How Anxiety Affects Your Sleep and How to Change It

Anxiety is a common mental health condition, affecting millions of people worldwide. About a third of adults experience anxiety at some point in their lives, with many of them managing the condition for decades. Although anxiety can appear in many forms, from a generalised anxiety disorder that interferes with everyday thoughts and activities, to panic and social anxiety disorders and PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorders, there’s one thing they all have in common: anxiety is linked to sleep disorders and can have a significant effect on how much, and how well you sleep.  

The Sleep-Anxiety Connection  

In the past, sleep disorders like insomnia were typically considered a symptom of another illness or disorder. And when it comes to anxiety, this is certainly true, as anyone who has laid awake with worrisome thoughts running through their mind can attest. Sleep disorders, including insomnia and nightmares, are actually included in the definitions of and diagnosis criteria for anxiety disorders. 

However, as it turns out, sleep and anxiety actually form a vicious cycle. Not only does anxiety keep you up at night, but the disturbances can also actually increase your risk of anxiety and other mental illness.  Researchers from Harvard University have found that a lack of sleep negatively affects your ability to be emotionally and mentally resilient, while also increasing the prevalence of negative thoughts and emotional sensitivity.  

Doctors suspect that this is due to the brain chemistry brought on by sleep -- or lack thereof. Disrupted sleep affects the production of certain neurotransmitters and stress hormones. For example, sleep is closely tied to cortisol production. Cortisol is a vital hormone most commonly associated with the “fight or flight” reflex. However, it’s also vital to regulating blood sugar and blood pressure, maintaining energy, and maintaining a regular sleep cycle. Cortisol works with melatonin to control your periods of sleep and wakefulness. 

Additionally, excessive cortisol production, which can be triggered by anxiety and stress, can keep you from getting healthy sleep by disrupting your cycle and reducing melatonin production. At the same time, elevated levels of cortisol are also associated with increased anxiety. Without sleep to give the body a chance to repair itself and reduce the amount of cortisol in your system, you can suffer from anxiety, mood swings, and depression -- not to mention the physical effects of excess cortisol, including an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease as well as lowered immune function.  

Cortisol is just one hormone that contributes to the sleep-anxiety connection and the increased prevalence of insomnia, nightmares, and night-time panic disorders. The neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are also closely tied to your sleep cycle and anxiety. Decreased levels of these brain chemicals can contribute to depression and anxiety -- and contribute to your ability to fall, and stay, asleep.  

Treating Anxiety and Sleep Disturbances 

The close relationship between anxiety and sleep problems means that they usually need to be treated concurrently. Some of the most effective treatments include: 

  1. Cognitive-behavioural therapy. Research shows that working with a therapist or psychologist to learn methods to change thought patterns and improve coping skills is effective at reducing the effects of generalised anxiety disorder and improving sleep, even when sleep isn’t specifically addressed in the sessions.  
  2. Relaxation. Incorporating relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises into a daily routine can reduce muscle tension and increase calm, which in turn can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.  
  3. Improved sleep hygiene. Making changes to sleep habits and the sleep environment can make falling asleep easier and improve sleep quality. Reducing screen time before bed and caffeine consumption, getting exercise during the day, and focusing on relaxing and avoiding stress or stimulating activities before bed can help you get better rest.  
  4. Medication. Doctors may prescribe medication to support sleep if other methods aren’t effective. These are typically benzodiazepines, which are used for extreme anxiety or insomnia, and only for use in the short term.

If you are living with anxiety and struggle to sleep, there are some additional steps you can take to spur sleep on. Start by talking with your doctor about your struggles; they can help identify the cause of your sleeplessness and make suggestions for treatment. On a nightly basis, though, you can support sleep by: 

  1. Creating an environment conducive to sleep. A dark, cool room is best for sleep. Use blackout curtains or an eye mask to block out excess light.  
  2. Preparing for sleep. After taking a relaxing shower or bath, get ready for bed by writing down your anxieties and worries. Sometimes, simply getting your concerns down on paper can help you relax enough to drift off.  
  3. Get out of bed. If you’re struggling to sleep, don’t lie in bed staring at the clock. Get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy enough to try again. Avoid watching TV or using electronics, which will emit blue light that keeps you up. Read a book, practice some sleep mantras, or work on a puzzle, which can help you relax and sleep. 
  4. Reach out. Talk about your anxiety with friends or family, and don’t be afraid to be honest or even shed some tears. Sometimes, just knowing you have someone else on your side can help you manage your anxiety.  

Anxiety can have a major effect on your sleep, but it doesn’t have to. Understanding the connection and taking steps to manage your mental state can help you sleep better, and hopefully, feel better.  

As we have read, stress and anxiety can wreak havoc with our sleep and seriously impact our daily lives. If workplace stress is contributing to health problems or difficulty sleeping, then it is time to action. Here are 10 steps you can take to reduce workplace stress.  

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