Anxiety and Insomnia: Don’t Let Anxiety Keep You Awake
There’s a strong relationship between anxiety and insomnia; so much so, Asnis, Caneva, & Henderson (2012) point out, that sleep difficulties are listed as one of the potential criteria for generalized anxiety disorder in the American Psychological Association’s (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Anxiety can cause insomnia, but insomnia can also cause anxiety. Each one fluffs up the other while you fluff your pillow in a frustrated attempt to get to sleep.
How Does Anxiety Cause Insomnia?
Anxiety’s racing thoughts get in the way of a good night’s sleep. The brain is like the rest of our body and uses energy (Thomas, n.d.). Racing thoughts are for the brain what running is to the body (especially one that is not used to running). Racing thoughts physically tire us out, increasing our need for quality sleep. However, these racing thoughts continue into the night and prevent the sleep we need to get rid of anxiety.
We have few things to distract us from anxiety and racing thoughts in the middle of the night. With distractions such as work, family, chores, and more asleep for the night, anxiety has free reign to play. And play it does. It frolics through our thoughts, emotions, and physical bodies. We are awake the entire time. When we can’t sleep, anxiety takes over. When we’re anxious, we can’t sleep.
Anxiety can have a negative impact on its own, as can insomnia. Together, they are a perfect storm that negatively affects our daytime lives and potentially lowers the quality of our relationships and life in general. You don’t have to take this lying down, figuratively speaking. You don’t have to let anxiety keep you awake or insomnia make you anxious.
How to Treat Anxiety and Insomnia
Self-awareness is an important first step in breaking the cycle of anxiety and insomnia. What factors, other than insomnia, increase your anxiety? What things, other than anxiety, contribute to insomnia? Among the common contributors to both are
- alcohol use, even in small amounts,
- medical conditions,
- excessive stress and/or tension,
- other existing mental health conditions (such as depression), and
- medications (prescription and over-the-counter).
When you are aware of how you are living, you can take measures to change situations around anxiety and insomnia by eliminating things that contribute to your own difficulties. Healthy living leads to better sleep and less anxiety.
Ansis, et al (2012), advise that anxiety and insomnia be treated at the same time but separately, each receiving targeted treatment approaches. Treating insomnia separately will allow you to get better sleep so you can deal with anxiety. The following approaches work well for ending insomnia:
- good sleep hygiene, which means cutting out daytime naps, late-night snacks, exercising too late in the evening, watching TV using other screen devices in bed, and sleeping in a room that is too light and/or noisy;
- daytime exercise;
- yoga and yoga meditation;
- medication; and
- cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) (Asnis, et al, 2012). CBT for insomnia is a structured, time-limited program that addresses the anxious, negative, and distorted thoughts that interrupt sleep. The racing thoughts of anxiety are present day and night. By addressing them, you aren’t letting anxiety keep you awake.
Don’t Let Anxiety Keep You Awake: Reduce Nighttime Anxiety
While you are working to end insomnia, you can also work to reduce the anxiety that is keeping you up at night. Some of the techniques for reducing anxiety to induce sleep:
- meditations for anxiety,
- avoid eating heavy foods, especially those with simple sugars, before bed,
- use relaxation techniques,
- drink warm milk (because it creates melatonin),
- avoid caffeine,
- visualize a peaceful scene,
- write down your worries so you can let them go until morning,
- while lying in bed, do some gentle stretches to release tension,
- use aromatherapy in the form of sprays or oils to infuse your sleeping area with calming scents,
- detangle yourself from your anxious thoughts, letting them go rather than becoming trapped by fighting with them, and
- enjoy the moment—if you truly can’t sleep, simply lie comfortably, practice deep breathing, and relax. Focus on how pleasant it is to rest and that it’s okay to just rest.
By doing things to reduce anxiety while simultaneously addressing and helping insomnia, you come ever closer to breaking up the relationship between anxiety and insomnia. Take the necessary steps, and you don’t have to let anxiety keep you awake at night.
Last Updated: 17 May 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD