If you’re experiencing stress in your life, chances are that you might be struggling to fall or stay asleep at night. Your anxious worry about life and its problems may keep your brain from settling down, and the disruption of sleep is likely to keep you feeling more on edge the next day.

Sleep disruption is a common feature of mental health problems, and anxiety is no exception. You don’t have to have a diagnosed anxiety disorder to feel the impact the stress and worry can have on your sleep patterns. Over 40 million Americans say they experience a long-term sleep disorder, with many others experiencing occasional sleep disruption. 70% of adults report that they experience daily stressors, so it makes sense that Americans on average are reporting they get less sleep than in previous decades.1

Which Comes First?

So which comes first, the anxiety or the disruption of sleep? Researchers have found that the relationship between sleep problems and anxiety is bidirectional. This means that sleep problems can cause anxiety, and anxiety can disrupt your sleep. And just like anxiety, sleep problems can impact how you function emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Because sleep and anxiety have such a strong relationship, it’s important to address both when you meet with your doctor. In addition to anxiety, sleep problems can put you at higher risk for missing work or school, injuring yourself, and developing health conditions such as heart attack, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes among others.2 If you’re being treated for chronic insomnia, it’s essential to express any concerns you have about how anxiety affects your day-to-day life. Treating sleep problems without taking steps to manage anxiety and reduce stress is unlikely to have any real impact.

Treatment Options

Once you talk to your physician about your sleep problems, they may refer you to a sleep clinic to gather more information. Mental health professionals can also provide you with sleep education and help you design an action plan for sleeping through the night. To treat anxiety conjointly with sleep problems, professionals typically recommend medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that can help you challenge your anxious thinking.  Doctors or therapists may also recommend mindfulness meditation as tool for calming your busy mind.

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Tips for Improving Sleep and Managing Anxiety

Move your body – Exercise has been found to both lower anxiety and improve sleep. But try not to exercise right before sleep, as it can keep you awake. Moving your body in the morning or afternoon can help you get your sleeping and waking cycle back on track and also treat insomnia or sleep apnea.3

Tailor your environment – Controlling light, sound, and temperature can help you get a good night’s rest. The darker, quieter, and cooler you can keep your bedroom, the greater chance you have of calming your mind and falling asleep. Taking a shower or bath shortly before bed can also help lower your body temperature and help you fall asleep more quickly.

Limit caffeine and alcohol – Drinking too much caffeine or consuming it too late in the day can increase anxiety and inhibit sleep. Consuming alcohol close to bedtime can also increase your heart rate and keep you up.4 Drink plenty of water throughout the day, but don’t drink too much before bedtime, as trips to the bathroom can keep you anxious and alert.

Calm your mind – There are many relaxation techniques that can help you calm your mind throughout the day and improve sleep. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, and breathing exercise can help you achieve calm, but it can also be as simple as taking a walk when you have a short break at work. If you practice techniques for calming your mind during the day, then it will be easier to trigger your relaxation response at night.

Limit screen time – Your phone, tablet, and TV emit light that keeps your brain awake, so try to limit them an hour before bedtime. Checking email or doing work right before bed can also trigger anxious thoughts and make it difficult to calm your brain. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to shut screens off at an adequate time before bed. Instead, consider listening to music or reading a book to quiet your mind.

Ask for help – Sometimes managing anxious worry and improving sleep is more complicated than simply turning off your phone or getting adequate exercise. Never hesitate to ask for help if you need it from your doctor or a counselor. Sleep problems and anxiety are highly treatable, so consider whom you can recruit today to help you rest your mind and body.

If you think you or someone you care about may be suffering from anxiety or any other mental health condition, PsyCom strongly recommends that you seek help from a mental health professional in order to receive a proper diagnosis and support. We have compiled a list of resources (some even offer free or low-cost support) where you may be able to find additional help at https://www.psycom.net/get-help-mental-health

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Last Updated: Dec 4, 2017