There are a variety of sleep problems an individual may experience, but they can all be frustrating. For example, it might take you hours to fall asleep, you might toss and turn, or you could wake up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning. Or, you could sleep through the night but wake up still not feeling rested due to poor sleep quality. Sleep issues like these can have many different causes—one of which could be anxiety. If “I can’t sleep” has been a problem on your mind lately and you also experience symptoms of anxiety, read on to find out how the two might be connected and what you can do to sleep better.
Symptoms Of Anxiety
Anxiety refers to a category of mental illnesses known as anxiety disorders. However, when someone says they have anxiety, they’re typically referring to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It can be a distressing and even debilitating mental health condition to experience, though it is considered to be treatable. Around 5.7% of adults live with GAD. Common symptoms include:
- Persistent, excessive worry
- Trouble controlling worry
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Muscle aches
- Being easily startled
- Difficulty relaxing
Why It Can Be Important To Address Sleep Issues
Of course, trouble sleeping can translate to immediate negative effects the next day. According to the Sleep Foundation, research suggests that going 17 to 19 hours without sleep can impact an individual as much as having a blood alcohol level of 0.05% would. The resulting drowsiness after a night of poor sleep can also increase your likelihood of getting into an accident, negatively affect your memory and physical performance, and may even increase the likelihood of developing false memories. You might also feel concerned about this trouble sleeping, potentially leading to an increase in overall anxiety levels. Over time, consistently poor or insufficient sleep can also lead to an increased risk of serious health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and depression. These are some key reasons why it can be important to address sleep issues proactively.
The Connection Between Sleep Problems And Anxiety
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, research suggests that some form of sleep disruption is present “in nearly all psychiatric disorders”. In addition, those with insomnia are likelier to develop an anxiety disorder, while those with an anxiety disorder are likelier to have sleep problems.
There are various ways in which anxiety might negatively impact your sleep. A common one is that your mind is racing with worry and anxious thoughts, making it difficult for you to relax and fall asleep. Another is that certain symptoms of anxiety can make it harder for your body and mind to relax and drift off into a nourishing sleep. Some of these anxiety symptoms may be restlessness, irritability, nausea, and/or gastrointestinal issues.
Tips For Sleeping When You’re Feeling Anxious
Having trouble sleeping because of anxiety can cause additional anxiety, potentially resulting in a frustrating loop where sleep becomes even more elusive. The next time you’re experiencing poor sleep quality as a result of anxiety, you might consider some of the following tips.
Journal Before Bed
Writing in a journal before bed can be a good way to get the things that are causing you stress and worry off your mind so you can more easily fall asleep. It can offer you the opportunity to process the events of the day and plan for the next so that you can be prepared for a restful sleep once your head hits the pillow. Research supports the efficacy of journaling for anxiety, with one study indicating that participants who engaged in journaling consistently over the course of twelve weeks experienced “decreased mental distress and increased well-being relative to baseline” along with greater resilience.
Avoid Caffeine And Alcohol Late In The Day
Many people consume caffeine at the start of the day to help them perk up, especially if they’re feeling tired after not sleeping well. However, taking caffeine too late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep that night, since it can contribute to the wired, jittery feeling many people already experience with anxiety. Likewise, alcohol can also have a negative effect on sleep. While it may sometimes help you fall asleep faster, it can prevent you from entering the deepest REM cycles you need to wake up feeling rested.
Try A Weighted Blanket
When you’re experiencing anxiety, your body’s fight-or-flight response is activated. Your autonomic nervous system is geared up to face a threat, which can make settling down to sleep difficult. That’s why some people find sleeping with a weighted blanket to be useful. It can assist in putting your autonomic nervous system into “rest” mode, according to Penn Medicine, providing a sense of calm by helping bring your heart rate and breathing back to normal levels.
Exercise During The Day
There’s extensive scientific evidence suggesting the helpful effect that exercising can have on symptoms of anxiety. It can help boost mood, provide an outlet for excess anxious energy, and release tension from your muscles. As one study notes, physical activity can also benefit those who experience anxiety by increasing blood circulation to the brain and thereby decreasing psychological reactivity to stress.
People who experience anxiety are usually caught in a loop of worrying about either the past or the future. Mindfulness meditation helps you learn to be in the present moment instead, which can help decrease feelings of anxiety. In fact, one study found that daily meditation may be as effective as Lexapro—a common anti-anxiety medication—in reducing anxiety symptoms. Remember, however: Always consult your healthcare provider before starting, stopping, or changing any medication.
How Therapy Can Help
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a clinical anxiety disorder like GAD, it’s typically recommended that you connect with a therapist for evaluation and treatment advice. Generalized anxiety disorder is treatable, typically through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—sometimes in tandem with medication. The aim of CBT is to help you learn to recognize and shift distorted thought patterns that are contributing to distress. A therapist can also teach you useful coping mechanisms for managing symptoms—including trouble sleeping.
If the prospect of meeting with a therapist in person increases your anxiety, you might consider connecting with a provider online instead. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist with whom you can meet via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online CBT can be an effective treatment option for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety, just as in-person CBT is, so you can feel comfortable in choosing either option in most cases.
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