Sleep and Anxiety:
Your Complete Guide
*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.
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.
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.
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.
Research also shows that sleep disorders occur in almost all psychiatric and anxiety disorders. Some of these include:
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.