel.
Some nights found me up with that damn basket, hunting the rest of the Easter eggs (e.g., all-nighters on projects that weren’t even due the next day, just because they were worrying me).
Other times I’d stay up long enough to map out a plan for exactly where to look for the eggs the next day (putting together a specific schedule for the next day to address all the random tasks I was suddenly remembering).
On occasion, I do manage to shush my brain entirely, with exercises like breathing (fun fact: exhaling longer than you inhale is supposed to disrupt the fight-or-flight response) or doing something similarly meditative like saying my rosary.
Melatonin supplements work too.
I’m still learning how to negotiate with my own mind and body in order to get some sleep. But even just recognizing that this time of day can be difficult – that’s a start.
What stress-reduction/brain-quieting strategies work best for you? What time of day do you find it hardest to deal with stress and anxiety?