Sleep

Are Stress and Anxiety Impacting Your Sleep?

Tips for a better night's rest while dealing with stress.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

These days, feeling stressed out or anxious is practically the norm; whether it stems from developments around COVID-19, political discussions, or the usual pressures of work, school, family, etc., each day so many of us are plagued with feelings of stress and anxiety. But what happens to those feelings when the day comes to a close? Do we pack them neatly into a box, to only be dealt with the following day? Or do they continue to linger in our minds as we lay down for the night, reminding us of all the things we should supposedly be worried about? 

More often than not, it’s the latter. According to research by the Sleep Foundation, not only is there a significant relationship between anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances, but also between non-clinical stress and anxiety and problems with sleep. This means that after a while, those daily stressors begin to add up, and we carry our stress and anxiety from the day into bed with us at night whether we know it or not. This can have a detrimental impact on our ability to get a good night’s sleep, which can in turn create a whole host of other physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

So, what happens if we get struggle to get quality sleep, and what can we do to stop it? Let’s take a look into the details:

How Anxiety Impacts Sleep

Poorer Sleep Quality. Even if we are able to fall asleep, stress and anxiety can continue to negatively impact the quality of sleep we get. If it doesn’t look like delays in falling asleep, it could very well look like waking up multiple times in the middle of the night. Stress and anxiety also impact the amount of time we spend in the deeper stages of sleep, which are important for our brain and body’s repair and recovery.

Jamie Street on Unsplash
How are stress and anxiety impacting our sleep?
Source: Jamie Street on Unsplash

Physiological Symptoms. Anxiety triggers our fight or flight response, which is the way our bodies prepare for action against a threat…not the most ideal state for sleeping! Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety can include increased heart rate, muscle tightness, upset stomach, trembling, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this can make sleeping pretty uncomfortable, even without racing thoughts to go with them.

The Anxiety-Sleep Cycle. While stress and anxiety can impact sleep, we often don’t consider how lack of sleep can impact stress and anxiety too. Research has shown that individuals who report less quality and quantity of sleep also report higher symptoms of anxiety and stress. In other words, we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of anxiety and impacted sleep, without knowing how to get out of it.

Why Is This Important?

When our racing thoughts prevent us from getting quality sleep, it brings along a number of physical and mental negative effects:

Mental/Emotional Effects. As mentioned above, lack of sleep can also worsen symptoms of stress and anxiety. The longer our sleep is impacted, the more we are likely to struggle with these increased symptoms, and as a result, we are also at a risk for an increase in other mental health challenges as well, such as mood or substance use disorders.

Physical Health. In addition to feeling exhausted throughout the day, chronic issues with sleep have also been associated with various physical health challenges, including hypertension, respiratory disease, migraines, GI problems, and an impacted immune system response, which can lead to a higher chance of getting sick in general.   

What Can We Do?

In a world fraught with stress and anxiety, how do we catch those much-needed Zs? Well, there are actually a few ways we can tackle the anxiety-sleep cycle and get the rest we so rightly deserve.

Sleep Hygiene. When you think of hygiene, you may automatically think of brushing your teeth, your daily shower, cleaning up your kitchen, and so on. Rarely, though, do we associate hygiene with our quality of sleep, but it is just as important to keep your sleep routine clean as it is to keep the rest of you clean! Sleep hygiene means having a routine dedicated to the quality of your sleep so that your body knows when it’s time to wind down. Some ways you can improve your sleep hygiene include:

  • Stopping the use of technology 1-2 hours before bed: Blue light from our phones, computers, tablets, etc. impacts the production of melatonin, also known as the “sleep hormone." Melatonin helps signal to our brains when it’s time to sleep, and if its production is delayed, so is our quality of sleep.
  • Try to wake up and go to sleep at a similar time each day. Just like how melatonin tells our brains when to sleep and when to get up, our actions can do the same. If we wake up and go to bed at around the same time each night, we can train our bodies to turn off at night when we want to.
  • Use your bed for sleeping, and only for sleeping. Beds are comfortable, let’s be real. It’s tempting to sprawl out and watch a movie or do some work in bed instead of at a desk or table. However, this can confuse our brains, and create associations between work and bed, making it hard to leave anxious work-related thoughts behind at night.
  • Be consistent in your routine. Whatever your routine is, stay consistent. The more our brains associate certain activities with sleep, the easier it will be to sleep when we need to.

Mindfulness Meditation/Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing. Meditation and Deep Breathing exercises for reducing anxiety and stress before bed. While we may not be able to stop anxious thoughts from coming in all the time, mindfulness meditation can help us learn to let the thoughts flow in and out of our minds like leaves on a river. Using diaphragmatic breathing—or belly breathing—and keeping our attention on the breath can be an excellent way to practice letting the thoughts go by giving our minds something else to focus on. Not only that, but diaphragmatic breathing acts as the body’s natural “off-switch” to that fight or flight response, by sending signals to our anxious minds that there is no threat to worry about.

Sleeping Apps. Apps like Headspace or Calm are excellent tools for getting better quality sleep. They provide things like guided meditation, stories, or soothing sound recordings to help lull stressed-out minds into sleep.  

Natural Remedies. There are plenty of natural sleep aids out there to encourage a restful night’s sleep. Chamomile and lavender are both sold as teas, fragrances, lotions, essential oils, etc., and have shown significant anti-anxiety and sleep-inducing effects. Melatonin, mentioned earlier as that “sleep hormone,” is also sold in the form of supplements, gummies, pills, and so on at pretty much any local pharmacy. Taking melatonin as a supplement can help to naturally trigger the sleep cycle in the brain when stress and anxiety make it difficult for our natural storage to do so on its own.

No matter where our stress or anxiety is coming from, it shouldn’t prevent us from getting that much-needed rest at the end of the day. While these tips are not a replacement for managing stress and anxiety itself, they hopefully will help boost the quality and/or quantity of sleep you can claim each night!

References

Fuller, K. H., Waters, W. F., Binks, P. G., & Anderson, T. (1997). Generalized anxiety and sleep architecture: a polysomnographic investigation. Sleep, 20(5), 370-376.

Goldstein, A. N., Greer, S. M., Saletin, J. M., Harvey, A. G., Nitschke, J. B., & Walker, M. P. (2013). Tired and apprehensive: anxiety amplifies the impact of sleep loss on aversive brain anticipation. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(26) 10607-10615.

Stein, M. B., Belik, S. L., Jacobi, F., & Sareen, J. (2008). Impairment associated with sleep problems in the community: relationship to physical and mental health comorbidity. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(8), 913-919.

Sleep Foundation. (2020, September 18). Anxiety and Sleep. Retrieved November 27, 2020, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/mental-health/anxiety-and-sleep. 

Headspace. (N/A). Breathing exercises to reduce stress. Retrieved November 27, 2020, from https://www.headspace.com/meditation/breathing-exercises. 

Chang, S. M., & Chen, C. H. (2016). Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(2), 306-315.

Lillehei, A. S., Halcón, L. L., Savik, K., & Reis, R. (2015). Effect of inhaled lavender and sleep hygiene on self-reported sleep issues: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(7), 430-438.