The Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep: How Lack of Sleep Impacts Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a hard-wired response in the nervous system meant to alert the body to environmental dangers. Anxiety is helpful in many instances, but you might have an anxiety disorder when it starts interfering with your daily life.

One of the things that can help with anxiety when it is hurting more than helping is having the benefit of a good night’s sleep. However, not only can anxiety prevent you from sleeping, lack of sleep can make your anxiety worse.

What is sleep?

Sleep is a natural, restorative process where the body and brain go into a state of rest and recovery. 

The connection between anxiety and sleep

The connection between anxiety and sleep is that they can perpetuate one another. Lack of sleep can trigger anxiety, while anxiety can lead to a lack of sleep. This is because when we are stressed or anxious, our body experiences an adrenaline rush, making it harder to fall asleep.

Studies show that 24 to 36 per cent of those with sleep issues have an anxiety disorder, and those living with panic disorder are three times more likely to have trouble sleeping. 

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Impact of lack of sleep on anxiety

Lack of sleep can have a significant effect on anxiety. Research suggests that lack of sleep may increase anxiety in people already prone to anxiety and experiencing other anxiety-related risk factors.

Sleep deprivation can amplify reactions in the amygdala and anterior insula, parts of the brain associated with anxiety. Those with sleep disorders can also be at risk for other health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, sleep deprivation can lead to poor moods, poor performance at work or school, disruption of learning and attention, increased chance of depression, and reduced cognitive reaction times.

A small study even found that those with insomnia are four times more likely to develop depression. People who experience sleep anxiety may also be vulnerable to anxiety during times of stress. However, there are ways to cope, such as creating a bedtime routine, making a sleep-friendly bedroom, getting daily exercise, and talking with a therapist or friend.

The bidirectional relationship between sleep and anxiety

Sleep and anxiety have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that anxiety can cause problems with sleeping and vice versa. Poor sleep can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, and anxiety can make it difficult to sleep. 

The impact of anxiety on sleep quality

Anxiety can have a significant impact on sleep quality and duration. When anxiety causes inadequate sleep, it can go beyond the tiredness of a regular all-nighter. Anxiety can trigger sleep deprivation, creating a vicious cycle that can further affect a person’s sleep pattern. People with sleep disorders are at a greater risk of experiencing mental health issues like depression and physical health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

Anxiety can also disrupt learning and attention, lead to poor performance at work or school, reduce cognitive reaction times, and negatively impact mood. This perceived stress can cause an adrenaline rush, making it problematic to sleep.

Common sleep problems associated with anxiety

Common sleep problems associated with anxiety can include difficulty in falling asleep and staying asleep, restless, unsatisfying sleep, sleep disturbance, recurrent nightmares, and nocturnal panic attacks.

Additionally, using technology late at night can increase anxiety, as can lack of sleep and sleep deprivation, which can lead to feelings of depression and low self-esteem in some people. Other sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), sleep apnea, and narcolepsy, can also contribute to symptoms of sleep anxiety.

Coping Strategies for Managing Anxiety and Sleep

Cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia

Step 1: Identify behaviours or environmental factors that can trigger anxiety or contribute to sleeping difficulties.

Step 2: Better understand how sleep and anxiety affect the brain and the body.

Step 3: Change negative or inaccurate thoughts about bedtime or sleep.

Step 4: Use biofeedback to learn how to relax the muscles, regulate breathing, lower heart rate, and focus attention.

Step 5: Address underlying conditions that may contribute to anxiety.

Step 6: Use cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) to adjust thoughts and promote sleep, practice relaxation strategies, and use other strategies to improve sleep.

Step 7: Consider medications to treat insomnia, such as prescription sleeping pills, OTC sleeping pills, melatonin, and natural remedies.

Step 8: Talk to a doctor or therapist if sleep problems persist.

Step 9: Reach out to friends and family for support.

Step 10: Seek treatment for anxiety disorders, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and beta-blockers.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can be a great way to manage anxiety and sleep better at night. Some standard techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and creating a nighttime routine.

Deep breathing reduces anxiety and stress by slowing your heart rate and improving your blood pressure. Taking long, deep breaths helps your body relax and induces a wave of relaxation.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing all the body’s major muscles. By practising this technique, you can learn how to induce a wave of relaxation that passes through the body.

Guided imagery is a visualization technique that can help calm your mind and body. Research suggests that it can also help improve sleep quality. One example is picturing a restful scene to ease feelings of anxiety and help induce sleep.

Creating a nighttime routine is another way to manage anxiety and sleep better. This can include dimming the lights, listening to calming music, taking a warm bath, or opting for activities like light reading instead of using a TV or computer. These routines can condition your brain to associate specific actions with sleep preparation.

Meditation will also reduce anxiety and improve sleep. 

Sleep hygiene and healthy sleep habits

Sleep hygiene and healthy sleep habits are essential to practice to help manage anxiety and sleep. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits necessary for good quality sleep, such as limiting screen time before bed, avoiding significant physical activity or heavy meals close to bedtime, and not consuming caffeine or alcohol near or after a specific time of day. Additionally, it is beneficial to soak up the morning sun, limit power naps to 20 minutes, keep the bedroom dark and cool, and follow a consistent bedtime routine.

Practising good sleep hygiene can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels by providing the body with a regular rhythm for sleep and wake times and allowing the body to create visual cues to signal the beginning of the winding down process. Keeping the bedroom comfortable, dark, and cool is also important, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before bed and engaging in relaxing activities such as meditation or listening to soft music.

Additionally, setting a goal of getting at least seven hours of sleep per night and avoiding screens and other electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime can promote better sleep. Following these healthy sleep habits can help reduce anxiety levels, making it easier to fall and stay asleep.

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