Sleeping is a powerful way to recharge after a stressful day. But if your nights are spent tossing and turning, you could be among many Americans suffering from sleep anxiety.
Nearly one-third of all U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Those who do will quickly discover that the condition touches all areas of their life — sleep included.
Research has long linked anxiety to disturbed sleep, and many modern experts consider it a driving force behind sleep disorders like insomnia. But the effects of anxiety on sleep aren’t irreversible. Here’s what you need to know about how the disorders interact.
How Anxiety Impacts Sleep
Feeling anxious occasionally is completely normal. It’s how the body alerts you to threats and prepares you to react to them. But always being anxious, even when there’s no danger, can have negative consequences.
Chronic anxiety keeps your body in a constant state of hyperawareness. For many, it manifests as restlessness or a never-ending sense of being on edge. This makes it hard to wind down at the end of the day. Your overactive mind causes difficulty falling asleep — and if you do fall asleep, you’ll likely wake up just a few hours later.
Anxiety is also thought to disrupt rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As this is when dreams are most vivid, anxious sleepers tend to suffer from nightmares. These not only wake them up at night but may even turn bedtime into a source of fear. But which comes first — anxiety or a sleep disorder?
The answer is: either one. Sleep deprivation makes you more vulnerable to anxiety disorders and increases your sensitivity to everyday stressors. At the same time, anxiety makes it harder to relax and stay asleep. Expecting sleep to be hard to come by is often a source of stress in itself.
The result is a self-reinforcing cycle — you feel anxious and sleep poorly, then lack of sleep makes you feel even more anxious. For this reason, it’s hard for some people to pinpoint which disorder came first. What isn’t hard is determining that the conditions are, in fact, interconnected.
Sleep Disorders Linked to Anxiety
Insomnia is by far the most common sleep disorder, affecting 33% of adults. Those who have it struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Insomnia is thought to have a variety of causes, including depression, an inactive lifestyle and caffeine overconsumption and as a side effect of some medications. But among this list, anxiety stands out.
One study of insomnia patients found that nearly 40% suffered from an anxiety disorder. Because the primary effect of insomnia is loss of sleep, suffering from the disorder can weaken your body’s capacity for stress. As a result, you’ll be more prone to anxiety and likely find it even harder to rest.
Sleep apnea is another debilitating disorder caused by repeated lapses in breathing during slumber. The brain often responds to these interruptions by waking the body up, repeatedly ripping a person from sleep. With sleep apnea, the body spends the entire night in a state of distress. This makes it difficult to respond to perceived dangers during the day, especially for those who already have anxiety. The disorder also makes catching up on sleep a struggle, which further leaves the affected person vulnerable to chronic anxiety.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a less common affliction that affects up to 10% of U.S. adults. It’s mainly characterized by an uncomfortable feeling in the legs that only goes away with movement. Researchers have yet to determine if anxiety leads to RLS or vice versa. But because the disorder makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep, it can have the same effect as insomnia or sleep apnea — less sleep, more prone to anxiety.
How to Improve Sleep Hygiene
If you experience anxiety when trying to sleep, improving your sleep hygiene may help you break the cycle. The first step in building better hygiene is to set aside enough time to sleep. This means going to bed earlier and winding down the day’s activities well before bedtime to give your mind and body time to decompress. Stick to a regular schedule, as going to bed and waking up at the same times each day can train your body to sleep when you want it to.
Creating a comfortable environment can also help you sleep better. Removing distractions like bright lights and noisy devices prevents overstimulation just before bed. Try to avoid using your phone immediately before bedtime. Consider reading or listening to soft music instead.
Certain substances may be affecting your slumber. Caffeinated drinks and alcoholic beverages are best enjoyed well before bed, and so are large meals. Exercising regularly is also a good way to improve sleep, but avoid too much physical activity right before bed, as this can make your body more alert. Keeping your bedroom’s temperature cool can also make it easier to fall asleep.
Relaxation Strategies: Calming the Mind Before Sleep
Sometimes, better sleep habits aren’t enough. If you still find anxiety keeping you awake, relaxing your mind before bed can help you fall — and stay — asleep.
Creating a before-bed self-care routine can ritualize your nightly activities. Whether taking a bath, meditating, going for a walk or reading, finding something calming to do just before bed will put your mind into rest and relaxation mode.
Besides finding a nighttime hobby, try leaving the day’s stressors out of the bedroom. This means making yourself unavailable to colleagues as soon as it’s time to start winding down. Similarly, create physical work-life boundaries by limiting professional tasks to your desk.
Maintaining strong relationships with friends and family can also help you relax after a stressful day. A quick evening chat can be enough to calm you down before bed.
Seeking Help for Sleep Anxiety
Good sleep habits are key to a healthy lifestyle. But anxiety and insomnia can keep you up at night. When relaxation techniques aren’t enough to calm your mind, it may be time to seek professional help.
At Restore Mental Health, our team of professionals is prepared to help you overcome anxiety. With compassion and years of experience, we’ve developed a comprehensive treatment approach that’s helped our patients transform their lives for the better.
Rediscover the power of a good night’s sleep. Reach out to the Restore team today to get started.