Anxiety is a normal part of life. It’s a natural response to stress especially when things get overwhelming. Unfortunately, anxiety can cause sleep problems, and when you don’t sleep well it can exacerbate that state of mind. In a 2007 Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey, 7 out of 10 American adults reported experiencing stress and anxiety and one-third said they’ve had panic attacks. 7 out of 10 also said they had trouble sleeping. Yet, it’s not just anxiety that seems to cause sleep problems; a lack of sleep is also linked to anxiety and anxiety disorders. In Neuroscience 2018, research showed that brain activity after sleep deprivation resembled brain activity in people with anxiety disorders. The two fuel each other and suggest that sleep therapy could perhaps reduce anxiety and managing anxiety could help one sleep better.
When you’re anxious, your mind is filled with thoughts and fears that you can’t stop stressing about even when it’s time to sleep. You look at the clock and realize there are only a couple of hours left before you need to wake up and start the day. On a more physiological level, anxiety stimulates your body to produce adrenaline, which is a hormone that puts you through a ‘fight or flight’ response. Your mind and body are on alert, the same way they are when faced with a threat of attack or a threat to survival. Your body also produces higher levels of cortisol, another stress hormone that keeps you alert. When you’re constantly anxious, you may find yourself consistently losing out on sleep. This sleep deprivation only encourages anxiety.
If you don’t suffer from anxiety, the occasional night of poor sleep may not make you anxious. However, frequent sleep deprivation and sleep disorders can put you at risk of developing psychological problems like anxiety and depression. This doesn’t mean that everyone with sleep issues will suffer from such mental health problems, but it is a factor to consider.
At the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, Neuroscience 2018, researchers reported that sleep loss activates the same areas of the brain that make us prone to anxiety. These areas are those that help us process and regulate emotions. In the study, 18 healthy people were deprived of sleep for one night and had another night of normal sleep. When they were sleep-deprived, their anxiety levels rose by 30 percent the next day. What’s more, the part of the brain that’s triggered when we try to control our emotions had less activity, and so the participants experienced increased anxiety. They were also more emotionally reactive when shown distressing video clips.
While the study above shows the alarming effects of what a single night of sleep deprivation can do, the participants’ anxiety levels normalized after a good night’s rest. Those who spent more time in NREM sleep were less anxious the next day. This last bit is to be expected as people with anxiety disorders tend to sleep less deeply than those without.
Anxiety and sleep problems can’t be solved overnight. However, they can be reduced and managed for a much better quality of life.
Mindfulness is the state of being aware of what’s happening and what one is doing. Mindfulness-based meditation aims to separate oneself from anxious thoughts by focusing on the present. You can do this by concentrating on your breathing. Observe how breath is inhaled and exhaled. If anxious thoughts start to enter your mind, don’t push them away but turn your focus to your breathing. With practice, mindfulness-based meditation helps you observe what’s going on instead of stressing yourself out.
Physical exercise is said to reduce anxiety although it may not be the case for everyone. Still, it’s well worth a try. This could be because exercise provides a healthy way to channel tension and fear. It also releases serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins that are known to improve one’s mood. Do exercise early in the day as doing so close to bedtime can interfere with sleep.
Sudden palpitations, fear, nervousness, worry – anxiety can envelop you. If there’s no outlet, you can become overwhelmed with all the negative energy. One way to get outside yourself and channel anxiety away from you is to help others. Shifting focus onto someone else and seeing that other people also go through problems and pain puts things into perspective.
Caffeine is a stimulant, and you don’t need another reason to stay awake. Stop consuming it after 3 pm as it takes as many as 4 hours for just half the caffeine in your body to be eliminated. You should also avoid nightcaps. While alcohol is a sedative, its effect wears off quickly, and you can find yourself waking up at night. You’ll also be prompted to use the bathroom often since it’s also a diuretic.
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Clutter-free, devoid of gadgetry and work, cool, quiet and dark – these are ingredients for a peaceful sleep environment. You won’t be able to relax if your bedroom is none of these. What you lie on matters too as it should lull you to sleep.
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Occasional anxiety such as being nervous about an upcoming interview and losing sleep over it is normal. However, persistent anxiety and insomnia aren’t and may require professional help. In the meantime, there are ways you can manage both a little better by following the tips above and doing more. Progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and speaking to someone you’re comfortable with are a few other things that may ease anxiety and help you sleep.