Sunday Scaries: A Psychiatrist Shares How She Deals With Sunday Night Anxiety

I’m a psychiatrist, and I, too, cringe at the thought of Monday. Why do Mondays get such a bad rap? They mess with our mind: Mondays signal another start to a probably hectic week full of responsibilities, and that the fun is over. When we think about Mondays, we remember how much we have to do and reality sets in again.

And on Sundays, just like most other people I know, I feel pretty anxious. Sundays contribute to a vicious cycle of stress when we let anxious thoughts about the week ahead get the best of us in advance. This week, for instance, I tossed and turned in bed Sunday night feeling frustrated and tense. I kept thinking to myself that I would never be able to fall asleep, and I knew that my Monday was going to be even more difficult to get through without a decent amount of rest.

As you probably know, the term “Sunday scaries” describes a phenomenon driven by a buildup of anticipatory anxiety at the beginning of the workweek.

And even though I’m a mental health professional, I’m not immune to the emotional changes that many of us face at the end of the weekend.

These higher levels of anxiety on Sundays can impact multiple aspects of your life, including your sleep and mood. If you’ve ever felt a sense of dread hit you mid-afternoon on a Sunday or stayed up staring at the ceiling thinking of all the things waiting for you tomorrow, you know what we’re talking about.

I’m sure many of you can relate: Fridays tend to consist of winding down at night from a stressful week, followed by a full day of freedom away from work on Saturdays. But then comes Sunday, and while the earlier part of the day might be dedicated to relaxing (attending Sunday brunch, watching football, etc.), the anxiety about returning to work, a lengthy to-do list, and unanswered emails on Monday typically grows stronger as the final hours of your weekend tick by.

I was never actually conscious of this change in my own mood and behavior on Sundays until a patient brought up the subject with me, asking me for a sleep aid to take only on Sunday nights.

My patient observed that their anxiety tended to be highest right before starting the week. As I listened to my patient vent about this common inability to “turn off” mentally Sunday nights, I could empathize—and then I had a realization that I actually felt the same way.

Not only do I struggle with falling asleep when stress gets to me, but I either wake up early or constantly hit the snooze button in an attempt to delay the week’s inevitable responsibilities as long as possible. I’ve also noticed that I’m not as efficient on Mondays, but my productivity and attitude steadily improves as the week progresses. Therefore, I’ve found that the best way to conquer the Sunday scaries, for me, is to take charge and be more proactive on Sunday to change this thought pattern.

Here are the steps I follow myself in order to stop the Sunday scaries from getting the best of me.

1. Learn to identify and then call out your anxious thoughts on Sunday.

Take note of your specific thoughts on Sunday and see what patterns you spot. A couple of common thoughts I’ve picked up on from both myself and patients are, “I’m so behind on X, I should have gotten more done last week!” and, “I’m so dreading that big nerve-racking meeting/presentation/appointment I have on Wednesday, this week is gonna suck.”

Let’s address the first anxious thought: If you find yourself feeling bad about procrastinating last week or for not setting yourself up for an easier week ahead, instead of wishing you could go back and change the past, channel that anxious energy into having a more productive start to the week and tell yourself that you’ll make that big task a priority.

The same thing goes for making premature assumptions that the week isn’t going to go well: Chances are that you’ve been in a similar situation before—and ended up doing perfectly fine. Our inner critic can seem even louder on Sunday, so go easy on yourself and remind yourself that having these types of anxious thoughts is normal, but they are just that—anxious thoughts.

Because the way we start our day generally influences how we’ll feel the rest of the day, make it a Sunday habit to call out or challenge each negative thought with a positive one. For example, I often give myself a mini pep talk by saying something like, “You’ve done this before, and you know you’ve got this!” or, “You’re just anxious because you want to do a good job, and you will.” Come up with your own lines or mantras that resonate with you.

2. Write a (short) to-do list on Sunday.

Another strategy I use to deal with anxious feelings on Sunday is to write out my to-do list for Monday—or for the the whole week, if I’m feeling really ambitious. But even writing just a few tasks you’d like to knock off on Monday (reply to emails, grocery shop after work, call Mom) can help you go into the week with a plan and start you off on a productive note. Your to-do list doesn’t need to be exhaustive, unless you’d like to map out more of your week in detail—your choice.

Putting to-dos to paper can help alleviate some of the stress by getting them off of your mind and into words; this acknowledgment is really you taking a small, actionable step. Seeing your tasks on paper can also help you get organized and put proper thought into how to check items off in an efficient way. I ask myself questions like, which of these tasks is the easiest and can be done over coffee first thing in the morning? What task will require the most time? I also notice that, when I see my Monday to-do list spelled out in front of me, it’s often not as overwhelming as I’ve hyped it up to be in my head.

I try to remember to write my to-do list Sunday nights shortly before I go to bed in an effort to declutter my mind right before trying to fall asleep. It’s on paper, you’re not going to forget it, and you have permission to stop thinking about it.

3. Plan a semi-productive Sunday morning.

There’s this notion that Sundays are meant to be lazy, and many people turn off their alarms and sleep in. When you do this, you may actually set yourself up for a harder time falling asleep when your normal bedtime approaches.

I prefer to keep Sunday a bit more structured by waking up at a time that’s a bit closer to my normal wake time during the workweek. (By the way, maintaining as close to a consistent wake time as possible is actually what sleep experts recommend anyway.)

Then I typically schedule a morning activity on Sundays, like a workout or going to church, to force myself out of bed, which makes the routine of waking up early on Monday much easier. Also, get in bed at an appropriate time to ensure a good night’s rest (but you know this!).

4. Get off your computer and smartphone, seriously.

Believe me, I understand the urge to check email to wrap your head around what you’re in for on Monday. But if the act of checking work emails stresses you out, set boundaries on how often you check. For instance, maybe you allow yourself to check your email for 10 to 15 minutes after breakfast on Sunday to avoid any surprises at the beginning of the week, but that’s the only “email window” you allow yourself for the day.

Passively scrolling through social media during downtime on Sundays can also make you feel bummed out. Comparison on platforms like Instagram is a natural impulse, yes. But whenever I scroll through social media because I’m bored on a Sunday, I find that I compare myself even more to others, especially when I see pictures of people on vacation or doing fun things while I’m just on my couch. There’s a sense of, “Oh, that person had a better weekend than I did,” and it can leave a person feeling like they missed out on an opportunity or didn’t properly take advantage of their free time.

Of course, this isn’t true, and weekends are for you to spend as you see fit and to do what makes you happy. So, be extra mindful of any smartphone use. If social media impacts you heavily on Sundays, try using an app, like Moment, that helps you monitor how much time you spend on social media and can also block the apps for you when you want a break. Also, try using social media more purposefully: Using it to follow and keep in touch primarily just with real friends and family, and not to follow endless influencer accounts whose highlight reels make you envious, can ultimately help improve how you feel on Sunday.

Another smartphone tip: I recently started enforcing the strategy of putting away my phone one full hour before bed and found that this super simple technique (even though it can be tough to keep your hands off) has improved my sleep immensely.

5. Schedule fun activities and self-care time during the week.

The goal here is to make the difference between, say, a Monday and a Friday feel slightly less extreme. Why save all fun and enjoyment for the end of the week? I find that the work week is much more tolerable if I plan perks for Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday, which might be anything from going out to a dinner with friends or watching a reality TV show on a particular night. I go as far as noting these things in my calendar so I treat self-care time as important as appointments, meetings, and other obligations.

Dr. Vania Manipod, D.O., board-certified psychiatrist, is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Western University of Health Sciences and currently in private practice in Ventura, Calif. She is also the creator of the blog Freud & Fashion. Follow her on Instagram at @freudandfashion.

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