As Sunday night rolls around and you start thinking about the busy week ahead, do you start feeling anxious? Do your shoulders and neck tense up? Do you feel a giant knot of stress in the pit of your stomach?
If so, you may be dealing with a nasty case of “Sunday night anxiety.”
Anxiety is a normal emotion, and Sunday night anxiety may just be a sign that you’re challenging yourself at work. Maybe it’s even a mix of anxiety and excitement, which is physiologically nearly identical to anxiety.
What are some ways to overcome it?
While the reasons may be different for each person, one likely cause is thinking of the work week as a single giant project, which, of course, is overwhelming.
As with any big project, it helps to break it down into achievable steps.
Even though you can think about a week as one big chunk, you’ll only live through it one minute at a time, so you only have to tackle one minute’s worth of problems at a time.
You might try breaking down the week by time. For example, plan what you’re going to do on Monday morning, then set a specific time, such as Monday at 1 p.m., for when you’ll plan the next block, and so on.
Another way to break it down is by first putting on your calendar your highest priority items, then planning secondary items around those, and so on down the priority list. Eventually, you’ll get to the remaining items that must be delayed for another week, or perhaps taken off the to-do list altogether.
Another possible cause for Sunday night anxiety might be something big and unpleasant waiting for you at work/school. This could be a troublesome relationship with a colleague or customer, a sense of dissatisfaction at work, a project that’s not going well or any number of ongoing problems that you manage to forget on the weekends but have to face again during the week.
If this is going on, then it’s time to tackle that problem head-on.
Spend some time defining the problem. Write it down. You may find that when you do this, you already know what you need to do to fix it.
You’re probably putting it off because it’s an unpleasant fix, but it’s only hanging over your head the longer you put it off. So do it.
If you don’t know what to do to fix the problem, then make a commitment to yourself to find out. Ask advice from family, friends or colleagues, or seek advice from a therapist or other professional.
What if my anxiety is keeping me awake at night?
If you find that your mental to-do list is keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, then you may want to try this planning strategy I often suggest to my clients:
Step 1. Make a list of any concerns that might keep you from sleeping.
Step 2. Write down a solution for each problem.
- This could be a fix for the problem, if it’s easy.
- Or it may be deciding that this isn’t a big enough problem to worry about now, and you can plan to worry about it later, if it ever happens.
- If you don't know what to do and need to ask someone for advice or information, write that down as the next step.
- If there seems to be no solution and you’ll have to live with it, write that down, along with a suggestion that you or someone else might give you a clue about its resolution soon.
Step 3. Repeat for all concerns.
Step 4. Fold the piece of paper and place on a nightstand; forget it until tomorrow.
Step 5. If you start to worry, tell yourself you’ve already addressed it and that nothing you do while you’re tired (and trying to sleep) will be better than what you've already done, and you’ll think about it again tomorrow.
When should you seek treatment?
If anxiety is taking up a lot of your time, chronically interfering with sleep, interfering with your relationships with loved ones (for example, making you very irritable), making you miserable or keeping you from functioning, then it’s time to seek treatment.
You could ask your primary care provider for help, or find a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety disorder, as are exercise, mindfulness therapies and relaxation training.
Many medications, especially certain antidepressants, are effective for anxiety, and the combination of both medication and psychotherapy can be more effective than either alone.
Lisa Thornton is a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatric and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.