Sleeping is one of those things that shouldn’t be causing any problems in people’s lives, yet, sleeping-related problems have become fairly common. According to the CDC, 35.2% of the adult population experience sleeping problems and disorders, physical or psychiatric. Whether it is trouble staying asleep, trouble falling asleep, sleeping too much or too little, all of this affects our mental and physical health, furthering the development of other health problems. A good night’s sleep is, of course, important for your mental and physical well-being. Sleep helps people deal with anxiety, depression, tiredness, illness and cold, etc. and is required to function well.
But, what happens when sleeping, or rather the inability to sleep causes all of these issues. Some people develop conditions like insomnia, followed by several other medical problems, all because they can’t seem to fall or stay asleep. This phenomenon is also known as sleep anxiety, and in the recent decade, it has become one of the most common sleeping conditions. Usually associated with rest and the comfort of one’s bed, for these people, sleep can become a living nightmare. However, the good news is that sleep anxiety can be treated, either with appropriate medicine or as we prefer, with a more natural and thorough approach, for the long-term effect.
So, if you are one of those people who suffer from sleep anxiety and you’re looking for ways to deal with it, then you’re at the right place. In the rest of the article, we will take a closer look at what sleep anxiety is, what causes it and how can it be treated. Hopefully, our analysis and sleeping suggestions will help you finally sleep like a log.
In order to understand sleep anxiety and how one can treat it, it is important to look into sleep physiology. Human sleep is actually rather complex; it consists of two different brain states, which are;
- Non-rapid eye movement, NREM, which consist of other states, usually described as delta sleep or slow-wave sleep, SWS, and
- Rapid eye movement, REM, which shows a close resemblance to active wakefulness and simultaneous active muscle inhibition to reflect heavy sleep.
A normal sleep cycle is characterized by the recurrent cycles of NREM and REM, each appearing after 90 minutes. During the night, the REM episodes tend to increase. These sleep cycles are regulated by a neurotransmitter system, and each dysfunction in that system results in sleep alterations. These alterations can turn into sleeping disorders, like sleep anxiety.
What is Sleep Anxiety?
Imagine going through a tough day at work, dealing with all sorts of people, day-to-day problems, and overall exhaustion. And, you’re looking forward to just falling into your bed and paying a visit to dreamland, but when you actually lie down, nothing happens. You keep becoming more and more restless, you toss and turn and the only thing you can do is actually get up and wallow in the anxiety that has just come over you or lie there and stare at the ceiling. Well, that is how sleep anxiety feels for people who are experiencing it almost every night. Starring at the ceiling, or watching TV at 3.a.m is no fun, and by staying awake every night, not being able to fall asleep is a major anxiety trigger. The interaction between stress, sleep, and anxiety is the ultimate recipe for staying awake.
When it comes to sleep anxiety, there is a weird catch; if someone suffers from sleep anxiety, they can’t fall asleep because they’re usually overthinking, worrying and increasing their anxiety in other ways (remembering embarrassing moments from the past, for example), which then turns into developing anxiety because they cannot fall asleep. This is a really extreme situation for the brain, and it can make a person frustrated, panicky, and over time, depressed, anxious and moody. The sleep quality, even if there is some, deteriorates and anxiety disorders quickly turn into insomnia, in 24% of the cases.
Another problem with sleep anxiety is the fact that when it is prolonged or repeated, it can lead to dysfunctional or pathological anxiety states where people tend to develop obsessive-compulsive disorders or even the fear of falling asleep. Anxiety is there to warn us about a potentially harmful situation, and when sleeping becomes one, a person is repeatedly submitted to false alarms when they’re actually supposed to be completely relaxed and at peace. The brain recognizes the fear as an order to stay alert and aroused by any possible means, regardless of whether the fear is validated or not.
What Causes Sleep Anxiety?
Sleep anxiety can have several causes. It is either caused by a psychological or a physical condition that promotes sleep deprivation and furthers other deleterious health problems. Approximately 70 million Americans suffer from sleeping disorders, and the majority suffer from sleeping anxiety and anxiety-caused sleeping disorder. Commonly, people experiencing this condition have described the causes to be:
- Worrying too much – worrying can be pretty harmless and is normal to a certain extent, but once is starts recurring and becoming a part of your day to day life, it can affect your health. People with sleep anxiety tend to worry too much about, for example, the following day at work, or even things they cannot affect, like the possibility of an earthquake. Sometimes, people also worry about the very idea of having to wake up in the morning and hear the alarm. There are so many things people worry about and consequently hinder their sleep and affect its quality.
- Overthinking – we all do it, right? Everyone tends to overthink some of the most mundane and normal things in the world. And, what better time to overthink than right before going to sleep. People describe this feeling like a complete loss of the control over one’s thought, where the brain simply starts projecting ideas and images that we don’t really want to think about. Overthinking can directly follow worrying, so these two are not a good combination for your sleep, nor your anxiety. Overthinking comes with all the discomforts of anxiety, causing your body to stress even more, completely ignoring the need to sleep.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – OCD is extremely disruptive for one’s sleep. It stands for one’s inability to go to sleep assured that everything is okay and that it is safe to actually sleep. For example; common compulsions that won’t let someone sleep include hand washing, checking, praying, tapping, repeating words, and counting. This leads to behavioral abnormalities, that consequentially affect the sleeping pattern. OCD usually evolves into an equally serious condition, which is insomnia.
- Depression – depression is known as a true companion of anxiety, and one of the major causes of sleep anxiety and obstructive sleep apnea. Because the neurochemicals affect a person’s mood and thinking, sleeping becomes hard under depression, causing all of the aforementioned factors. Depression further disrupts sleeping and starts after some time affecting both mental and physical health. In combination with stress, restlessness, lack of sleep and anxiety, depression can be extremely dangerous and severe forms require immediate medical attention.
- Lack of sleep hygiene – experts on sleep, as well as studies, have acknowledged the connection between good sleep hygiene and a good night’s sleep. When a person does not have the habits or the environment that promotes healthy sleeping, chances are they will develop a sleeping disorder at some point. Sleeping anxiety comes from a lack of calming and relaxing surroundings, which is essential for one’s ability to drift into sleep.
- Alcohol use – some people resort to alcohol use due to the issues with anxiety and lack of sleep. The tendency is to use alcohol to lower the anxiety levels in the hope that it will mitigate stress and enable sleeping. However, the effect is completely opposite and this strategy often backfires. Alcohol actually increases sleep anxiety and prolongs the effects of anxiety into the following day. Not to mention that alcohol use can lead to dependency, often causing additional episodes of anxiety due to withdrawal symptoms, like sweating, trembling, nausea, and increased heart rate.
- Pain – this unpleasant sensory experience can cause discomfort and sometimes even unbearable agony. Pain also seems to be more profound during night time, which triggers sleep anxiety with many people. Even if people can fall asleep, their sleeping cycle is fragmented, causing further delay in sleep onset and, of course, more anxiety. Even though the pain-sleep anxiety correlation is not yet completely determined, pain definitely affects the regions of the brain that are responsible for the sleep-wake cycle. For example, people with back pain have to deal with the trouble of sleeping on a regular basis, as the neurons that carry the pain information towards the brain ensure it stays awake so that it can ‘take care’ of the source of the pain.
How to sleep when you have sleep anxiety?
Now that we’ve looked thoroughly into what sleep anxiety is and what causes it, it is time to see how you can actually deal with this issue and finally fall asleep. There is no one simple solution to this problem, but rather a set of suggestions for you to try and see which works the best for you.
This is a logical first step when it comes to dealing with sleep anxiety. It will require you to visit a health and medical professional for a diagnosis and treatment recommendation. A professional can help you develop a plan on how to sleep better and reduce the anxiety, or at least the factors that cause it. Pay a visit to a family doctor or mental health professional to discuss the symptoms and try to identify the main causes and effects of sleep anxiety.
The management of insomnia and sleep anxiety relies on determining the underlying causes and physical or psychological treatment. If the causes are chronic or long-term, then you’ll be undergoing pharmacological or behavioral therapy, which leads to the first and second line of medication. The traditional medication therapy relies on hypnotics. In cases of severe insomnia and sleep anxiety, other types of drugs like sedative antidepressives may be used. These are usually drugs of the Benzodiazepines group, or the non-Benzodiazepines group. Either way, make sure to pay attention to the adverse effects before you actually use any of the recommended medication.
Improving Sleep Hygiene
As mentioned before, lack of sleep hygiene can affect or worsen one’s sleep anxiety. Therefore, to get a good night’s sleep, it is important to create a positive and comfortable sleep environment. This is how you can do it:
- Good-quality mattress and pillows – a good mattress and pillows can make you feel comfortable and relaxed. If pain and general discomfort are the causes of your sleep anxiety, a good-quality mattress will keep your body supported, reduce any type of back pain, and improve the overall mood.
- Sleeping position – make sure to choose the right sleeping position if you can’t seem to fall asleep. Sleeping on your back, or on the side are the best sleeping positions while sleeping on the stomach is the worst sleeping position. Back or side sleeping enables your heart to pump normally and your lungs to reach a normal oxygen intake. This should help you calm down and drift away into sleep. Of course, when suffering from sleep anxiety, the heart rate increases and breathing becomes a problem, so these positions might require your full determination. For the same reason, sleeping on the stomach is a no-no, since you’re experiencing anxiety, which further aggravates breathing and heart rate.
- Suitable bedding – it may seem insignificant at first, but having suitable bedding can actually improve your sleep, and decrease anxiety. For example, it is always better to sleep in a room that has a slightly lower temperature, while having a warm and cozy bed. Moreover, it is also important to have clean, fresh and cotton sheets, as well as comfy pillows or a weighted blanket. All of this can help put you in the mood for sleep, reduce your anxiety levels and finally send you to the land of dreams.
- Essential oils – lavender, and other essential oils promote calmness and can help you fall asleep easier. Consider adding some freshness to your bedroom with essential oils, and make it smell nice.
- Turn off the lights – it is recommended that you turn off the lights before going to bed. Exposure to light before going to sleep can actually make you feel awake, restless, alert and filled with unnecessary energy. All of this can affect your sleep anxiety, so make sure to turn off the lights and let your body produce melatonin or the darkness hormone. Melatonin is responsible for influencing sleep by sending a signal to the brain, implying that it is time for some rest.
Develop healthy sleep habits
By developing healthy sleeping habits, you will make sure your brain knows that it is time for bed. It may be hard at first to focus on these habits since sleep anxiety has its ways of ruining anything nice and healthy for you. However, make sure to try and persist in achieving a good night’s sleep. Here are some recommendations on healthy sleep habits:
- Put down the phone; make sure to stay away from the phone, computer, and television at least two hours before going to bed. Not to mention that those should not be allowed in the bed with you. The light coming from these gadgets affects your need to sleep, making you feel distracted, alert, and awake.
- Ignore the clock; sleep anxiety is known for making people clock-watch all the time. Once in bed, try to ignore checking what time it is; it will just make you feel even more anxious, which would further impair your ability to fall asleep.
- Have a cup of tea; many studies have shown that having a cup of tea before going to bed can help you fall asleep easier and quicker. The warm tea will relax you, make you feel comfortable and cozy, as well as put you in the mood for sleep. However, make sure to avoid tea types that contain caffeine, like black or green tea. You can choose herbal teas, like chamomile or peppermint teas, or blend teas that contain mixtures of herbs, spices, and plants.
- Meditate; meditation has been proven to help calm the mind. You don’t have to become a meditation-expert in order to practice it; you only need to learn a few of the breathing and calming methods that you can practice before bedtime. You can try the counting or visualization method, or square (Pranayama) and alternate nostril breathing. This should be enough to help you calm the sleep anxiety and get the snooze you deserve.
The connection between sleep disturbances and anxiety disorder is pretty apparent. It can be really exhausting to deal with sleep anxiety and not have the ability to actually relax and get rid of all the exhaustion. Luckily, there are ways sleep anxiety can be treated, or at least mitigated. If you believe you suffer from sleep anxiety or anxiety disorder in general, make sure to consult a health professional, family doctor or a psychologist. A professional will help you correct your behavior, mood, thinking and improve your overall health. Hopefully, this article has taught you about this condition and inspired to you introduce some positive changes to your life.