Anxiety and sleep issues are the perfect storm on a vicious spiral that nobody wants to ride. Sleep deprivation causes anxiety and anxiety causes difficulty sleeping. Yet, many of us are caught in this cycle.
According to several studies, as many as 31.1% of American adults will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their adult lives and about 35% of adult Americans get significantly less than the recommended hours of sleep a night. That means that close to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems.
That’s a lot of tired, anxious people.
Statistically, many of us relate to the anxiety-sleep struggle. I know I do. I live it personally and I see it on a daily basis professionally as a relationship and parenting coach. No stranger to anxiety, I’ve had bouts in my own life of sleep issues including insomnia and challenges falling asleep thanks to anxious thoughts. And, the sleep-anxiety loop is so common it is one of the top five difficulties I hear in my work.
At some point in time, nearly every coaching client I have needs help developing practical strategies and customized action steps for sleep and anxiety. More often than I ever expected, clients are looking for practical strategies to help their children with the same difficulty.
Sleep and Anxiety: It’s Complicated
There are several reasons for the complicated relationship between anxiety and sleep. As we wind down to sleep, our bodies and minds should begin to transition into sleep readiness, a relaxed state of calm. This is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of the body.
This transition also primes our brain for the necessary work it does when we’re asleep – filing memories, sorting through information (part of the learning process), and dumping trash. As our bodies and minds calm, the demands on our attention lessen and the brain transitions to this process, the quiet brain space (which was too busy or distracted during the day) can suddenly unlock thought files we didn’t fully notice before. And, these thoughts can trigger anxiety.
Our brains react to anxiety as a threat, releasing chemicals that give us a boost to run from a bear or lift something heavy. This is the sympathetic nervous system looking out for us, trying to keep us safe. These chemicals (mostly cortisol and adrenaline) are so potent that it takes time for the effects to wear off. So once your anxiety starts, you may find a lot of space for it to spiral out of control while you’re stuck in “awake mode” and your sympathetic nervous system is running the show.
10 Practical Steps for Easing the Anxiety-Sleep Struggle
In my own life, understanding the anxiety-sleep connection helped me get ahead of the problem, but I still needed practical strategies for when my anxiety disrupted my much needed sleep. There are effective, evidence-based strategies that can make a difference. For example, maintaining a consistent bedtime routine practice can set you up for success.
Everyone is different and different bodies, different brains, different people – in different situations – may find some options more helpful than others. Here are some that are worth a try:
1. Get Ahead of it
Long before you lay down to sleep, write out the anxieties that typically pop up and interfere with your sleep. Do what you can to address them by evaluating how urgent it is and what you can do now or sometime in the future. For some this could be just determining a day and time when you’re going to troubleshoot these issues. For others, it may be writing each anxiety down on a piece of paper to review later, and for others it may be telling someone else and asking for help devising a strategy for the problem.
Exercise can make sleep easier in general because of the physical fatigue, but it also supports the parasympathetic nervous system function. Not a cardio person? Don’t panic. A daily walk or gentle yoga practice can make a big difference. In fact, casually strolling around a block or two can clear the mind, release feel-good chemicals and change your breathing pattern. Your eyes focus differently outside, too, which can reduce strain and stress.
3. Get More Sleep
I know, I know, easier said than done. Fatigue, particularly from sleep deprivation, can actually make it harder to sleep. A nap early in the day (at least 3 hours before bedtime) may actually make it easier to fall asleep at an earlier bedtime if lack of sleep has been a chronic issue. Sleep begets sleep.
4. Go to Bed Earlier
Again, this may seem impossible but trying to get to sleep earlier may override the falling asleep anxiety launch loop, getting ahead of the problem before it starts. Try going to bed 30-45 minutes earlier and you may be asleep before your brain has transitioned to its nighttime function. Plus, your body may be telling you you’re ready for bed before you think it is anyway.
5. Create a Healthy, Comfortable Space
And, I mean that as in both physically and mentally. A comfortable bed (with an organic mattress that isn’t going to spike your anxiety with unnecessary chemicals!), breathable bedding made of natural fibers, low lighting, consider some white or pink noise … A safe and calm space sets you up better for an anxiety-free night.
6. Experiment With Cold
If you’re still struggling at night, you can give your body a nudge with a cold blast. Try getting up and splashing cold water on your face and wrists, stepping outside or placing a cold washcloth or icepack on your chest for at least 30 seconds. This can stimulate the vagus nerve, calm the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
7. Recognize Your Anxiety
Simply identifying what’s happening and why can help. This gives the brain permission to recognize that there is no immediate threat like a bear, and so it doesn’t need to flood the system with chemicals that can help you outrun a threat. Some find that thanking their brain for looking out for them and putting some space between their anxious thoughts and their reality helps, too. “I noticed I am feeling anxious about _______ and that’s keeping me from falling asleep right now. Thanks for looking out for me, brain, but I am safe at this moment.”
8. Try Focused Calming Practices
Letting your brain know it is safe is typically important in overcoming the anxiety that is disrupting sleep and moving you out of the state of an activated sympathetic nervous system. Meditation, cuddling with a safe person (which will also release oxytocin which is even more relaxing!), box breathing, grounding exercises, using a weighted blanket, and massage are just some simple ideas that may help.
9. Get Distracted
Though the least reliable and it can easily backfire, sometimes a distraction allows the brain to let go of anxiety and let the sleep readiness chemicals flow. Some options are reading (nothing too exciting), listening to a calming podcast or audiobook, solving a math problem, giving yourself a quiet and simple challenge (such as name an animal starting with each letter of the alphabet), etc. For some, screen-based activities may be helpful, such as watching an old familiar show, but keep in mind that the blue light from screens can stimulate wakefulness chemicals and make restorative sleep even more difficult.
10. Speak to Your Doctor
There may be supplements or other treatments to support your sleep when anxiety strikes. Magnesium, melatonin, GABA, CBD, lemon balm and others may be recommended. It is also possible there is something more serious and more involved intervention may be necessary. Either way, you need sleep to feel better.
If sleep is elusive because of anxiety, know you’re not alone. There are a lot of us out there who have been or currently are very tired thanks to the anxiety-sleep deprivation loop. It can change and you deserve a calm and restful night’s sleep.