Anxiety can affect sleep in disruptive ways. Understanding what causes sleep anxiety and its relationship to other health conditions can encourage those experiencing symptoms to get help from a mental health clinician.
What is sleep anxiety?
Sleep anxiety is a condition that involves an inability to attain restful, restorative sleep. This can be due to anxiety, worry, or stress about not being able to sleep, inability to achieve sufficient deep sleep, or experiencing recurring anxiety around insomnia. While it is not classified as a distinct disorder, sleep anxiety can be a standalone issue or part of a larger health condition.
A range of issues can cause sleep anxiety, including insomnia, sub-clinical anxiety, or an anxiety disorder. Someone with sleep anxiety may find that they fall into a pattern. They may start by feeling anxious about their inability to sleep, followed by an inability to achieve deep, sustained, or restorative sleep, followed by increased anxiety. This can create a cycle that can be challenging to break.
The relationship between anxiety and sleep
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions. Some level of anxiety is normal and can be useful in alerting a person to potential dangers. However, sustained and excessive anxiety can have negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health, including how well they sleep. When anxiety goes untreated, it can affect someone’s ability to calm their mind and, in turn, their sleep.
Signs and symptoms of sleep anxiety
There are several signs of sleep anxiety, including:
- Extreme restlessness or nervousness
- Feeling a sense of overwhelm or having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling irritable or grouchy
- A sense of danger, doom, or dread
- Increased heart rate
- Digestive issues or stomachaches
- Tension or trembling in muscles
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Effects of sleep anxiety
Sleep anxiety can have a range of short- and long-term effects.
In the short-term, sleep deprivation can create noticeable effects. These can include impaired perception, slower reaction times, difficulty concentrating, reduced efficiency, and an increase in errors made during work (Orzel-Gryglewska, 2010). Physically, short-term sleep deprivation can create inflammation in the body and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and coronary artery disease (Sauvet et al, 2010).
Long-term sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of more serious health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes (Van Cauter et al, 2008).
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Treatments for sleep anxiety
A range of treatments can help resolve sleep anxiety. These can include therapy, medication, and improving sleep habits. Many treatment options address the root causes of anxiety instead of the symptoms of sleep anxiety alone.
Improving sleep habits
Improving sleep habits may help alleviate sleep-related anxiety issues. This can include:
- Setting a reliable sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at consistent times
- Limiting the amount of food, liquid, alcohol, and caffeine consumed before sleeping
- Creating a serene sleeping environment with dimmed lighting and comfortable temperatures
- Meditating or doing relaxing breathing exercises before sleeping
- Getting sufficient daily exercise or movement earlier in the day
- Limiting the use of smartphones and other devices before sleep
Therapy may also help alleviate sleep anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can address underlying anxieties, potentially resulting in a patient having an easier time falling asleep.
CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) may also be used to improve sleep habits and track sleep patterns.
Medication may help alleviate sleep anxiety. Clinicians may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, anti-depressants, beta blockers, and prescription sleep aids to help induce relaxation and encourage sleepiness.
Discussing sleep anxiety with a doctor or licensed healthcare professional
Sleep anxiety may have physiological causes as well. A mental health clinician may perform a physical examination and ask about your sleep routine and habits, including any noticeable patterns of anxiety. They may ask about how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake, and eating and drinking habits before bedtime. You may also be asked to participate in an overnight sleep study in a dedicated sleep laboratory.
- Orzeł-Gryglewska, J. (2010). Consequences of sleep deprivation. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.2478/v10001-010-0004-9
- Sauvet, F., Leftheriotis, G., Gomez-Merino, D., Langrume, C., Drogou, C., Van Beers, P., Bourrilhon, C., Florence, G., & Chennaoui, M. (2010). Effect of acute sleep deprivation on vascular function in healthy subjects. Journal of Applied Physiology, 108(1), 68–75. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00851.2009
- Van Cauter, E., Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., & Leproult, R. (2008). Metabolic consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine, 9. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1389-9457(08)70013-3