Last week was a big deal for my family and me: Will spoke to a church in Switzerland three days in a row and in German (!), my kids, well, more or less held it together, and I celebrated something I haven’t been able to do for three years: sleep well in a new environment.
If you read my blog post or watched my talk about my struggle with anxiety, you know that bedtime has become somewhat problematic for me. My first high-grade panic attack was around two in the morning while I was in the middle of nursing our then tiny baby Elliott. Talk about terrible timing. The bedroom was pitch black, and the darkness felt all-consuming. I felt trapped, not only by my own body but by the room around me.
I’d heard about people with claustrophobia – a fear of confined places – or nyctophobia – a fear of the dark. My papa, for example, experiences extreme claustrophobia in the dark, a fact my dad told me throughout my childhood. But since I’d never personally experienced those fears, I didn’t understand them, especially being that it centered around bedtime. I’d always embraced the darkness and closed my bedroom doors in order to enhance the warmth and coziness I so appreciated in bed. But once my attacks zeroed in on that time and place, I understood at least a little of what my papa has struggled with all these years.
Fear of first nights
It’s been three years this month since the attacks started, and about a year and a half since I got them under control and stopped. However, my management of the attacks hasn’t gotten rid of this fear I have that, on the first night of sleeping in an unfamiliar place, I will have an attack. That single fear has followed me everywhere the last three years. It usually plays out like this:
- Get into new bed somewhat sleepy and normal-feeling
- No longer sleepy, wonder if it’s possible to literally inhale darkness
- Start thinking about how embarrassing it would be to panic in XYZ’s house and what is my problem why can’t I just go to sleep like normal why can’t I breathe?!
- OH NO WHAT IF I PANIC
- Start planning an exit route to bathroom or living room for light and open spaces
- Feel embarrassed about needing light and space, imagine scenarios of people being disappointed, somehow hurt my own feelings
- But seriously— what if I panic
- Run to planned exit destination, work to get breathing back to normal, watch cat videos
I’ve stayed in hotels, relatives houses, friends’ houses, Airbnbs – and each time, on the first night, I’ve not had an attack, but I’ve nearly talked myself into one every time.
I assumed the same would happen on the first night in Switzerland, but I was wrong. I did not have an almost-attack! It can be done! And what a relief it is to be able to finally write this truth and celebrate it. If some or all of what I’m describing sounds like something you’re going through, I’ll list what I did to calm myself down in order to have a successful first night. I realize there’s no one way to confront this fear, and I realize I may not always have these specific options available to me each time I go somewhere unfamiliar. But if any of this can be helpful, then here is last week’s recipe for a restful evening in a new environment.
Method 1: Breath Prayer/Affirmation
The location of my first night was in Basel, Switzerland. We drove from Vienna to Basel which Google says is about an eight-hour drive. Google did not factor in stops for the kids which turned the eight-hour drive into about eleven hours total. By the time we made it to our host’s house, we were exhausted, stressed, and ready to collapse. Will, however, had to speak at the church’s Bible study along with our hosts which left me alone with the kids in their house. By the time the kids were finally asleep, I was all but certain I was going to have a terrible time getting through the night. But I needed to get out of my head, so I did breath prayers.
Breath prayer is a technique used in ancient times to pray or praise to the rhythm of one’s breathing. Some use it as a way to center them in their prayer time, while others use it as a peaceful, natural way to calm down. Since my breathing is usually the first thing affected by stress and anxiety, I’m trying to incorporate this method more and more into my daily life. On this particular night of worry and anxiety, my breath prayers sounded like this:
Inhale: God is with me—
Exhale: I am not alone.
*Repeat, slowly, ten times*
Inhale: He is my light—
Exhale: Even in darkness.
*Repeat, slowly, ten times*
These are the words I felt lead to say on this night, though there are many other words and phrases that can be inserted however you choose. If you like this method but are looking for something different, you could do breath affirmations. I’ve done these and found them extremely helpful:
Inhale: It’s not me—
Exhale: It’s just my brain.
Inhale: I breathe in peace—
Exhale: I breathe out fear.
Again, so many things you could say here, and you can repeat the breaths as many times and for as long as you like until you feel grounded again.
Method 2: Anti-Stress Coloring Book
I am all about the existence of these babies. I have three huge coloring books in my home, always at the ready. And thanks to a precious friend, I now have a notebook-sized coloring book that has a permanent home in my inkDori which goes with me absolutely everywhere.
So after I finished my breath prayers, I pulled out my coloring pencils and coloring book and slowly colored a page entirely filled with hot air balloons. I find this method to be amazingly therapeutic, and on this evening, I noticed that coloring the same thing over and over again made my eyes heavy with sleepiness and my stress melt away.
Method 3: Pet a Cat
“Cats over dogs” is where I land on that question. Always have, always will. Before we had kids, we had a cat, Tobias, and it’s only been since my anxiety issues that I realized how therapeutic his presence was for me. Don’t worry, guys. He’s alive and well, just living with someone else who doesn’t have tiny babies destroying their house on the regular. I miss having a cat so whenever someone else has one for me to pet, it’s a big deal to me. Our Swiss hosts happened to have a cat, Moreno, and he accompanied me through methods 1 and 2. He sprawled his big fluffy self down across one of my legs and conked out during one of my breath prayer rounds. He served as my elbow rest while I colored. And then when I got too sleepy to color any longer, he curled up in my lap and purred while I pet him. I’m not sure how long we sat like that, but I hadn’t felt as relaxed as I was then in weeks.
Eventually, Moreno Swiss-meowed his goodbyes and took off outside. So I stood up, readied myself for bed, and went to sleep.
The next morning, Will turned over to say good morning as I had fallen asleep before he came back from Bible study. I said, “Morning. Also – I DID IT! I DID IT! I WENT TO SLEEP WITHOUT ANY ISSUES! CAN WE HAVE A CAT!” It was a little early for my loud, celebratory voice, but he went with it and celebrated with me because it was truly an important morning for me; important for both of us, really, as he has had to help me through many, many first nights over the last three years. But not this one, and not the night we spent in Germany following our Swiss trip, either. That means not one, but two successful first nights in unfamiliar spaces in one week.
Jury’s still out on the cat question.
It’s kind of perfect that my first success story happened in the same month I started seriously struggling with anxiety and panic attacks in 2014. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but now I know I can do it.
You can do it, too. It doesn’t matter if you’ve struggled for three years, ten years, or five months. However long you’ve been dreading that hotel stay or night away with family, there’s always room for success. And even if you have days or moments where you don’t succeed, don’t call it a failure. Call it what it is: an opportunity for further learning and growth.
Have any methods to add to the list? What helps you calm down?