Anxiety and sleep affect each other directly and can easily go into a downward spiral. Not getting enough good sleep can make anxiety symptoms worse, and feeling anxious right before bed can keep us up with wide eyes, and unable to sleep.
It’s hard to fall asleep when your mind keeps wandering. When we are worried, our bodies go into “stress mode,” which makes it hard to rest and get better. But sleep does some really important things to help the body and mind heal. Getting enough good sleep can affect our mood, keep our hormones in balance, help us remember things, and do so much more.
For people who have anxiety, sleep can be a way to control and lessen their symptoms. But for many of us, going to sleep has become just another time of day when we can think about things over and over again.
In this article, we’ll look at some ways you can start to fix the connection between sleep and anxiety.
What Causes Us To Feel Anxious?
First things first, why do we have anxiety? What good does it do?
Stress disorders include anxiety. We experience stress as a survival characteristic. When we see a bear that might attack us, our sympathetic nervous system, also called “fight, flight, or freeze,” kicks in. Our pupils get bigger, our heart rate goes up, and we breathe quickly and shallowly. When we feel stressed, our bodies react physically to protect us from the perceived danger.
When we have a lot of stress that doesn’t go away for a long time and stays at a high level, we can start to get stress disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
We need to feel stress and anxiety to survive. However, the stress we feel every day doesn’t stress for survival; it’s stress from work, stress from arguing with a cherished one, and stress from home life. Because survival is a human instinct, the body doesn’t know the difference and will react to stress as if it were a life-or-death situation.
Thank goodness, the body has built-in ways to tell if what it thinks is a threat is just survival stress. Psychotherapy for treating PTSD is often used to help with anxiety.
If we think about how we breathe when we’re nervous or stressed, we might say that it’s short, quick, and shallow. When we’re calm and at ease, the breath might feel long, slow, and deep.
The way we breathe can tell us how we’re feeling, and we can also use it to change how we react to something.
If we have time to take deliberate, deep breaths, our bodies know that we are in a safe place. If we have time to breathe deeply, likely, a bear isn’t chasing us. When we take deep breaths, our bodies send messages to the fear center of the brain to tell it to turn on our parasympathetic response, also known as “rest and digest.”
How well do the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system work together?
It seems obvious to say that we’re good at the things we do often, but the same is true for how our bodies react to situations.
If we usually react to stressful conditions with a sympathetic response, and we get that sympathetic response numerous times a day, the body will get good at activating that response and staying in that high-stress state.
If we use the parasympathetic response often and consistently throughout the day, our bodies will get good at using it and staying in that calm, relaxed state.
When we are anxious, our bodies often go through a process called a sympathetic response. We want to train our parasympathetic response to make it easier for the body to get into and stay in this response.
When we’re trying to fall asleep, anxiety can be really loud, so let’s look at a couple of exercises you can do in bed to promote that parasympathetic response.
This deep breathing exercise can be done anywhere, at any time. Get into bed and make yourself comfortable to help calm an anxious mind before going to sleep.
Your left hand should be on your tummy and your right hand should be on your chest. Take a long, deep breath through the nose and out through the mouth. Take a couple of deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth.
Keep your breathing as easy as possible, and keep your shoulders and arms loose. You may notice that your left or right hand moves up and down as you take deep breaths. There might only be one hand moving. Focus on the movement of your breath in your body as you continue to take deep breaths through your nose. Notice how your hands are moving as your stomach and lungs fill with air.
You can add a mantra to this exercise if your mind is racing with worry, which it often is right before bed. A mantra is something good that you can repeat to yourself over and over. Something that you’d like to let into your life. A way of thinking that you’d like to have. For example, think “I am worthy” when you inhale and “I am enough” when you exhale.
Notice what you feel as you say to yourself, “I am worthy” when you inhale and “I am enough” when you exhale. When you repeat a mantra, it’s okay to feel silly. Just notice how you feel, knowing that there are no right or wrong answers. If you want to have your mantra, make sure it’s always positive and gives you praise or encouragement.
You only need to do this deep breathing for two minutes before you start to feel calmer. Practice for as long as you need to before going to sleep.
Be Mindful About Sleep
For adults to get all the restorative benefits of sleep, they need to sleep between 7 and 9 hours per night. There are four different stages of sleep that we should go through five times in a row for the best sleep.
When we get all the restorative benefits of sleep, we can make better decisions, keep our moods in check, and help our brains and bodies heal from damage or trauma.
Getting enough sleep is the most important thing for getting better mentally. Poor sleep quality can make symptoms worse while getting enough good sleep can help us deal with our symptoms and get better. When we’ve had a good night’s sleep, we’re much better able to take care of our mental and physical health.
Often, I find that falling asleep listening to a podcast or an audiobook helps to quiet my thoughts and gives me the chance to fall into a deep restful sleep. If a book or podcast doesn’t do the trick for you, there are many Youtube videos available that you can listen to that range from rain and nature sounds to calming affirmations and talk-down meditations.
If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough good sleep and that it’s affecting your mental health, talk to your healthcare provider about it.