Sleep Anxiety: Understand and Heal Your Nighttime Worry

In a perfect world, sleep would always be relaxing and restful. But for people who experience sleep anxiety, going to bed can be a frustrating, worrisome experience. Some people with sleep anxiety may even dread the nighttime, knowing it will lead to additional worry and insomnia.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t rare. According to Mental Health America, nearly two-thirds of Americans lose sleep as a result of stress. Anxiety is a direct response to feeling stressed, and it’s a common medical condition that can lead to sleep problems, which can in turn affect daily life.

The good news is that sleep anxiety can be managed with the right education and therapies. Here’s what you should know about sleep anxiety, what medical conditions cause it, and how to overcome it.

What Causes Sleep Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal human response to stress. It most often causes feelings of worry, dread, panic, restlessness, and a rapid heart rate. This mental health condition is called sleep anxiety when it interferes with your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep anxiety causes a chronic cycle that can interfere with your quality of life. The less sleep you get, the more you worry about the next day, and your ability to succeed in the world. As a result, that worry continues to keep you up night after night, leading to chronic tiredness.

Of course, trouble sleeping from time to time is normal, but when you’re constantly kept up by racing thoughts, it might be time to investigate. Here’s a look at the medical conditions, including sleep conditions, anxiety, and psychiatric disorders that may be stealing your slumber.

Sleep Disorders

black twin bell alarm desk clock on table

If you or a loved one is struggling with sleep anxiety, it’s time to look into sleep disorders. Sleep apnea, for example, is a condition marked by short lapses in breathing during the night. Sleep apnea can cause you to wake suddenly, choking or gasping for air. This can cause an anxiety attack because it tends to elevate the heart rate, cause shortness of breath, and make you feel disoriented.

Chronic Insomnia is another sleep disorder closely linked to anxiety. In addition to causing daytime fatigue, persistent lack of sleep can make a person feel irritable and depressed. It can also cause issues with memory and focus, which may affect a person’s ability to perform at their job. In turn, this can lead to worry that keeps a person up at night.

Mental Health and Anxiety Disorders

Sleep plays an important role in mental health because it makes us more resilient against life’s challenges. According to University of Washington Associate Professor Christopher Barnes, this is because sleep influences the amygdala and prefrontal cortex — areas of the brain that govern emotional regulation.

“Sleep deprivation can not only lead to the experience of more negative emotions, but also greater variability in mood, and more emotional reactivity,” he adds. In turn, insomnia tends to cause mood swings, irritability, and other negative or uncharacteristic behaviors.

Mental health conditions exacerbate fatigue by keeping a person up late into the night. Whether they’re ruminating over a to-do list or trying to shut out negative thoughts, sleep anxiety causes insomnia that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Here are three common anxiety disorders that could be affecting your sleep.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder are chronically worried about things like health, money, work, relationships, or other issues of everyday life. This worry can be all-consuming, making it difficult to get through the day. It can also be difficult to get through the night — trouble sleeping is one of the most common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another mental health condition, caused by experiencing or witnessing terrifying events. It can cause nightmares, as well as difficulty falling and staying asleep. It’s closely related to panic disorders and people with PTSD may wake in the night with panic attacks, either related to nightmares or ruminating thoughts.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when a person experiences persistent thoughts, images, or impulses that can disrupt sleep. For example, a person may feel like they didn’t turn off the stove after dinner. This can result in them needing to get up and check throughout the night. OCD often coexists with depression and anxiety, and it makes maintaining a normal sleep schedule difficult.

How to Reduce Sleep Anxiety

two women discussing Sleep Anxiety

Good sleep is vital to good health. If you’re suffering from sleep anxiety, here are some proven treatment options to help you sleep better and wake up easier.

Relaxation Techniques

Taking time to slow down and unwind from the day can help you get a better night’s sleep. One way to do this is through meditation, which can help you de-stress in all aspects of life. As explained by the National Sleep Foundation, “learning to quiet your mind can be a helpful skill, both for navigating stressful daytime periods and for falling asleep at night. If you’ve never tried it, start with as little as a couple minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on your inhale and exhale.”

Focusing on deep breathing for just a few minutes is a great way to get started with meditation. You can also turn to apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer for guided meditations.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a growing treatment option for people with insomnia. Rather than relying on synthetic sleeping pills, this healing modality focuses on understanding, evaluating, and changing behaviors that might be affecting a person’s sleep.

For example, someone who experiences sleep anxiety may obsessively check the clock, which only fuels worry about not getting enough sleep. A CBT doctor may suggest that a patient remove all clocks from the bedroom in order to avoid obsessing over the time.

Another way that CBT could help you improve sleep is by training you to reassociate your bedroom with sleep and calm. A CBT medical professional might suggest avoiding the use of electronics in the bedroom in order to minimize sleep disturbances and emphasize relaxation.

Lifestyle Changes

laptop half opened on dimly lit surface

Making changes to your bedtime routine and daily life can have a positive effect on sleep. For example, Harvard Medical School suggests checking with your doctor to see if any medications you’re taking could be interfering with your sleep. Some medications have a stimulant effect, which could keep you up, especially if taken in the evening.

Additionally, it’s important to maintain a comfortable sleeping environment. A dark room free from technology can ensure that your circadian rhythm isn’t disrupted by blue light. It’s also important to have a clean, clutter-free space that makes you feel safe and calm.

Another option is to incorporate herbal sleep medicine into your nighttime routine. Chamomile tea and valerian root are safe, effective ways to calm your mind before bed. You might also decide to start tracking your sleep to better understand what habits keep you up at night.

Lastly, It’s always a good idea to seek medical advice if you suspect you have sleep anxiety or a mental health disorder. This can ensure you’re properly diagnosed so you can get the right treatment.

Overcoming Sleep Anxiety

Having sleep anxiety can be a major disruption to everyday life. In addition to making you tired, it can lead to excessive worry, increased insomnia and fatigue — all of which can cause health issues or exacerbate existing ones. Fortunately, understanding the root cause of your anxiety can help you get the right treatment. Guided relaxation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes are all proven healing modalities that can help you worry less, sleep more, and live better.

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