How Anxiety Affects Your Sleep at Night

Mollie McGlocklin Apr 26, 2022

How Anxiety Affects Your Sleep at Night

It’s 3 in the morning, pitch black, and perfectly quiet.

But your mind’s racing. Whirring, in fact, like bicycle wheels careening down a hill. Thoughts rush at you at pace, uncontrollably, and from all angles.

Come to think of it; your palms are sweatier than usual, your chest’s heaving, and your heart’s racing too.

At this rate, dreamland seems nothing more than, well…a pipedream.

We’ve all been there.

…Or at least, you have if you’ve ever suffered from anxiety.

That’s right, those pesky (or downright diabolic, depending on how you’re feeling) wake-ups could stem from this challenging disorder that impacts as many as 40 million Americans (1) these days.

You can’t rule out other possible causes of sleep loss, of course. But it’s worth considering whether anxiety plays a part in the problem. After all, if you can address the anxiety, then your sleep might improve with it.

To shed light on the situation, I thought I’d dive into the research on this topic.

Read on to discover all about anxiety, how it relates to poor sleep, and what you can do about it.

How Anxiety Leads to Poor Sleep

The idea that anxiety could explain bad sleep can be novel for some of us. However, the link between the two is well-established in the scientific literature.

One study I saw, for example, found people with anxiety were 5x more likely (2) to struggle in this way. It starts to make sense when you look into the signs of anxiety (3).

Anxiety Includes

  • Feeling restless and on-edge
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Being irritable
  • Worrying uncontrollably
  • Having panic attacks

It’s hard to imagine anyone sleeping soundly with all that going on inside!

And the issue doesn’t stop there.

In an unfortunate twist of fate, research consistently shows that poor sleep also impacts anxiety. For instance, people with insomnia are 20 times (4) more likely to suffer from a form of anxiety issue called panic disorder.

A vicious spiral develops into what I’ve come to think of as the “sleep anxiety snowball.”

Anxiety can cause sleep loss, which leads to even greater anxiety.

How to Alleviate Anxiety and Reduce Wakeups at Night

Okay, so what can you do about it? This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few practical strategies to combat anxiety at night and help you get back to sleep.

Stop Fighting

Both anxiety and lack of sleep are awful, so it’s natural to fight against them. You toss and turn; struggle and squirm. You get mad and frustrated and totally over it.

This approach is 100% understandable, but best avoided!

Where possible, strive to accept what’s happening instead. Remember, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “this too shall pass away”. Sleep will come easier if you stop, pause, let the feelings wash over you, and allow yourself to calm down.

To prove it, check out this study (5) on the impact of mindfulness and acceptance on insomnia. In it, they note that people who suffer from poor sleep tend to have more negative emotional reactions to their insomnia symptoms versus good sleepers and suggest equanimity is a useful tool to combat it.

Hone Your Environment

Alongside good sleep hygiene habits (e.g. establishing a nightly routine where you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day) and general sleep training, the Sleep Foundation recommends (6) improving your environment to reduce stress too.

For best results, make sure your room is dark, silent, screen-free, and at a comfortable temperature.

Reducing your intake of alcohol and caffeine (especially before bedtime) is key as well. In this study (7) of the impact of caffeine on adolescent students, for example, researchers found that people who consumed more caffeine had a greater risk of anxiety, stress, depression and insomnia.

Meditate

Buddha once said: “do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”. Why?

Because focusing on the here-and-now (and accepting whatever you find there) is an effective way to feel more peaceful, at ease, and worry-free.

Meditation’s now scientifically proven to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. For instance, a review of 39 studies (8) on the efficacy of mindfulness-based therapies concluded that it’s a robust treatment for both anxiety and mood disorders.

Read More: Meditation: A Simple and Safe Way to Help You Sleep

Daily mindfulness practice could reduce your anxiety levels in general. Doing it before bed could evoke a sense of calm. And meditating at night could bring your thoughts under control, making a deep sleep more feasible.

Citations

[1] Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2021, April 21). Facts & statistics. ADAA. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics

[2] Serdari A, Manolis A, Tsiptsios D, et al. Insight into the relationship between sleep characteristics and anxiety: a cross-sectional study in indigenous and minority populations in northeastern Greece. Psychiatry Res. Published online August 4, 2020. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113361

[3] National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Anxiety disorders. Nih.gov; National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders

[4] Epstein, L. (2008, December 15). Sleep and mood | need sleep. Healthysleep.med.harvard.edu. https://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/mood</a)

[5] Ong, J. C., Ulmer, C. S., & Manber, R. (2012). Improving sleep with mindfulness and acceptance: a metacognitive model of insomnia. Behaviour research and therapy, 50(11), 651–660. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2012.08.001

[6] The Best Ways to Relieve Stress So You Can Sleep Soundly. (2017, January 19). Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene/how-to-relieve-stress-for-bedtime

[7] Jin, M. J., Yoon, C. H., Ko, H. J., Kim, H. M., Kim, A. S., Moon, H. N., & Jung, S. P. (2016). The Relationship of Caffeine Intake with Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep in Korean Adolescents. Korean journal of family medicine, 37(2), 111–116. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.2016.37.2.111

[8] Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555

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