It is exactly 3:27 a.m. You know because, in between tossing and turning and racing thoughts about problems at work, you’ve been checking the clock compulsively. With each passing minute, your mind is tabulating the sleep you’re losing, and soon “next-day exhaustion” makes its way to the top of the list of anxious thoughts keeping you awake.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you probably know first-hand what it feels like to be caught in this vicious cycle: anxiety disrupts sleep, and sleep loss worsens anxiety.
Unfortunately, anxiety at night is all too common — and especially pernicious. Because when left alone with its thoughts — with no one to talk to and nothing to distract it — the brain often seizes the opportunity to get caught up in the anxiety of a concern or situation. It’s easy for minor worries to snowball into major problems. When catastrophic thinking triggers a stress response, the body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. After your nervous system gets pushed into overdrive, is it any wonder you're having a hard time falling asleep?
While there may be a number of different ways to break free of this cycle, the various approaches usually fall into one of two categories.
1. Address and work on anxiety issues.
2. Improve sleep hygiene to get the sleep you need.
There may be overlap in some of these techniques and strategies, which is hardly surprising when you consider the ways anxiety and insomnia can intertwine and even feed off of each other. The good news is, anything you do to improve one will likely improve the other, either directly or indirectly.
In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between anxiety and sleep and go over some science-backed techniques that can help tame anxiety at night so you can feel and perform at your best during the day.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice from a healthcare professional. The RISE app is designed to support natural sleep and good sleep hygiene, but it does not treat health problems like anxiety disorders.
Simply defined, anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. It’s different from fear, which is defined as an emotional response to an imminent threat. In other words, fear is a response to a known or understood threat, while anxiety is usually about an unknown or poorly defined threat, something that may or may not happen in the future.
Both fear and anxiety can trigger your body’s stress response. Also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, it’s a physiological reaction to something your body has perceived as a threat.
In response to a threat, your adrenal glands pump extra adrenaline and cortisol — hormones that trigger the release of blood sugar and fat into your blood — giving you a boost of energy. These hormones also increase your heart rate and blood pressure to help more blood reach your muscles, heart, and other organs so that you’ll be ready to fight or run away from whatever is threatening you. In your brain, the extra oxygen sharpens your senses and increases alertness.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s easy to see how the body’s stress response would be critical to our survival as a species. Whether it was a saber-toothed tiger or an attack from a rival tribe, our prehistoric ancestors had plenty to fear as they fought to survive another day.
It’s also easy to see how the hormonal surge of a stress response is NOT conducive to sleep. The common stressors of our modern lives — the possibility of failing a test or being passed over for a promotion, for example — might not be life threatening, but the anxiety they cause can still elicit a stress response.
This type of chronic stress that runs in the background for long periods of time is dangerous because the body doesn’t receive a clear signal to return to normal functioning. Chronic overexposure to stress hormones can put you at higher risk for serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers, depression, and anxiety disorders.
But you don't have to have a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder to feel the effects of chronic stress, especially when it disrupts your sleep.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
These are hardly ideal ingredients for a good night’s sleep, by any standards. But there’s more to the story. Let’s take a look at some key terms that will help delineate the relationship between sleep and anxiety.
Getting caught up in the vicious cycle of anxiety and sleep loss is all too easy, and it can escalate quickly. Before you have to pull yourself out from under hours and hours of sleep debt and possibly even crippling depression, do what you can do nip it in the bud. Take stock and take action, the sooner the better.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders. And people with chronic insomnia are at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Because these problems can become a particularly difficult knot to untangle, the ADAA recommends seeking medical advice to address potential mental health conditions, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions.
A qualified mental health professional can help you investigate and address the underlying cause of your anxiety and may offer treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, and relaxation techniques. (Visit adaa.org to learn more about treatment options.)
You can also approach the problem of nighttime anxiety by taking steps to improve your sleep. Adopting good sleep hygiene habits is the best place to start.
Sleep hygiene refers to the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep. At Rise, we recommend following these guidelines to keep your sleep debt low so that you’ll have the energy you need during the day:
Using data from your phone and proprietary, sleep science-based models to map your unique circadian rhythm, the RISE app can tell you exactly how to time these sleep hygiene habits.
Next, we’ll go over additional sleep hygiene habits and bedtime routines aimed specifically at helping you unwind at the end of the day, and suggest relaxation techniques and other tactics that can help counteract nighttime anxiety.
Just as slowing your car down before you slam on the brakes can make it easier to come to a stop, mental deceleration before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep. Setting aside time to unwind and relax at the end of the evening can help keep anxiety at bay and make the transition into sleep as smooth as possible. Here are some tips for a sleep-friendly nighttime routine:
Good sleep hygiene habits and a relaxing bedtime routine can help you get the sleep your body needs. But on nights when stress and anxiety from your day threaten to keep you up at night, it helps to have tools to interrupt the body’s stress response. By adding relaxation techniques to your evening wind-down period, you can train your mind to release anxious thoughts and get into sleep mode. Rise recommends experimenting with these techniques to see which ones work for you:
In the RISE app, you can add a nightly relaxation session to your habits and customize it with guides/recordings for autogenic training, relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation, and diaphragmatic breathing.
Through a combination of good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques, you managed to quell your anxious thoughts and finally drift off to sleep. So it can be especially frustrating when you wake up just a couple of hours later and have difficulty getting back to sleep. When this happens, try to avoid getting caught up replaying anxious thoughts by immediately launching back into your favorite relaxation technique.
You might start with 4-7-8 breathing or progressive muscle relaxation until you fall asleep. You can also add guided imagery to your tool kit. Visualizing something serene and pleasurable can help calm the mind and body.
If you still can’t fall asleep, don't stay in bed for too long. Instead, do a sleep reset. Also known as “stimulus control,” a sleep reset helps prevent your brain from forming — or strengthening — an association between your bed and wakefulness. To reset, get out of bed and do something relaxing (read a book or listen to soft music) while sitting up. When you start to feel sleepy, return to bed. Repeat as necessary. (The RISE app will guide you through a sleep reset, to prevent you from spending too much time tossing and turning and wondering why you can’t sleep.)
By avoiding artificial lights and donning a pair of blue-light blocking glasses, it’s relatively easy to get past the most common obstacle to meeting your sleep need: nighttime light exposure. Eliminating anxiety and excessive mental stimulation in general are the second key to getting enough naturalistic sleep. It's important to do what you can to escape the vicious cycle of sleep loss and anxiety before it gets out of hand.
Diagnosing and treating crippling anxiety and anxiety disorders should be handled by a physician or other healthcare provider. But anyone can take steps to improve sleep hygiene and adopt relaxation techniques that make it easier to calm down and fall asleep.
And you don’t have to go it alone! The RISE app will help you track your progress toward lowering your sleep debt, set up reminders for sleep hygiene habits, and guide you through relaxation techniques to help you ease into dreamland. Because when it comes to having the energy you need to win the day, there is no substitute for sleep!
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