What can be done to calm nighttime anxiety?

4 answers | Last updated: Dec 06, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I calm nighttime anxiety when I'm too anxious to sleep? My 82-year-old mother has trouble falling asleep at night. She says she's thinking about all the errands she wants to get done the next day and the bills she has to pay, and her mind just won't stop. Does warm milk really help people sleep? I was going to suggest that she drink some to help her unwind. Or is there something better?

Expert Answers

An adjunct professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, Moira Fordyce is on the board of the American Society on Aging.

Yes, warm milk can help. But I'd suggest she try some other things first that could be even more effective. One solution is for her to take time during the afternoon or early evening to sit down and plan the next day or even the next few days. For this to work, it's essential that she write down everything she needs to do in a list, then prioritize it -- give items letters or numbers. This act can reassure your mom and give her the feeling of being in control.

The next important approach is to create a pleasant, relaxing routine to follow in the hour or so before bedtime. (Older adults should try to go to bed at approximately the same time each night and get up at approximately the same time each morning to establish a routine). Soothing music, aromatherapy, stroking a pet, tending a plant, or a warm bath can all set the scene for more-restful sleep.

Many older adults become sensitive to caffeine as they age, and it's present in a surprising number of foods and drinks. The most common ones to avoid after 3 p.m. are tea, coffee, soft drinks, and chocolate.

A moderate-size alcoholic drink in the evening is fine, but more than that can disturb sleep. You typically end up waking in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep.

Warm milk with a little honey and/or a sprinkling of cinnamon can be soothing, and some studies have suggested that a substance in milk promotes healthy, normal sleep. Sleeping pills do not produce normal sleep.

Some people swear by meditation or prayer if they can't sleep. And many studies have shown that exercising earlier in the day improves the quality of sleep.

Finally, remind your mom that on nights when she can't sleep, it's best to get out of bed and do something not too vigorous -- read a book, listen to music -- then return to bed and try again. The idea is to break the habit of lying sleepless in bed.

Community Answers

Jerry99 answered...

Over the counter non-prescription sleep aids, such as melatonin, may be used as part of the solution. Also, herbal teas, such as chamomile and linden flower are very helpful and relaxing.

Cecilia2 answered...

Check her blood pressure at different times of the day and in different positions. Blood pressure rises in the evenings. And for some, can run low in the daytime. I found I was catatonic during the day (my BP laying down at noon was 47!) But, starting about 11pm, when I should go to bed, I found my energy, and therefore anxiety, level rose to uncomfortable levels (my BP was 150!).

This is my "new normal" due to a brain disorder so my doctor and I are playing with treating the symptoms. The easiest change is to drink extra water to raise my BP before I even get out of bed! We are also modifying the time of day for taking my BP medicines.

The water therapy has worked wonders. I am not dizzy and not as apt to fall in the AM! I am learning to reschedule my chores and do more in the evenings. You just learn to enjoy the unexpected benefits and ignore jokes about your fangs getting longer!

Take care and enjoy your mother every moment you can...even if you would rather be sleeping. And if you need humor, check out the new book "Just Go The F*&* to Sleep". It is one of the funniest books for children...but it works for us insomniac grandmothers too!

Smartchick answered...

I agree with Miora. I had this problem of anxiety disrupting my sleep after a divorce, even worrying about things I had already taken care of, so sometimes you worry when you're in a twilight sleep where logic isn't part of the equation. Writing down her worries and how she plans on dealing with them, her to-do list for the next day is great and worked for me, but make sure she keeps it on the bedside table. That way she can look at it in the middle of the night, to remind herself she's got it covered.