The ability to get a good night’s sleep can be a point of pride. But if you climb into bed at night and can’t fall asleep, it can be shameful, stressful, and, if it happens enough, anxiety-provoking.
Sleep anxiety is a real phenomenon. It feels different from anticipatory anxiety, which is when you’re worrying about something in the future, or an anxiety disorder, which causes racing thoughts or jitters.
No, this is specifically around being afraid of not getting enough sleep — and whether you’re “good” at sleeping. If anxiety becomes extreme, to a point of fear of sleeping and physical distress, this can become a phobia known as somniphobia.
The causes and symptoms of sleep anxiety
Sleep is a private event, and yet the way we talk about it is anything but. For some, the lack of sleep plagues the way we show up at work, answer “How are you”, or move throughout the day. It becomes a show-and-tell of how much sleep we got the night before — unleashing a new and unique type of performance anxiety. We go to bed fearing our sleep quality is being evaluated by others.
While most people think of performance anxiety as something that affects actors and musicians, Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, sleep researcher, and Sleep.com advisor says it can also haunt people who struggle with sleep.
“Most good sleepers go to bed and don’t think about it, but if you call yourself a poor sleeper, you may pair sleep performance with a dire outcome,” says Winter. “For instance, you may tell yourself, ‘If I don’t get to sleep, I’ll be dysfunctional tomorrow.’”
Mental health professionals call this ‘aberrant thinking,’ a thought trap that leads to fear-driven conclusions, even when there’s insufficient evidence to support the claim. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, failure, and fear of sleep.
Sleep anxiety at night could lead to physical symptoms, such as:
- racing heart
- quick breaths
- tense and sore muscles
- digestive discomfort
Aberrant thinking is what makes performance anxiety different from its cousin, anticipatory anxiety, which can pop up before a high-stakes event like a job interview or a bliss-filled day like a birthday party. The other difference between anticipatory anxiety and performance anxiety is that the latter can become an anxiety disorder, says cognitive psychologist Joel Minden, Ph.D.
When performance anxiety meets avoidance, fear grows, leading us to believe failure is imminent. And when anxiety impacts your mood, it can lead to self-defeating behaviors that become signs of a mental health concern, Minden notes.
Risks of sleep anxiety and how it fuels healthism
Imagine this scenario: You’re scrolling through Instagram when you spot an ad for the latest “Sleep Aid Bundle,” a kit that includes elixirs and gadgets that promise they’re not like the others. You’re intrigued. Last month you tried the #sleeplettucehack, but drinking lettuce leaves steeped in hot water didn't make you very drowsy after all.
Inspired, you click and spend $75. While you're at it, you make note to investigate a new sleep tracker and a white-noise machine — in case that bundle doesn’t work. Maybe your sleep problems need high-cost solutions.
And like that, you’ve joined the millions of consumers who spend 84.9 billion dollars on sleep aids each year.
Chances are you’re buying into “healthism” — a term coined in the 1980s to describe an individual’s preoccupation with the pursuit of health — and turning sleep into a project, on top of your daily grind.
“Healthism blurs the line between balance and taking things to extremes," says Winter.
Operating on the premise that health problems and disease are an individual’s responsibility, healthism uses take-charge branding to make people believe there’s a guaranteed cause and effect when we do things for our health. In sleep, healthism fosters the belief that how much you sleep is in your control (despite external factors like environment, social commitments, and more).
“Media messages like, 'If you sleep less than 7 hours each night, you'll die sooner,' can send the wrong message,” says James Wilson, sleep behavior expert and educator. It also suggests that perfect sleep is required for living a long life.
Healthism makes us believe that the “more we obsess over our health, the healthier we will be,” Wilson summarizes. But according to research, healthism isn’t improving our overall health or making us feel more satisfied with our well-being. Instead, it’s a moving goalpost that hinges on privilege and means, to indulge in consumerism.
Which means it can be anxiety-inducing to participate in healthism, especially if you’re part of low-income, working-class, and/or chronic-illness populations. It's no surprise that these populations also overlap with those who are more likely to have sleep anxiety, such as people with sleep disorders, mental health conditions, and chronic pain.
Managing sleep anxiety
You may have experienced or fallen into healthism without knowing it. It can motivate people differently, from diet and exercise to preventative care, where you are stuck in a loop thinking you must improve your health.
Fortunately the solutions for letting go of sleep anxiety and healthism go hand in hand.
1. Remember that personal context to health matters
Wilson coaches many distressed sleepers who are made anxious by generalized health statements. To ease their anxiety, he offers a fresh perspective, “Research doesn’t take your individual health habits into account or apply to ‘everyone,’” he tells his clients.
But if this reassurance doesn’t lift your worries, you can move past performance anxiety by understanding the emotions that drive your anxieties and discovering where you fall on the continuum, says Minden. For example, if being unable to sleep perfectly at 10 p.m. every night causes shame, you can reset your goals so they are more achievable, such as aiming to be in bed by a certain time.
2. Celebrate your small wins to sleep problems
“[One of the most] powerful changes you can make is the way you see yourself," says Wilson.
Instead of berating yourself for being a bad sleeper or not feeling a different after trying the latest #sleeplettucehack, celebrate your wins, and acknowledge the changes you can make. For instance, if you're sleep-deprived and getting through today, it means you'll make it through tomorrow. (And cancelling the social hang that's happening on the same night might be a good idea.)
3. Check in with your body
Winter also reminds us that body hacking and fast solutions may claim to solve things that aren't even problems. In other words, when it comes to health, there are limits on what we can and can't do.
"Keep in mind that doing more doesn't necessarily mean better," Winter shares.
Ask yourself: "What do I need to feel well?" Water-tracking apps might help you avoid dehydration, but maybe you're already drinking enough water. A sleep bot might claim to act as a personalized sleep coach, but how much advice do you need if you’re not listening to your body’s need slow down? There’s such a thing as oversleeping, too.
4. Make sure self-care isn’t turning into self-pressure
Finally, Winter suggests asking yourself if there’s a return on investment. Is your pursuit of health cutting into time with family and friends? What does a balanced health portfolio look like and how does it make you feel at the end of the day? The next day?
If you're one of the millions of people that's fallen under healthism's spell, try replacing it with “balancism," Winter advises.
When in doubt — or feeling like you’ve tried everything to a point that you’ve strayed far from your original routine — fall back to the tried-and-true rules of good sleep hygiene, like keeping your phone in a separate room so you’re not tempted to doomscroll. Then pair your routine with scientifically backed relaxation tips for falling asleep and see if your sleep improves from there.
However if your sleep anxiety has grown to a point of panic attacks at night, talk to a healthcare professional. They can help put together a treatment plan and solution to directly address the underlying cause.