Nighttime anxiety is basically the evening version of the “Sunday Scaries.” Even though you logically know that what awaits (in this case, the night hours) doesn’t bring any major threat, you just can’t shake that feeling of dread.
If you’re like many anxiety sufferers, you may have noticed that anxiety symptoms like intrusive thoughts, worries, feeling like something bad will happen, and even doom-scrolling on social media tends to get worse at night.
Nighttime anxiety is incredibly common and can show up in several ways. It’s the feeling of dread as the darkness starts to hit. It’s when you’re supposed to be unwinding at the end of a busy day but instead, you can’t stop worrying. It’s when things start to really both you in the evening, like the endless laundry or the constant noise. Your patience runs thin.
Many people who notice that their anxiety gets worse at night say that they dread going to sleep, they ruminate or stress over the “what ifs”, their mind generally seems to run wild once the sun goes down, and they have that sinking feeling that they can’t quite put their finger on.
They’re on-edge, restless, irritable, and nervous. In fact, for many, their mood tends to change completely in the p.m. hours after feeling normal or at ease during the entire day.
Nighttime anxiety is basically the evening version of the “Sunday Scaries.” Even though you logically know that what awaits (in this case, the night hours) doesn’t bring any major threat, you can’t seem to stop anxiety from coming . This particular experience with anxiety is extremely common among moms. (Seriously, I hear about this all the time!)
Related: 10 realistic ways to manage anxiety
But why does it happen?
Why does anxiety feel so much worse at night?
There are actually many reasons that explain why anxiety levels noticeably spike after the sun sets. Here, I’m going to break down some of the main factors because you can only begin to solve anxiety once you understand what causes it.
Your brain’s batteries are running low.
If anxiety starts to take hold later and later on in the day, that could be a sign that you’re mentally or emotionally drained and in need of rest and relaxation. (Easier said than done, I know.) You’re tired, emotionally depleted and because of that, you have less cognitive strength to challenge or reason with anxious thinking. Think about it. Have you ever spent the wee hours of the night trying to find a solution to a critical problem… only to wake up in the morning and find that it actually wasn’t such a big deal after all? That goes for all kinds of anxious thoughts. Can you think of a time when, depleted, you believed lies that your anxiety-fuelled mind decided to tell you? (I.e. “I have way too much to do tomorrow,” “I was such a bad mom today,” “My kids don’t like me.”) Counter-arguing anxious thinking takes work. When our brain’s batteries are running low, we lack the capacity to do that work and reason with ourselves. In other words: everything feels like a big deal.
Your idle mind is running rogue.
When we aren’t occupied, our thoughts tend to drift into anxiety, worry, fear, intrusive thoughts, and rumination. We have space available for those thoughts to take hold. In the evening and at night, we generally have less going on and so there are fewer distractions to keep your mind occupied. You’re not working, having conversations, managing tasks or actively parenting. That means that your brain has leeway and more mental space to pay attention to whatever might worry you. During the day, your focus might be on that deadline or getting your child to and from school on time. At night though, you have the chance to stress about the mortgage, illness, family pressures, or your upcoming move.
Your worries about sleep breed more anxiety.
When women—moms in particular—talk about anxiety feeling worse at night, oftentimes they’re referring to the hours when we expect to be fast asleep.(We’re talking 2:00 a.m. when the whole family is asleep.) For many, evening anxiety can easily turn into wide-eyed, sleepless nights. Insomnia is no joke—especially in the perinatal phase. Research has found that pregnant and newly postpartum women experience more cognitive hyperarousal than the general female population and are therefore more likely to get stuck in negative thought patterns or rumination when trying to sleep. This research found that not only are these women wide awake with active minds, but that they’re also often focused on their baby or child’s health. The other component about insomnia-related anxiety, is that the mere stress of not sleeping keeps you awake for longer. When you don’t fall asleep quickly, you start to worry about how terrible you’ll feel in the morning, that the baby will wake soon, etc. This snowballs. At first you’re worried about general life stuff but then you’re worried about what will happen if you stay awake all night. That alone keeps you from drifting off.
Your instincts perceive an increased chance of danger.
Another reason why you might experience more anxiety at night versus in the morning or afternoon: your brain is on alert. Don’t forget that at our core, we are animals and we are wired to protect ourselves and our children. Of course, you’re probably in the comfort and safety of your own home. Your kids might be peacefully sleeping and there might not be anything to really worry about. But mama bear brain is already primed to be extra aware during these hours because there used to be a time when there were more risks and predators lurking after the sun went down.Makes sense, right? You don’t just get to shut that off… convenient as that may be. We don’t get to “fix” anxiety without properly understanding where it comes from and why. It can be easy to dismiss our own mental health concerns when our inner voice tells us, “It’s not that bad,” or “It’s just a bit of anxiety.”
Truthfully though, experiencing uneasiness, unexplainable dread, or sleeplessness can really compromise your overall well-being. When you think about it, feeling a sense of doom or nervousness after the sun goes down is actually very logical. Of course, understanding the “why” is just one piece of the puzzle but getting clear on the causes brings you a step closer to healing.
If nighttime anxiety is truly affecting your life, you’re dealing with it every day, or you’re not able to function as you normally would because of it, consider getting support. If you resonate with this post and want help working through anxiety, you can book in with a counsellor on our team. We specialize in challenges like anxiety, and we’re here to help.