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The Dysfunctional Relationship Between Sleep and Anxiety

Anxiety has a dysfunctional relationship with sleep. Here's why that happens and how you can repair the relationship between anxiety and sleep.

Deadlines to meet. Meals to plan. Shopping to do. Meetings to join. Classes to attend. Work to do. Children to taxi. Aging parents to help. Laundry to wash. Lawns to mow. Etc. Etc. Etc. What if you forget? What if you make a mistake? What if? What if? What if? Dire consequences. Dire consequences. Dire consequences. The anxiety is a constant companion. Day and night. Day and night. And night. And. Night. Anxiety is awful. When it robs us of sleep, it becomes torturous. Why is that, and what can be done about it?

It’s a Catch 22: Sleep is absolutely crucial for physical and mental health and well-being, so by default sleep is essential as a means of soothing anxiety; however, the very nature of anxiety chases away the Sand Man, making him escape into the night.

With an anxiety disorder (any type), the mind operates on overdrive. Fears are heightened, frequently causing a sense of looming doom. Our fearful thoughts contribute to excessive worry, and our brains, perceiving real threat, turn on our fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.

Unfortunately, now that these hormones are coursing through our veins like chemicals in tap water, anxiety is exacerbated further. Individual symptoms of anxiety vary, of course, but in general when we experience any type of anxiety, our thoughts race, we have difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly, and we feel physically ill.

When we’re experiencing anxiety, we need sleep to soothe our anxiety and its effects. However, anxiety makes us emotionally and physically uncomfortable, and sleep eludes us. I myself have spent many a sleepless night tossing and turning, focused on a headache and ruminating and lamenting over all of my mistakes, all of my imagined consequences of future mistakes. Then, in the morning, all of my anxious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are more intense than the day before. I needed sleep.

Things You Can Do to Soothe the Dysfunctional Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep

Sleep experts advise that establishing a regular sleep routine is essential in training your brain to sleep. If you go to bed at a predicable time each night, your brain will respond to the regularity.

Relaxation is essential to manage anxiety and induce sleep. What relaxes you? How can you work it in regularly before bed?

Exercise during the day (not too close to bedtime) contributes to quality sleep at night.

Anxiety makes the mind function on overdrive. Troubled thoughts and a flood of stress hormones rob us of needed sleep, but you can do things to get to sleep.Stay away from computers and television before going to sleep. The brightness and flashing images can be too stimulating for the brain.

Occasionally, sleep medication is used as a temporary aid. A discussion with your doctor is essential even for over-the-counter remedies.

These are but a few ideas. Have you found activities that help you sleep? Please share them! We can all benefit from finding new techniques to add to our sleep toolboxes!

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

5 thoughts on “The Dysfunctional Relationship Between Sleep and Anxiety”

  1. I felt like I was reading one of free writing sessions when I read this. This is exactly what I go through every week or other week. I am lost in anxiety I had an issue before a car accident, and then after the collision I suffered a concussion and I have been just completely drowning in Anxiety. The only relief I have been able to find is by way of taking medical canna capsules. They help, but the dependency is terrible, at least I think it is the second I am off the pills the anxiety just blows up. Kre kre…. well I guess we just keep on trucking and keep going until one day we have enough and take our final breath….. some days I wish it was sooner then later.

  2. That’s point! Sleeping is crucial element that fighting anxiety. In addition, appropriate and quality sleeping indicates the main remedy for any anxiety disorder. The sense of freshness and relaxation in the morning is indicator of satisfying sleeping. Thus, we ought to be careful on the quality and longevity of sleeping, as vital necessity to any patient with anxious disorder. Your remark on relation between anxiety and sleeping is accurate one. By me, it should to practice so called “sleeping hygiene”, which is consist from some mental relaxing exercise before to go to sleep. Beside these health mental activities, it ought to practice regular timing of sleeping regime. As extreme way, using anxiolytic and hypnotic remedies are welcomed.

    1. I agree with you about the importance of sleep, Dr Ferati. I love your concept of “sleeping hygiene.” It reinforces the notion that sleep is something that can come under our control through the routine practice of helpful behaviors/rituals. Sleeping hygiene is a very helpful conceptualization. Thank you for sharing it!

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