A Gist: What is Sleep Anxiety?

Experiences are personal. They are distinct for everyone. People tend to experience different things differently. Similarly, sleep anxiety is tough to define because the term embodies different experiences but it can broadly be understood as a combination of anxiety and fear or worry about going to sleep. In simpler terms, sleep anxiety can be understood as the fear or worry people experience about going to sleep or just before the time of sleeping. Some people even have a categorised anxiety disorder or phobia about going to sleep, called Somniphobia. Common fears that fuel this problem are connected to health issues, the idea of dying, or worrying about extensive nightmares.

Sleep and psychiatric disorders like anxiety often go hand in hand owing to the intangible impact such disorders have on the psychological functioning of a human being. Anxiety is capable of triggering our bodies to release hormones that make you fearful or sceptical of everything from daily chores or actions to falling asleep. High levels of such hormones, specifically before falling asleep, can make it extremely tough for your body to relax or be at ease or just simply sleep. 

The area of the brain controlling your sleep schedule is distinct from the area where anxiety originates, however, there definitely exists a link between the two separate areas that later leads to sleep anxiety. Risk factors for sleep anxiety consist of other sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other medical comorbidities.

Research done on sleep anxiety suggests that anxiety has a way to affect rapid eye movement (REM) sleep as well, this is a space where you tend to have emotive and intense dreams, what’s worse is that if you have anxiety, the dreams may be disturbing or turn into nightmares that wake you up in the middle of the night, tensed and distressed. Anxiety and sleep have a connection with one another; as anxiety can affect sleep and sleep can also affect anxiety. 

Sleep anxiety is also commonly seen as a characteristic of insomnia wherein everything gets caught up with anxiety throughout the day regarding sleep, which in most cases, further causes a chain of sleepless nights. Excess worry and fear make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night. Depriving oneself of sleep can worsen anxiety and spur an intense and deteriorating cycle involving insomnia and anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of Sleep Anxiety 

When people experience sleep anxiety, they predominantly suffer a combination of physical and psychological effects. Symptoms of sleep anxiety are generally differentiated as:

You are more likely to develop sleep anxiety/ anxiety at night if you have sleep disorders such as: 

  • Insomnia
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS)
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleep walking
  • Sleep apnea

Common symptoms of sleep anxiety include:

  • Feelings of nervousness/ worry
  • Gastrointestinal problems 
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Restlessness about sleep
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Nausea 
  • Sweating 
  • Fearful anticipation

Some people with sleep anxiety experience lightheadedness, muscle tension, crying, shaking, or a pounding heart. Hyperventilation is another very common symptom of sleep anxiety that can possibly cause dizziness or even fainting. Sleep anxiety can cause symptoms that can affect the mind and body in ways that can significantly mess up with a person’s quality of life. 

In some cases, you may even wake up suddenly from a nocturnal (night time) panic attack. They have the same signs and symptoms of a regular panic attack, only they occur while they’re asleep. Panic attack typically have the following symptoms:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Extensively sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Chest pain 
  • Nausea and vomiting

Once you experience a nocturnal panic attack, it may be hard to calm down or fall back asleep. Sleep problems definitely are consuming and devastating. Anxiety can be even worse at night because we don’t have any distractions from our anxious thoughts and the recurrent cycle of
what if, what if, what if… doesn’t stop.

Getting caught up in the vicious cycle of anxiety and sleep loss is intertwined in ways that it can keep escalating by the day. So, it’s important to understand when the symptoms start to kick in.

What Causes Sleep Anxiety? Here’s Why You Can’t Fall Asleep

When you lie down at night to untwist and unwind, your brain turns to all of the problems and thoughts it didn’t have time for during the day. Sleep problems caused aren’t limited or bound to people with diagnosed anxiety disorders, it can happen to anyone. The spectrum ranges from everyday kinds of issues that make you anxious and then they affect your sleep with unsolved and intangible thoughts.

If you’re wondering why you are experiencing sleep anxiety, then you aren’t alone! Anxiety and sleep are very closely related to one another. Sleep deprivation and anxious thoughts can trigger sleep anxiety and can affect your sleep severely, in some cases, it can also cause insomnia. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough scientific research on sleep anxiety. However, there is a myriad of explanations for why sleep anxiety happens, for when you feel like your mind is irreversibly racing and your thoughts are uncontrollable. 

Anxiety can affect sleep at any time but it’s most common to face difficulty in falling asleep at night. In addition to that, plenty of studies have shown the relationship between cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and sleep quality. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is a psychotherapeutic treatment where the patient is taught how to identify harmful thought patterns and eliminate them over time. Once such patterns of recurrent thoughts are identified, CBT effectively challenges them and integrates ways to replace those thoughts with more objective ones.

When it comes to sleeping at night, anxiety is a primary part of a toxic cycle because it leaves you with worry, nervousness, nightmares, heart pounding and aberrant thoughts, which later become the root cause of sleep deprivation or sleep anxiety, leading to sleep problems and feelings of failure, sadness, suffering, and fear of sleep. Experts have also identified some factors that can make a person more likely to have sleep anxiety: 

  • A chemical imbalance in the brain
  • Family history of panic attacks/ genetics
  • Contemplating life decisions 
  • Life-related distress 
  • Traumatic Experiences 
  • Underlying medical conditions, such as depression or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), etc.
Other factors or causes may also include:
  • Problems with where you sleep (a place where you’re uncomfortable or easily disturbed)
  • Exposing yourself to certain medications or coming off medications
  • Recreational drugs and alcohol 
  • Staying up late at night for no underlying reasons

You may be heedless of objectivity and distracted with all there is to think about day’s problems or thinking about things of the past or how will you be structuring out your next day. This kind of distress can trigger an adrenaline rush in the body, making it difficult for you to fall asleep and ultimately leading to sleep problems or sleep anxiety.

Sleep Anxiety and Your Health: The Connection

Sleep and health are very closely connected. Sleep deprivation, sleep problems, or sleep anxiety affects your psychological and physiological state and health. Especially those with mental health disorders/ problems are more vulnerable to have sleep anxiety, insomnia, or other sleep disorders.

Mental health and sleep anxiety are so related that some psychiatric conditions can cause sleep problems and sleep problems can also exacerbate the symptoms of mental disorders including anxiety, depression, and other conditions as well. In other words, sleep problems can lead to changes in mental health and mental health can worsen and deteriorate certain psychological conditions as well.

Brain imaging studies have shown that what happens when you sleep suggests that a good night’s sleep can effectively help build mental and emotional resilience. However, sleep problems/ sleep anxiety can create a space of aberrant thoughts, emotional vulnerabilities, and physical disorders as well.

The vicious cycle of sleep problems doesn’t stop yet! From obesity to a weakened immune system, sleep anxiety can drain your mental abilities and put your physical health at extreme risk.

Sleeping less than 6 to 7 hours a day has been linked to severe health problems. Studies show that sleep-deprived people are more likely to get sick after being exposed to any virus or bacteria.

Sleep deprivation affects the immune system in the following ways:

  • Lowering levels of white blood cells: Inappropriate amount of sleep decreases the level of infection fighting antibodies in your system. 
  • Suppression of melatonin: Melatonin is a sleep-loving hormone that is produced at night to cut down distress, lower melatonin levels are usually associated with a higher risk of cancer.

  • Risk of Heart disease: Sleep deprivation may lead to increased blood pressure and higher levels of chemicals which are linked to inflammation and both of them are extensively related to heart disease.

  • Extreme mood changes: Sleep deprivation can make you moody and emotionally unstable which might lead to mental health issues.

  • Weakened immunity: Less sleep weakens your immune system’s powerful defences against viruses like those that cause the common cold and flu. You automatically become more likely to be exposed to germs, viruses, and bacteria.

  • Fall in production of cytokines: Research has linked sleep deprivation to the production of cytokines, which are chemical messengers essential for suppressing any kind of inflammation and infection.

  • Risk for diabetes: Lack of sleep affects your body’s power to release enough insulin, blood sugar lowering hormone. Those who fail to get enough sleep have higher blood sugar levels and become more vulnerable to diabetes.

It’s not only calming and soothing to get a good night’s sleep, it’s inevitably important to have a stable psychological and physiological system to fight off every adversity that life throws at you! 

How to Get Rid of Sleep Anxiety?

It’s crucial to prioritise a good night’s sleep, it impacts your overall well-being! A good night’s sleep is also seen to be effective to help with feelings of anxiety, as your body will be less vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed or on the edge when you’re sleeping well. 

Falling asleep for some can be tough and we understand that! Here’s how you can take a step forward to ameliorate your chances of falling asleep at night without any recurrent thoughts kicking in:

  • De-stress your distress with exercise: Exercising has been found to be very helpful in reducing anxiety and improving sleep habits. Try not to do that right before sleeping though, it might end up keeping you awake. Instead, take several slow and deep breaths whilst paying attention to the air entering and leaving your body.
  • Routine, Routine & Routine: Try waking up at the same time daily. Create a routine and stick to it! Structuring out a routine can be extremely effective in terms of combating sleep problems or deprivation alongside sleep anxiety and insomnia. By getting up at the same time everyday and going to bed at the same time, your body will start adjusting to your internal clock/ circadian rhythm.
  • Say NO to bedtime caffeine intake and other stimulants: Caffeine can extensively hamper your ability to fall asleep with its power to cut sleep down. What’s worse is caffeine, as a stimulant, can deteriorate your anxiety even more! (additionally, you may have a difficult time calming down if you drink an excessive amount of coffee.
  • Alter your environment to make yourself feel better: Make your room; a comfortable space for you to sleep in. Altering light, sound, and temperature can help you get a good night’s rest/ sleep. The darker, quieter, and cooler you can keep your bedroom, the better your chance of calming yourself to sleep.
Little note for you that might work: Reading, listening to music, or relaxing before bed with a hot bath or deep breathing can help you fall asleep. Happy sleeping!

 

Prevention of Sleep Anxiety:
Why Not Prevent and Take Action Before It Gets Too Late? 

Practice the following for a good night’s schedule: 

  • Limit screen time before bed
  • Soak up in the morning sun 
  • Avoid stressful activities around bedtime
  • Journal your aberrant thoughts away
  • Avoid laying in bed awake 
  • Get a bedsheet that gives you comfort
  • Be consistent with your habits

If you’re having sleep problems or sleep anxiety, it’s best to adopt lifestyle changes and better sleep hygiene. If you’re unable to overcome your sleep anxiety, it’s best to speak to a health professional. What’s most important is to mitigate the sleep anxiety or your sleep problems to get the sleep you truly deserve!