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Trouble Sleeping? Here’s How Anxiety Affects Sleep And What You Can Do About It

Written by: Laryssa Levesque, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Do you ever lay awake at night, tossing and turning because you can’t “shut off” your mind? You may be able to keep your worries suppressed throughout the day, but at night, they seem to flood you in the form of racing thoughts. So frustrating! The annoyance of not being able to sleep just amplifies your stress and the vicious cycle continues. Another sleepless night, and yet another exhausting day to follow.

If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone and that there is help. For the anxious folk, sleep problems are quite common- in fact, up to 70% of those diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder struggle with insomnia.

Anxiety and Insomnia

The million dollar question when it comes to anxiety and sleep is: Are you having trouble sleeping because of your anxiety or are you feeling anxious because of your lack of sleep? The answer is, possibly both!

Overthinking and Insomnia

Anxiety is a common experience that creates a sense of fear, nervousness, and uneasiness. When we are anxious, our body is in a hyperaroused state that can be marked by muscle tension, rapid breathing, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and racing thoughts. The latter symptom is particularly problematic for sleeping as rumination (i.e., excessive worry) can interfere with our ability to relax and fall asleep.

“Sleep anxiety” is something we describe as anxious or negative thoughts pertaining to sleep quality or the consequences of not getting enough sleep. For example, “I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight” or “If I don’t get enough sleep I won’t be able to function tomorrow” or “Ugh, I only have 6 hours of potential sleep, I really need to rest!”.

These types of thoughts about sleep just make our anxiety worse, and therefore, decrease our chances of actually getting a good night’s sleep.

Sleep and Mental Health

In general, insomnia and sleep disturbances are linked to poor mental health functioning. Lack of sleep can contribute to low or irritable mood, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and reduced ability to handle stress.

When we sleep, our brain cycles through various sleep stages which are all vital to repairing and restoring our body and mind. However, REM sleep is a specific stage that plays an important role in brain development and processing emotional content, which is notably important for mental health as we need to be able to process and consolidate positive memories and their associated emotions. There are a number of factors linked to reduced REM sleep such as poor diet, too hot or cold of temperatures, alcohol, some medications, smoking, and caffeine.

Tips to Improve Sleep

1. Try Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals identify unhelpful ways of thinking and reframe those thoughts to be more balanced and productive. When it comes to the “sleep anxiety” we referred to earlier, CBT can help you cope with rumination and worry and develop a better relationship to sleep by targeting your anxious thoughts. Speak to a licensed therapist who is trained in CBT to help you challenge and change your unhelpful anxious thoughts pertaining to sleep.

2. Get into a routine

This is one of the most important tips for good sleep quality. Not only should you create a consistent sleep schedule for going to bed and waking up, but think about how you can also get into a calming routine before bed for maximum comfort and relaxation. Some people enjoy reading before bed or winding down with a nice bath or essential oils. Whatever it is, your brain will eventually develop an association between when it's time to sleep and the activity, therefore signalling to your brain “ok, time for sleep!”

3. Brain dump

If you have a lot on your mind, you need to let it go come bedtime. Try doing a journaling activity called a “brain dump” where you write down everything that happened today, what bothered you, what was exciting etc. Dump it out and let it go!

4. Meditate

Guided meditations are a mindfulness activity that can be helpful to keep your mind focused on the present moment rather than your stress/worry, and to help get your body into a relaxed state. Try downloading an app on your phone, such as Insight Timer, and follow along to a meditation before bed.

5. Target your diet

Try avoiding alcohol, sugary or processed foods, and caffeine too close to bedtime. As well, opt for complex carbs or foods high in protein that will take longer to breakdown overnight to avoid major dips in your blood sugar and cause you to wake up. Here is a list of foods to try before bed to help improve sleep quality.

The Bottom Line

There is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health, meaning that sleep can impact our mental health and vice versa. Therefore, it is imperative that we try to get the best sleep we can in order to promote good mental health, and if you are struggling with your mental health, to talk to a therapist or your doctor to see how you can get help in order to improve your overall health and wellbeing.

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Laryssa Levesque, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Laryssa is a Registered Psychotherapist and entrepreneur. She is the owner and clinical director of virtual mental health practice, Inner Growth Counselling & Psychotherapy, which provides comfortable, down-to-earth, and genuine therapy services to children, teens, adults, couples, and families. Her mission is to modernize therapy by making it accessible and convenient for people to seek help and destigmatize mental health issues. She believes that everyone would benefit from therapy to help them rediscover their authentic self, find balance and control in life, and live more meaningfully, free of the burden of mental health issues.



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