Sleep and Anxiety: Your Complete Guide

December 13, 2019 | Casper Editorial Team

*This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended as medical or other professional advice. Visit the links within the text for sources. Casper has not independently verified the sources.
 
While some of us may toss and turn some nights, every night can be a restless night for others. If you’ve ever struggled with falling asleep, you know the feeling of anxiously watching the clock as you worry about not being able to fall asleep and waking up sleep deprived the next day.
 
There are many statistics that reveal Americans’ struggle to sleep on a regular basis. As it turns out, anxiety and sleep are connected in a number of ways. Fifty percent of those who are sleep-deprived say that their anxiety impacts their ability to sleep at night.
 
It’s important to understand how anxiety can affect your ability to get a good night’s rest. This guide covers sleep and anxiety, the effects of anxiety-induced sleep deprivation, and science-backed tips for decreasing anxious thoughts, as well as how to set yourself up for better sleep.

What Is Nighttime Anxiety?

Nighttime anxiety involves the anxious thoughts you may feel before going to bed, many of which involve unease, nervousness and worry. While there are dozens of tasks to occupy your cognitive functions during the day, your brain can often struggle to keep itself busy at night, thus resorting to any anxious emotions and thoughts.
 
A chart showing the cycle of sleep anxiety: "1. Anxious and can't sleep or wake up. 2. Mind racing. 3. Dreading bed again. 4. Wake up anxious". Illustration
 
Anxiety can lead to an endless cycle of stress and poor sleep. If you often experience nighttime anxiety, it may be hard to tell whether you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re anxious or you’re feeling anxious because you can’t sleep.
 
According to research, sleep and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Having anxiety can cause sleeping problems and make it difficult to sleep, but sleep deprivation can also trigger anxiety. If you’re unable to sleep, you may dread going to bed and waking up feeling even more sleep deprived.
 
UC Berkeley researchers suggest that the lack of sleep can ramp up regions in the brain that trigger excessive worry, which provokes further anxiety and makes sleep even more elusive

What Causes Anxiety Before Sleep?

While there hasn’t been extensive research conducted on sleep and anxiety, there are a few reasons why your anxiety may be worse at night. Here are possible causes.
 
A wide-open eye above the text "Too much focus on the day", A serial-killer mask above the word "fear", a quickly-moving brain above the word "rapid thought patterns," and a clock with a sad face above the words "poor sleep cycle". Illustration
 
Too Much Focus on the Day 
Nighttime anxiety could often be caused by over-focusing on stress before sleep. Being fixated on one’s worries during the day and anticipating stressful activities for the next day will make more difficult for your mind to relax.
 
Fear 
Some people feel scared, worried and sad at night. The stress can cause your body to experience an adrenaline rush, which exacerbates your anxiety and prevents you from relaxing before bed.
 
Rapid Thought Patterns 
Those who have anxiety tend to possess quick-moving thoughts that are difficult to calm. The longer those thoughts go on, the more anxious people feel.
 
Poor Sleep Cycle 
If you’ve always been anxious or struggled to fall asleep, you may have developed a pattern of poor sleep. This makes your body most susceptible to stress and insomnia.
 
A head with lightning bolts around it above the words "Generalized Anxiety Disorder," A hand peeling back a curtain above the words "Social Anxiety Disorder," A person washing their hands above the words "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder," and a television with an image of a thunderstorm above the words "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder". Illustration
 
Anxiety Disorders 
Research also shows that sleep disorders occur in almost all psychiatric and anxiety disorders. Some of these include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: worry over everyday events, making it difficult to relax.
  • Social anxiety disorder: the anticipation of social situations can often prevent sleep at night.
  • Compulsive-obsessive disorder: research suggests that intrusive thoughts and fears can keep people up when they’re trying to fall asleep.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: the constant re-experiencing of traumatic events can induce nightmares and rob people of sleep.

What Are the Symptoms of Nighttime Anxiety?

Symptoms of nighttime anxiety take on many forms, as it is experienced differently by everyone. Some of the most common symptoms include:
 
A wide-eye above the words "Trouble falling and staying asleep," A target with arrows stuck in it above the words "Trouble concentrating," a chewed-up pencil above the words "Feelings of restlessness and nervousness," a stomach with lightning bolts around it above the words "Gastrointestinal problems," A spooky ghost above the words "Nightmares and Night Terrors," and a falling apple above the words "Hypnic Jerk (Twitching)". Illustration
 

  • Trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feelings of restlessness and nervousness
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Hypnic jerk (twitching)

What Happens When Anxiety Interrupts Sleep?

When anxiety produces inadequate sleep, it can go beyond tiredness. Nighttime anxiety negatively impacts your mood, leads to poor performance at work or school, disrupts learning and attention, and reduces cognitive reaction times. A small study even found that those who have insomnia are four times more likely to develop depression.
 
A sad and happy mask above the words "Impacts moods," A fallen hurdle above the words "Leads to poor performance," a broken lightbulb above the words "Disrupts learning and attention," and a storm cloud above the words "Increases the chance of Depression." Illustration
 
In addition to mental health, those with sleep disorders are at risk for other health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and obesity.

How Can I Overcome Anxiety at Bedtime?

If anxiety or disrupted sleep occurs often in your day-to-day life, these simple strategies can help you relax your body and mind and ease yourself into sleep. Changing your pre-sleep habits takes time and patience, but adapting to these changes may help decrease anxiety over time.
 
1. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene 
A blue alarm clock with an illustration of a liquor bottle with an X over it. Illustration
 
Sleep hygiene refers to various habits that are necessary for good sleep quality. Best practices include limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes, avoiding stimulants like coffee and alcohol close to bedtime, and heading to bed and waking up at the same time.
 
2. Practice Meditation 
Two hands with their thumbs touching their forefingers in a meditative pose. Illustration
 
Start with as little as a few minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing. Learning to silence your mind and meditate can help navigate stress during the day and before bedtime. If you have trouble meditating, try these relaxing yoga poses to help your body prepare for sleep.
 
3. Exercise 
A pair of sneakers. Illustration
 
Regular exercise has been shown to help people fall asleep faster and more soundly. Even a moderate-intensity workout like a brisk walk can improve sleep for those with chronic insomnia.
 
4. Set Aside Time for Winding Down 
A radio with musical notes dancing around it. Illustration.
 
The best nighttime routine allows your mind and body time to slow down before you turn off the lights. Allot at least 30 minutes to take a bath, read a book, listen to a podcast or play quiet music. These “transition rituals” can condition your brain into associating certain actions with preparing for sleep.
 
5. Avoid Stressful Activities Before Bed 
A broken TV set. Illustration
 
Leave the office, work, news and social media exchanges for earlier in the day. Experts suggest creating buffer time between work and sleep to set yourself up for better rest.
 
6. Write Down Your Worries on Paper 
A pencil and piece of paper with a to-do list scribbled on it. Illustration
 
Instead of letting thoughts and to-dos swirl around in your brain, write them down so that your brain has a game plan for the following day. Research shows that this can help you fall asleep more quickly.
 
7. Avoid Lying in Bed Awake 
A clock in the shape of a wide-eyed owl. Illustration
 
If you’re lying in bed for more than 20 minutes and still can’t fall asleep, give yourself a do-over. Get up, leave your bedroom and do a sleep-inducing activity, like having a cup of tea or reading a book. This conditioning, known as stimulus control, can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
 
8. Limit Screen Time 
A phone with an hourglass on the screen. Illustration.
 
Our laptops, phones and tablets emit a blue light that tricks the brain into thinking the sun is up and suppresses melatonin. Avoid staring at screens one or two hours before bedtime to keep your circadian rhythm in check.
 
9. Set Your Environment 
A thermostat set to 64 degrees. Illustration.
 
Controlling light, sound and temperature can increase your chances of calming your mind and falling asleep easily. A sleep-friendly environment should be dark, quiet and cool. Pink noise can also help make it easier to focus on your sleep.
 
10. Get a Mattress That Fits You 
A cozy Casper mattress with a smiling face. Illustration.
 
When you sleep on an uncomfortable mattress, pressure points build up on your body, causing you to toss and turn. A supportive mattress and pillow could provide support to the contours of your body and neck and keep you cool and comfortable for sleep.

Sleep vs. Anxiety

While experiencing anxiety is a normal occurrence, it becomes a concern when it interferes with your ability to sleep. Anxiety at bedtime may be the result of an anxiety disorder or just from overall unrest. What we know so far is that sleeping problems can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can create more sleeping problems, creating a vicious loop.
 
If anxiety is affecting your sleep, it’s possible that lifestyle changes and better sleep hygiene can help. If you are unable to overcome anxiety with these adjustments, it’s best to speak to a health professional. No matter the method, it’s important to alleviate the anxiety and get the sleep that you deserve.