Between tossing and turning, sleep and anxiety play a game of tag, with our minds as the playground.
In today’s caffeine-fueled, screen-obsessed society, quality sleep has become a mythical creature, like unicorns or politicians with good hair.
Meanwhile, anxiety disorders have become uninvited party guests that refuse to leave, turning your mind into a wild circus of “what ifs” and “maybes.”
Sleep and anxiety share a complex and bidirectional relationship that can profoundly impact our overall health and daily functioning. By gaining a deeper understanding of this relationship, we can equip ourselves with the knowledge needed to improve our sleep habits and manage anxiety more effectively.
The Impact of Anxiety on Sleep
Anxiety, often characterized by excessive worry and heightened stress, can have a profound effect on our ability to obtain restful and restorative sleep.
As our minds race with anxious thoughts, it becomes challenging to find calm and relaxation, leading to various sleep complaints.
Here’s how anxiety may affect sleep:
1. Insomnia and Anxiety
Anxiety is closely associated with insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and being unable to go back to sleep.
Anxious thoughts can keep the mind hyperactive, preventing it from entering the relaxed state required for sleep initiation, hence you end up tossing and turning in your bed.
What’s worse is that lack of sleep can result in dark bags under your eyes, also called “dark circles”. It can also result in puffy eyes. But don’t worry. There are plenty of solutions for this matter. Besides taking care of your sleep hygiene, you can also invest in a good vitamin C serum for your eyes which will help lighten the discoloration.
2. Nightmares and Disturbing Dreams
Moreover, it can manifest in our dreams, resulting in nightmares or vivid dreams that leave us feeling frightened and agitated during sleep. These distressing dreams can lead to frequent awakenings, possibly psychiatric disorders and PTSD, and difficulty returning to sleep.
3. Restless Sleep & Hypervigilance
Anxious individuals often experience restless sleep, characterized by tossing and turning throughout the night. This constant movement disrupts the sleep cycle and prevents the body from entering the deep, restorative stages of sleep.
In addition, it can trigger a state of hyperarousal, where individuals remain on high alert even during sleep. This constant state of arousal can worsen sleep problems and prevent the mind and body from reaching a state of relaxation.
4. Early Morning Awakening
Anxiety can cause early morning awakening, where individuals wake up several hours before their intended wake-up time and find it challenging to fall back asleep. This early awakening can result in chronic sleep deprivation and exacerbate anxiety symptoms during the day.
5. Sleep Duration & Delayed Sleep Onset
People with anxiety disorders may find it challenging to relax and unwind before bedtime, leading to delayed sleep onset. As bedtime approaches, worries and anxious thoughts may intensify, making it difficult to fall asleep at the desired time.
Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep: Scientific Evidence
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), nearly 50% of adults with generalized anxiety disorder experience difficulties with sleep.
Moreover, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine revealed that individuals with insomnia are 17 times more likely to have comorbid anxiety.
Researchers have also found that disrupted sleep patterns can heighten anxiety levels. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience discovered that sleep deprivation increases the brain’s anticipatory reactions to harmful stimuli, making us more susceptible to anxiety.
The Impact of Sleep on Anxiety
Getting a good night’s sleep is like hitting the reset button for our minds and bodies.
However, when we consistently experience poor sleep, it can have a significant impact on our mental health, particularly on anxiety levels.
Here’s how disrupted sleep patterns may affect our mental health:
1. Sleep Deprivation and Emotional Regulation
Research suggests that when we don’t get enough sleep, it impairs our ability to regulate emotions effectively.
Sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to experience heightened emotional reactivity, leading to increased anxiety in response to stressors that may not have elicited such a strong reaction with adequate rest.
2. Amygdala Hyperactivity
The amygdala, a part of our brain responsible for processing emotions, can become hyperactive when we’re sleep-deprived. This hyperarousal can lead to the development of anxiety disorders, making individuals more susceptible to feelings of fear and anxiety even in non-threatening situations.
3. Negative Thought Patterns
Constant sleepiness can contribute to the development of negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions which can in turn lead to a negative life.
Sleep-deprived individuals may be more prone to pessimism, catastrophic thinking, excessive worry, and disorders like major depressive disorder, all of which are some of the characteristic features of anxiety disorders.
4. Increased Stress Hormones
Sleep plays a crucial role in regulating stress hormones, such as cortisol. When we don’t get enough rest, cortisol levels can remain elevated, which can lead to a heightened state of physiological arousal and anxiety.
5. Impaired Attention and Concentration
Sleep deprivation negatively impacts cognitive function, including attention and concentration. This impairment can lead to difficulties in focusing on tasks and processing information, creating additional stress and anxiety.
Relationship Between Sleep and Anxiety: Scientific Evidence
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep deprivation amplified emotional reactivity in the amygdala, leading to heightened anxiety responses.
Another study in the Journal of Sleep Research found associations between sleep quality and symptoms of anxiety and depression among participants.
Strategies to Reduce Anxiety and Get Better Sleep
Promote Better Sleep Hygiene:
1. Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clock and improves the quality of your sleep.
2. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
Develop a calming routine before bedtime to avoid sleep difficulties, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath, or practicing gentle stretches. This signals to your body that it’s time to wind down and prepare it for sleep.
3. Limit Screen Time Before Bed
Avoid using electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, or computers at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens can disrupt your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone essential for sleep.
4. Make Your Bedroom Comfortable
Create a sleep-conducive environment by keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to support a good night’s rest.
Relaxation Techniques for Anxiety Management:
1. Deep Breathing
Practice deep breathing exercises to calm your mind and body before bedtime.
Inhale deeply through your nose, hold your breath for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Tense and relax each muscle group in your body one by one, starting from your toes and working your way up. This helps release physical tension and promotes relaxation.
3. Guided Imagery
Use guided imagery or visualization exercises to transport your mind to a peaceful and serene place.
Imagine yourself in a tranquil setting, such as the beach or a forest, and focus on the sensory details to create a sense of calm.
4. Dedicate ‘Me-Time’ for Yourself
Whether it’s working out, taking out some hours to write or read, investing in a mini sauna for at-home relaxation, or simply watching Netflix at home – do whatever you can to make yourself happy. This could be anything. Your hobbies or interests. You’ll never regret investing in self-care.
When you shift your focus inwards, instead of always keeping it outwards, it will bring you peace and joy. Hence, those troublesome thoughts will stay away.
Lifestyle Changes for a Sleep-Friendly Environment:
1. Regular Exercise
Engage in regular physical activity during the day, but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it can increase alertness and make it harder to fall asleep.
2. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol
Reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. Both substances can disrupt sleep patterns and increase feelings of anxiety.
3. Manage Stress
Find healthy ways to manage stress during the day, such as engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or seeking professional support through therapy or counseling.
Write down your thoughts and worries in a journal before bedtime. This helps clear your mind and prevents anxious thoughts from circulating as you try to sleep.
It can be said that mental fitness is equally important as physical fitness.
It is essential to know about the complex bidirectional relationship between sleep and anxiety, as anxiety can result in various sleep problems, leading to a restless night and a restless mind. Conversely, inadequate sleep can intensify anxiety and depressive symptoms, making it difficult to break free from this vicious cycle of worry and stress.
It’s essential to remember that seeking professional help is never a sign of weakness, but rather a testament to our commitment to our mental health.
The role of sleep in our lives is crucial for optimal functioning, hence if sleep disturbances or anxiety persist, don’t hesitate to reach out to healthcare professionals or therapists. They specialize in mental disorders and can provide personalized guidance, along with cognitive behavioral techniques to help you lead an empowered life.
As we embark on this journey to improve our sleep health and reduce anxiety, let’s celebrate every small victory and be patient with ourselves. Sustainable change doesn’t happen overnight, but each step we take brings us closer to a healthier and more balanced life.
Tooba, the proprietor of BloomingGuide, is an experienced educator, writer, and career counselor, holding a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a gold medal for academic excellence and is a Professional Member of ISSUP & Member of ANZMH. Passionate about mental health advocacy, she combines her expertise in personal growth and well-being to provide valuable insights in these areas.