Do You Get Pillow Anxiety?

Since I’ve started grad school, my anxiety feels worse. I’ve spent the last year thinking about nothing but mental health, and it isn’t exactly relaxing, lol. When before I would simply crawl into bed, close my eyes and sleep, I now lay awake worrying about all the dumb things I said and all the terrible things that could happen. It’s like I’ve joined the least fun club ever. Pleasure to be here.

Before joining, I secretly judged the club. Just close your eyes and go to sleep! I thought, naively. But the first night it happened, I was riveted as the anxiety took shape. Pillow anxiety, as I refer to it now, is not the low-grade, wearable anxiety of everyday life. It’s captivating, like the tensest moments in a horror film, and it’s so irrational that it feels impossible to ignore. The other night, I became obsessed with the idea that an accident was going to occur in which the only outcome was the amputation of a leg. Chomp, gone. With my heart quickening, I thought about the logistics of learning to navigate Manhattan in a wheelchair. I thought about cancer. I thought about what it would be like to be in the middle of the ocean, alone, floating in the waves.

Even with my tendency towards dark thoughts, I’ve usually found appropriate, limited times to indulge them. For the most part, I kept them in check. But with pillow anxiety, they come with power and momentum, like a rip tide.

In grad school, we learn about how to help clients work through anxiety. We create space for people to feel safe and held, where their anxieties can be explored. So I tried this with myself. Be your own therapist, I thought one night, when I was in the depth of pillow anxiety hell. You’re having anxiety. I started. I said it to myself in a frank, compassionate tone. You’re having many thoughts right now, and that’s okay. Let’s watch them go by like clouds. For a minute, I felt better. I imagined a warm hand resting heavily on my shoulder. But the next night, I pushed therapist Joy aside. Anxiety is compelling, and a gentle inner therapist is too easy to dismiss. 

But then. I was talking to a friend, and she said she had learned a trick from her (real, living) therapist. “When you’re in the middle of it, all you say to yourself is ‘not now.’ That’s it. Say it firmly. You can even say it out loud.” This seemed counterproductive. Just as it never works to tell an upset child, “Stop crying now,” I couldn’t imagine that two words could make much of a difference. After all, meditation is about sitting with your thoughts and letting them be there, and I’ve found it helpful and relaxing. Still, the next time I was in bed, I interrupted pillow anxiety with a firm “Not now.”

And something crazy happened. I listened. Maybe because I wanted to listen, because I actually did want it to stop. For a little while, my mind softened. The pulse that was flicking anxiously inside my collarbone quieted. When a bad thought started to creep back in, I said “No” again, even firmer, like a parent would to a child testing the boundaries. Knock it off, I tried. Think about a field of lavender.


We take different tones with ourselves, and it can feel pretty automatic and instinctual. When I’m sad, when I’m lonely, when I’m anxious, when I’m feeling free — the voice in my head is not monotone; it’s expressive, like a person. The amazing thing? I can change the tone. You can always change the tone! Sometimes it’s helpful to hear reassurance, gentleness, other times we need to hear sternness. Sometimes we need to hear a voice that’s rational, other times we need to hear a voice that’s playful. We never need to hear belittlement though, or condescension. This is within our control, within our power.

Thoughts? It’s so good to be back. Xo.

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