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  • Writer's pictureLaryssa Levesque

Worried About Your Sleep? Here's How Anxiety Affects Sleep + 5 Tips To Improve Sleep

Have you ever experienced those restless nights, where you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to quiet your mind? It's as if your worries, which you managed to keep at bay during the day, come rushing back to haunt you at night in the form of racing thoughts and worries. It's incredibly frustrating! And not being able to sleep only intensifies your stress, creating a never-ending cycle.


how anxiety affects sleep

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


How Anxiety Affects Sleep


It's the ultimate question worth a million dollars when it comes to anxiety and sleep: Is your anxiety causing your sleep troubles or is it the lack of sleep that's making you anxious? Well, guess what? The answer could very well be both! Keep reading as we learn more about how anxiety affects our sleep and what you can do about it.


Overthinking and Insomnia


Anxiety is a common feeling that can make us feel afraid, nervous, and uneasy. When we're anxious, our body becomes hyperaroused, leading to muscle tension, rapid breathing, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and racing thoughts. The last symptom, in particular, can be troublesome when it comes to sleeping because excessive worry can prevent us from relaxing and falling asleep.


We refer to this as "sleep anxiety," which involves anxious or negative thoughts about the quality of our sleep or the consequences of not getting enough sleep. For instance, thoughts like "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 "I only have 6 hours to sleep, I really need to rest!"


These thoughts about sleep only worsen our anxiety and decrease our chances of having a good night's sleep.


Sleep and Mental Health


Insomnia and sleep disturbances are commonly associated with poor mental health functioning. When we don't get enough sleep, it can affect our mood, making us feel low or irritable. It can also lead to anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and a reduced ability to handle stress.


Sleep is crucial for our body and mind to repair and restore themselves, and this involves cycling through different sleep stages. One particular stage, REM sleep, is especially important for brain development and processing emotions. It helps us process and consolidate positive memories and the emotions associated with them, which is crucial for our mental well-being. Several factors can reduce REM sleep, including a poor diet, extreme temperatures, alcohol, certain medications, smoking, and caffeine.


Tips to Improve Sleep


There are many helpful tips and tricks to improve sleep- commonly called "sleep hygiene" principles. Here are 5 simple tips to improve sleep to get started, and if you're looking for more ideas check out our article here.


1. Try Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia


Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps people identify unhelpful ways of thinking and reframe those thoughts to be more balanced. When it comes to the “sleep anxiety” we referred to earlier, CBT can help you deal with rumination and worry by developing a better relationship to sleep by reframing your anxious thoughts. There are many self-help resources to learn to change your thinking patters, but speaking to a licensed therapist who is trained in CBT and other therapeutic interventions is recommended to help improve your anxiety and sleep!


2. Get into a routine


Establishing a solid sleep routine is one of the best tips to improve sleep and for bettering our mental health in general. Not only should you create a consistent sleep-wake schedule for going to bed and waking up, but think about what pre-bedtime routines you can create that promotes optimal comfort and relaxation. Some people like to do light stretching or yoga, read a book, or unwind in a nice warm bath. Whatever it is, the idea here is that we are entering into a relaxed state and training our brain to associate the activity with sleep...rather than training our brain to associate overthinking with bedtime.


3. Brain dump


Many people struggle with stressful, unwanted thoughts at bedtime. What better time for our mind to start worrying about all the stuff it's been trying to ignore all day than at bedtime, right?!


If this sounds like you, then you might benefit from learning how to manage your stress better and "let go" of things you can't control 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, what is on the to-do for tomorrow 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 or 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.


Pro Tip: Mindfulness is not meant to "get rid of" stress or anxiety or to intentionally induce sleep. This is a common misconception. Mindfulness is a tool to help effectively respond to internal experiences (eg thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, body sensations etc) and not get caught up in them. The goal is to notice what's coming up for us and allow it to be there. Guided meditations will help walk you through this process, but you can imagine your thoughts as clouds floating away in the sky, just accepting them as they are.


5. Target your diet


A common sleep hygiene tip is to limit food intake a few hours before bedtime overall. And in particular, it's best to avoid alcohol, sugary or processed foods, and caffeine too close to bedtime. I know late-night snacks are often of the junk food variety (guilty!), but if you can, aim to eat 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


Getting a good night's sleep is crucial for maintaining good mental health. It's amazing how closely sleep and our mental health are interconnected, with each influencing the other. So, it's essential to prioritize quality sleep to promote a healthy mind. If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, don't hesitate to reach out to a therapist or your doctor. They can provide guidance and support to help you improve your overall well-being. Remember, taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health.


 

Our team of online and in-person counsellors and psychotherapists in Barrie provide quality and effective mental health counselling services near you in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.

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