Sleep Anxiety: What it is and How to Deal With it
Sleep anxiety can affect anyone at any time and it can be a short-term or long-term challenge that many people can face during their lifetime.
A study on sleep and anxiety disorders noted how population surveys indicate that the “prevalence of anxiety disorder is about 24% to 36% in subjects with insomnia”. This stat shows the significant impact anxiety can have on sleep and how it can affect day-to-day life and also your nighttime. Although insomnia and sleep anxiety don’t always go hand-in-hand, one can often lead to the other.
Throughout this article, we’ll be identifying what sleep anxiety is, how it affects those who face it and what steps can be taken to help tackle it.
What is sleep anxiety?
Sleep anxiety is an anxiety, fear or feeling of stress about the thought and action of sleep. The fear may stem from the thought of not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep, from racing thoughts at night or even dangers at night, such as someone breaking in whilst you’re sleeping. This can lead to or be a result of insomnia or sleep disruption.
What is the difference between insomnia and sleep anxiety?
Before we differentiate between the two, let’s discuss the connection between them. It’s often found that those with insomnia can sometimes also suffer from some form of sleep anxiety. Those who sleep badly can spend their days anxious and worried about the night ahead, knowing they’ll get inadequate sleep. This in turn can cause a spiral effect and result in even worse sleep.
The main difference is that not everyone who suffers from insomnia will have sleep anxiety. This may be because they have insomnia due to racing thoughts, lifestyle choices or a health issue. And those who have sleep anxiety may not have insomnia, as although sleep anxiety can often be a byproduct of insomnia, sleep anxiety may just affect and disturb some people’s sleep to a certain extent.
It’s important to remember that one condition can often make the other condition worse.
What does sleep anxiety feel like?
Sleep anxiety can feel like a never-ending nightmare. It causes stress, sleepless nights and fatigue. Those who suffer from sleep anxiety have their own individual responses, but in general, it can be a high-stress challenge to deal with.
Symptoms of sleep anxiety
Behavioural changes can occur when you’re struggling to sleep due to sleep anxiety, these include:
- A lack of focus and concentration throughout the day.
- Feeling exhausted and irritable.
- A sense of being overwhelmed and a loss of control.
- Anxious in seemingly ‘normal’ situations.
- An increase in heart rate.
- Fast breathing.
- Body tension.
- Panic attacks.
What triggers or causes sleep anxiety?
Day-to-day stressors such as work, finances and family can trigger sleep anxiety. Having a sleep routine that doesn’t work and poor sleep hygiene can also encourage sleep anxiety. If you suffer from health conditions, then these can trigger sleep anxiety too.
How does sleep anxiety affect your sleep?
Sleep anxiety can limit the number of hours you spend asleep due to feeling stressed and anxious about going to bed. It can often keep you awake in bed for hours, fretting over when you’ll fall asleep, if at all. It’s mentally and physically exhausting and can often feel like a trap, impossible to get out of.
Does sleep anxiety go away?
Sleep anxiety can go away for some people and it can be managed for others. Research has suggested that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), improved sleep hygiene (habits) and certain medications may help with sleep anxiety. All of these methods take work and aren’t an easy fix.
7 ways to deal with sleep anxiety
- Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
- Do some exercise.
- Uncover sleep hygiene improvements.
- Give meditation a go.
- Try sleep hypnosis.
- Cut out caffeine.
- Create a relaxing bedtime environment.
1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT has been recommended for sleep anxiety and other sleep problems such as insomnia by many reputable health sources, such as the NHS, Mayo Clinic and Mind. CBT offers a structured program that encourages you to pinpoint thoughts that cause or contribute to your sleep problems. The purpose is to break the cycle of stress-inducing thoughts by challenging and then changing them for the better. Often, new relaxation techniques are discussed and can help change the way you approach sleep.
For example, as you lie awake in bed, you may start to think about how you’re not going to fall asleep and how this will lead to an unproductive day tomorrow. It’s thoughts like these that can cause further sleep anxiety. CBT therapy will gently identify these thoughts and help alter these thought and behaviour patterns for a more positive outcome.
Making sure you get enough exercise and movement during the day can help lower anxiety levels and encourage a better night’s sleep. Exercise releases endorphins which help reduce the perception of pain and trigger feelings of positivity in the body, easing symptoms of anxiety.
We can often be tricked into thinking that we need to go to the gym and gruel it out for an hour or 2, but this isn’t the case. A brisk walk in the sunshine during your lunch break or a quick 15-minute spin session can work wonders.
3. Sleep Hygiene Improvements
Sleep hygiene refers to your sleep habits. The better the habits the better your sleep hygiene will be. When it comes to sleep anxiety, improving your sleep hygiene may help you to sleep better.
Things to focus on include going to bed and waking up at a consistent time each day. Even if you don’t fall asleep straight away, the physical act of getting in and out of bed at the same time can encourage a strong and consistent sleep routine and pattern. Your body will start to sense when it should be clocking off and arising. Just remember, when you do get into bed, don’t worry about falling asleep straight away, just embrace the time to relax and wind down.
Try to stop snacking at least 2 hours before bed, as snacks, especially sugary snacks can mess with your sleep and anxiety levels. Too much sugar has been linked with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Many studies have found that meditation can have a positive impact on stress and anxiety levels. Meditation works by distracting you from focusing on negative or disruptive thoughts and instead focuses on the body and breath. Ultimately this leads to a calmer state before you head to bed and try to fall asleep. A meta-analysis that identified randomised clinical trials, found that there was a positive link between sleep quality improvements and mindfulness meditation.
We’ve got a great selection of guided sleep meditations in our Meditation article.
5. Sleep Hypnosis
Sleep hypnosis works by lulling you into a state of deep relaxation by using positive and persuasive audio cues. This usually involves visualising calming imagery, to create a hypnotic state that allows you to drift off to sleep whilst still hearing the hypnotherapist's therapeutic suggestions.
Studies suggest that hypnosis encourages relaxation and can access “preconscious cognitions and emotions and cognitive restructuring”. Therefore, those who struggle with sleep and have some form of insomnia or sleep anxiety disorder may experience a positive response to hypnosis.
You need to be open to the concept of hypnosis for it to work and not be afraid to try something a little different.
6. Cut out caffeine
Caffeine acts as a stimulant and increases activity in your brain and nervous system, causing a negative impact when trying to get a good night’s sleep. One study found that 400 mgs of caffeine taken upto 6 hours prior to bed significantly disrupts sleep.
A 2005 study by Cambridge University highlighted how too much caffeine can lead to symptoms mirroring those of psychiatric conditions such as sleep and anxiety disorders. Try cutting out caffeine for good, but do this slowly by lessening your consumption each week.
7. Create a relaxing bedtime environment
Creating a good bedtime environment should strengthen your relationship with sleep. Knowing that you’re heading to a space for sleep that’s calming, clean and inviting, should help ease some of your bedtime worries. Here are a few suggestions for what you can do to create a relaxing bedtime environment:
- Get some black out curtains to block the light that can make it hard to nod off.
- Find your perfect pillow by investing in quality.
- If you can, treat yourself to a new bed that suits your needs.
- Make sure your bedroom is tidy at night and during the day.
- Make your bed in the morning so it’s ready for you at night.
- Add a couple of calming accessories like a relaxing night lamp or a cosy throw.
Overcoming sleep anxiety
Sleep anxiety can be a very personal challenge. Different people will cope with it in different ways and methods that work for some might not work for others.
Our advice is to try each suggested method to deal with sleep anxiety and discover which one works for you.
Remember to take it easy on yourself. Sleep anxiety can be draining to say the least, so just take small steps towards achieving better sleep.