Anxiety and Sleep – How to Avoid its Vicious Cycle

If you are under a lot of stress and anxiety, you may be having trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Life’s worries may prevent your brain from settling down, making a good night’s sleep impossible. Sleep deprivation can make you feel irritated and tired the following day. This could further compound your worries. These effects put a strain on relationships with friends, family and coworkers. As stress mounts, it becomes a vicious cycle.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the physical and emotional response that occurs from stressful situations. Including irrational phobias, stress from school or work, to unavoidable social situations. Anxiety causes symptoms similar to “fight or flight”. This is a survival mechanism that prepares you to fight against or run away from any danger.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling nervous or agitated
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Feeling restless, weak or tired
  • Sweating, trembling and tense muscles
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty concentrating

Anxiety becomes a problem when it affects your ability to function in your daily life. Traumatic events and stress at work and home can cause anxiety disorders. Prolonged anxiety keeps the body in a constant state of red alert.

According to an ADAA (Anxiety Disorders Association of America) survey, 7 out of 10 adults are moderately impacted by stress or anxiety in their day-to-day lives. 7 out of 10 claim that they have trouble sleeping due to stress or anxiety.

Anxiety in itself is not bad; however, it could be a sign that something is not right. Occasional anxiety caused by situational stress is healthy. When anxiety becomes frequent and severe it may be a chronic disorder. Anxiety disorders don’t really go away and tend to worsen with time.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that over 40 million adults in the US, suffer from mental disorders. Conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and different kinds of phobias are common afflictions. These anxiety disorders affect sleep negatively and vice versa.

Anxiety While Sleeping

Sleep anxiety sets in when your head gets flooded with thoughts as soon as it hits the pillow. Everything from bills, work, school, and general life issues begin to weigh on you. Suppressing these thoughts while trying to sleep becomes a difficult task. Sleep is also hindered by the physical symptoms of anxiety such as increased heart rate and muscle tension.

Which Comes First? Anxiety or Sleep Disruption

The question is, which comes first, anxiety or disrupted sleep? And, can lack of sleep cause anxiety? The relationship between anxiety and sleep problems is bidirectional. In fact, anxiety and sleep are comorbid, i.e. they are interconnected. This means that sleep problems can result in anxiety and anxiety, in turn, can disrupt your sleep. Sleep problems can also affect your emotional, physical and mental ability to function.

Since both sleep and anxiety are interrelated, it is important to address both issues. Sleep problems along with anxiety can hamper your ability to function properly. People restless from lack of sleep are at a higher risk of physical injury or developing serious health issues. Sleep disorders have been linked with hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke

If you’re being treated for insomnia, then you must determine how anxiety affects your daily life. Only treating your sleep-related problems, without managing anxiety and stress may not have as much of an impact.

Anxiety and Lack of Sleep

According to researchers at UC Berkley, lack of sleep triggers excessive worry by ramping up brain activity. Anxiety causes loss of sleep, which in turn can cause greater anxiety. This phenomenon is known as anticipatory anxiety. This is where people who suffer from sleep deprivation worry that they cannot sleep based on past experience. This worry triggers the insular cortex and amygdala of the brain. It mimics the neural activity which is usually seen in the case of anxiety disorders. This affects sleep and your body is unable to release the anxieties it undergoes through the day. Sleep relaxes muscle tensions and repairs your body from the issues caused by stress. Without sleep, the stress begins to build up again, which limits the body’s capability to cope with stress the next day. Sleep deprivation causes the brain to stop thinking clearly. It also causes unstable emotions that amplify the symptoms of anxiety.

How to Fall Asleep with Anxiety

If you suffer from anxiety, you especially need a good night’s rest. Sleep can help stabilize your mood while improving your memory and learning abilities. Sleep enhances the rational thinking needed to deal with your concerns, fears and worries. Curious about how to sleep with anxiety? Here are some tips and techniques that can reduce your sleep anxiety symptoms and let you get a good night rest.

Add Exercise to Your Daily Routine

Exercise can reduce anxiety and improve sleep as well. Exercising regularly can help you fall asleep much faster and also sleep more soundly. In fact, even moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk can help to improve sleep if you suffer from chronic insomnia.

Avoid exercising and getting your heart rate and adrenaline levels pumping 2 hours before bedtime as this will keep you awake. Exercising in the morning or in the afternoon can get your sleep-wake cycle on track and also help to treat insomnia.

Calm Your Mind

Quieting and calming your mind not only helps to steer through stressful times during the day but, also helps to fall asleep at night. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga can help you reach a calm state of mind. Even something as simple as taking a walk during your break at work can help. Practicing these relaxation techniques to calm your mind during the daytime, will make it easier relax at night too.

Establish a Regular Sleep Routine

Once you have discovered your ideal bedtime, try and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. This allows your body’s circadian clock to work better. Going to bed and getting up at odd times can disrupt this rhythm. Also, try to avoid sleeping in late on the weekend. This will make it more difficult to wake up early on Monday because your sleep cycle will be reset to wake up at a later time.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

  • Take some time to wind down and set a bedtime routine that allows both your body, as well as, your mind to calm down. Take a relaxing bath, listen to some quiet, calming music or read a book.
  • If you take a nap, limit your nap time to just 20 minutes.
  • If you’re unable to fall asleep within half an hour, then don’t remain in bed. Get out of your bed and try doing something relaxing like having some herbal tea or reading.

Create a Tranquil Environment

Make the environment of your bedroom calming and restful. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet. This will help to calm your mind and help you to fall asleep more quickly. Taking a shower before bedtime can help in lowering your body temperature, enabling you to fall asleep much faster. Choose a comfortable mattress that offers sufficient support and keeps your body cool.

Avoid Stressful Activities before Bedtime

Avoid stressful activities such as paying bills, watching the evening news or indulging in social media exchanges.

Write a To-Do List

Usually, people tend to think about the occurrences of the day when they get into bed. Instead, sit down before you actually go to bed and think about your day before getting ready to sleep. Putting down all the things that you need to do the next day and don’t want to forget in a to-do list is a good idea. Write down all the things so that your brain can calm down and relax and just let go.

Schedule Your Meals

Eat your meals at proper times. If you eat too late, this can trigger the nervous system which can make it difficult to sleep. Also, ensure that you have your dinner 3 hours before your bedtime. If you have a problem of low blood sugar, eat a small snack with high tryptophan content like eggs, chicken, nuts, turkey or cottage cheese before bed.

Limit Your Consumption of Caffeine and Alcohol

Consuming a lot of caffeine late in the day, can trigger anxiety and prevent you from sleeping at night. Caffeine remains in your system for several hours after consuming it. Consuming a glass of wine to help you sleep better may actually be counterproductive. Drinking alcohol very close to bedtime can pump up your heart rate and prevent sleep. Your sleep after drinking alcohol is usually much lighter and disrupted causing you to feel less refreshed in the morning. Drink a lot of water all through the day and stay hydrated. Avoid drinking too much water before going to bed to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom.

Tensing and Relaxing

When you are in bed and you’re feeling tense and are unable to sleep, you can try this relaxation exercise. For a few seconds, curl your toes and squeeze them and then relax your toes. Then squeeze your lower legs and release them. Keep doing this with every part of your body and feel the tension leaving your body, leaving you nice and relaxed.

Limit Your Screen Time

All your devices such as your television, phone, laptop and tablet emit light which keeps your brain awake. Working or checking your emails just before your bedtime can cause anxious thoughts and it may be very difficult to calm your brain. Research shows that the blue light emitted by the electronic screens influences the body and delays the natural circadian rhythms of the body, making it much harder to fall asleep. So, it is a good idea to shut off all your devices an hour or so before you go to bed. Instead, focus on calming activities such as reading a book or listening to some music to calm your mind.

Maintain a Journal

A great way to combat anxiety is by maintaining a journal. You can jot down all your worrisome and anxious thoughts in your journal and this will help to release them. You can then schedule a time when you are awake to sort out those thoughts. Seeing all your worrisome thoughts in print may help you to find rational solutions to your problems. The act of writing down your worries can help to stop your mind from racing and calm it. You will find that by the time you finish doing this, you will be relaxed and fall asleep.

Consider Taking Sleep Supplements

Ask your doctor about supplements that can help you sleep better, such as melatonin. Melatonin is a natural sleep supplement that can help to regulate your sleeping hours. Studies show that melatonin significantly reduced the sleep onset time i.e. the time to fall asleep. It also increased the sleep duration i.e. the time spent sleeping. You can easily buy melatonin in any health store.

You could also consider other natural herbs such as kava, passionflower and valerian root, which are extremely popular remedies for restful sleep. However, before using melatonin or any other herbs, it is a good idea to check with your medical practitioner if it is safe for you to take the supplement or herbs, especially if you are taking any other medications or supplements.

Drink Tea

Drinking tea can help you relax and fall asleep faster. Usually, chamomile tea is recommended as a stress and anxiety reliever and also helps to induce sleep. Some of the other teas that have a similar effect are peppermint, jasmine, lemon balm, etc.

Talk about Your Troubles

Sometimes, just switching off your phone or exercising may not be enough to manage anxiety and improving sleep. You may have to seek the external help of your doctor, therapist or counselor who can help to identify the source of your problems and help to treat them so that you are able to manage all the symptoms and get the much-needed sleep that you require. Anxiety and sleep troubles are treatable. you should never hesitate to ask for help.

If anxiety is making falling asleep difficult, establishing a healthy sleep schedule and lifestyle can go a long way. It will make you healthier and happier in the long run.


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