Anxiety disorders are the most common category of mental health disorders, affecting 18% of the population. Anxiety often translates to sleep disruption. But is that because anxiety can worsen sleep or because lack of sleep worsens anxiety?
It is a mystery that researchers are trying hard to solve. The link between anxiety and sleep is quite complex, so let's explore how they interact.
How Anxiety Affects Sleep
The process of falling asleep may seem simple: A baby can do it, after all. But as we get older, and we begin to deal with more stressors, a process that was once easy becomes frustratingly elusive. You know from your experience of the nights before a big test or presentation just how difficult it can be.
Trouble falling asleep due to intrusive and unwelcome thoughts is known as psychophysiological insomnia. It is a long medical name, but at its core, it means that the bed has become the place where you think and worry, not the place where you relax and sleep. Those who suffer from daytime anxiety are more prone to this problem at night, thereby leading to limited sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation the next day.
How Sleep Affects Anxiety
It is clear that anxiety can decrease sleep, but does a decrease in sleep affect anxiety? Research is finding that lack of sleep can in fact increase our anxiety levels. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers looked at 18 healthy adults and compared anxiety levels when sleeping well and when sleep-deprived. They induced anxiety by showing them pictures that were either neutral or disturbing. They found that prior to seeing the image, sleep-deprived adults experienced more anxiety in anticipation of the image. These individuals did not have an anxiety disorder at baseline.
Since sleep is affected by anxiety and vice versa, it is easy to see how lack of sleep can turn into a vicious cycle if not addressed. Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to treat lack of sleep due to anxious tendencies. The answer to psychophysiological insomnia is not typically found in a sleeping pill, but instead comes from working with a counselor or therapist that knows how to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a treatment that aims to reduce the anxiety someone feels at bedtime. Mindfulness practices can also be effective. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you need help. Working on both sleep and your anxiety together is critical to putting you back on the right track.