As a parent of a special needs kid, your brain often runs on overdrive. During your busy days of getting kids up and going; getting yourself to work; shopping and meal planning; getting your kids through a seemingly exhausting day of school, therapies and homework, and taking care of household chores before falling into bed, your mind is often in autopilot mode, just active enough to get all your jobs done. For many parents, falling asleep is easy, you’re too tired to stay awake for another moment.
It’s not until 2 or 3 a.m. that your worry brain decides to rev up, your eyes pop open, staring at the ceiling in the dark, your thoughts running a mile a minute.
F. Scott Fitzgerald described this phenomenon in The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”
Why We Worry at Night
Scientists still haven’t come up with a solid answer for why we wake up in the wee hours and paint our worries on the dark bedroom ceiling. One explanation is that when we relax at night, the defense mechanisms that shield us from worrying, unhealthy thoughts are also lulled to sleep. This leaves our “worry brain” free to roam.
Another possible explanation is that, because the distractions of busy everyday life are silenced in the middle of the night, our mind has time to run an inventory of all the problems that need attention. In parents of atypical kids who are already anxious, these feelings become more exaggerated during the middle of the night. The quiet isolation and lack of distractions – 2 things you long for during the day – become your enemy at 3 am, as you long for the peace of restful slumber but for your busy mind reminding you of your worst worries, most pressing problems as well as irrational problems.
And what do we worry about? The wellbeing of our kids, first and foremost. This is especially true for parents of special needs kids. Sleep is important. Fatigue and lack of sleep in parents has recently been identified as a key factor to lowered parenting efficacy and satisfaction.
One parent of two children — one with a life-threatening illness and the other with high-functioning autism — noted that she worries more about her child with autism in the middle of the night. Will he be okay at sleepaway camp? Will the bullies leave him alone? How will he ever grow up, grow away, and live independently? When will he discover girls? Will he go to college?
These are just a few worries of one mom. I’m sure they sound familiar to many parents reading this. During the day, there are a variety of strategies you can implement to help cope with your worries about your child. You can call a friend, arrange an appointment with your child’s therapist, talk to your own counselor, go for a long walk or just veg in front of your favorite TV show. But lying in bed in a dark room, your worries can seem insurmountable, inescapable and even propel some people into panic. Middle of the night panic disorders are not uncommon in people who are already prone to anxiety.
5 tips to handle your middle of the night worries:
1. Prepare for sleep:
Falling into bed mindlessly may be the most common temptation when you have finally done the majority of your to-do list for that day. Don’t do it. Instead, prepare a bedtime ritual that will soothe you and ground your mind and body to ensure a more long lasting sleep. A warm bath, a cup of camomile tea, a cuddle session with your pup or loving partner. Be sure to give yourself a mental hug for making it through another very busy day. Feel as if you didn’t do enough? Remember Scarlett Ohara’s words: “Tomorrow is another day.”
2. Gentle stretches before bed:
Chances are, you didn’t get a chance to take good enough care of your body in your busy day. Gentle pre-bedtime stretches such as child’s pose, gentle seated twists, or legs up the wall will allow you to re-center yourself back in your body. Note the emphasis on the word ‘gentle’. This is not the time to think about how you need to get more aerobic exercise or why you can’t seem to do the splits like you used to. Take it easy and ease your mind back into your body with some gentle releasing moves.
3. Worry Diary:
If you can’t remember your 3 a.m. worries in the warm light of day, keep a worry journal next to your bed. When a worry pops into your head, write it down. Look at your worry journal during the day, and you’ll find they won’t seem so bad. You might be surprised at how much relief this simple exercise can bring.
4. Practice gratitude and compassion
As you prepare to go to sleep, take a few moments to review your day. Breathe deeply and feel gratitude for another day accomplished. Ask yourself, what is one thing that happened today that you are particularly happy or grateful about? Take a few moments to become aware of how that feels. Think about your child. Is there one thing that he or she did today that was growth or was it a difficult day? Remember to feel compassionate for yourself in this moment, shouldering the burden of taking care of this magical child with both good days and harder days. Tell yourself that tomorrow will be a new day and if you can, try to imagine putting your worries to bed on a shelf across the room. Remind yourself that those worries can be picked back up in the morning if you choose but now your mind is going off duty. Finish your meditation with a few slow deep breaths as you attempt to empty out your mind and prepare for sleep.
5. What to do in the middle of the night:
Avoid going to your phone or tablet. Don’t turn on any electronics because the blue spectrum light emitted from such objects is know to impede sleep. Instead, get up and walk around the house. Fix yourself a soothing cup of warm milk or a bite of a banana. Prepare to go back to bed, most people will fall asleep again within the hour.
If you feel comfortable, share some of your worries in the comments below. In future posts, I’ll try to address some of these worries so your pre-alarm-clock hours become more calm and restful.
Until then, sleep well!