In 30 seconds
The link between anxiety and sleep disorders is strong, often resulting in a vicious cycle. (Anxiety prevents sleep, which leads to anxiety.) If you want to know how to fall asleep when anxious, there is help available. There are effective treatments for anxiety disorders that can greatly improve your sleep and general wellbeing.
These include medication and talk therapy, or a combination of the two. In addition, there are various methods that you can use to calm your thoughts and help you get a good night’s rest. These range from improving sleep hygiene, to practising relaxation exercises, to avoiding harmful triggers that may intensify your anxiety.
We all feel a degree of anxiety at some point. Major life changes, work stress, or upcoming events can all cause us to feel an unease that can disrupt our sleep. Sometimes, it just feels impossible to turn our thoughts off.
For some, anxiety can be a disruptive force where feelings of fear are no longer connected to specific sources. In this case, fear and worry can lead to a chronic condition that may require medical attention.
For those suffering from anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), sleep problems might be a particularly common occurrence. In fact, according to this study, somewhere between 24 and 36 percent of those struggling with insomnia also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
So, if this is where you’re at right now, know that you’re not alone.
What is the relationship between anxiety and sleep?
You may have experienced this vicious cycle — you can’t get to sleep because you’re feeling anxious, and then you feel anxious that you can’t get to sleep. This can lead to sleep anxiety, where the thought of sleep itself can be anxiety inducing.
Getting a good night’s rest is vital, with experts recommending that we get between six and nine hours of sleep a night.
We are continuing to learn about the role sleep plays in learning, memory, and general functioning of our brains and bodies. Without adequate sleep, we are more at risk for all sorts of health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and diabetes.
Recent studies have focused on the links between sleep deprivation and mental distress, with developments in neuroscience giving us more of an understanding as to why. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that sleep deprivation reduced the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is linked to emotional control.
Added to this, as the Sleep Foundation explains, there appears to be a strong link between anxiety disorders and the quality of our REM sleep. This is significant because REM, the sleep stage where most of us dream, is vital for consolidating information we process during the day and for forming memories.
Luckily, there is help available in various forms.
How do you fall asleep with anxiety?
There’s no one method that will work for everyone — everyone’s experiences are different — but there are options you can try that may help.
Firstly, if you suspect you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to get treatment. Talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two are effective means for dealing with the symptoms you may be experiencing.
As this study shows, the available treatments can be very effective in improving the quality of life of those struggling with anxiety disorders. More than half the patients that underwent psychological therapy for the treatment of anxiety and depression in 2017-18, for example, ended in recovery.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that helps you break unwanted thinking and behavioural patterns, can be particularly effective.
Then, here are some important tips for cultivating good sleep habits and getting the rest you need.
How do you help yourself fall asleep if you are feeling anxious?
- Ditch the devices.
Blue light from your social media feed can interfere with your circadian rhythms — that’s your natural sleep-wake cycles — and make getting to sleep a challenge.
- Ensure your bedroom is set up for sleep.
Cool, dark, and quiet are optimal conditions for sleep.
- Avoid stimulants.
While caffeine and/or nicotine may help you get through feelings of sleepiness during the day, they can interfere with your sleep quality. If you smoke, it’s a good idea to quit. If you are a coffee or tea drinker, moderate your intake.
- Try relaxation techniques.
There are various options on the table when it comes to calming anxious thoughts. Here are some to try:
- Progressive muscle relaxation, or Jacobson’s relaxation technique: Tense individual groups of muscles in your body and then consciously relax them.
- Autogenic training: Focus on specific areas of your body and consciously relax them.
- Imagery: Think of places or scenes that make you feel at peace. A beach, a forest, or a garden may offer some tranquillity.
- Belly breathing (AKA diaphragmatic breathing). Place a hand on your belly to encourage your breath downwards. Consciously focusing on your breathing can help calm your system. This 2017 study showed this to be an effective method for anxiety reduction.
- 4-7-8 breathing. Breathe out through your mouth. Close your mouth and count to four while breathing in through your nose. Hold your breath for seven counts. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight.
- Stick to a sleep schedule.
Try to go to bed at the same time every night. That includes weekends.
- Get sunlight during the day.
Depending on where you live, this may not always be possible — but getting enough sunlight helps you get to sleep at night. That’s because our sleep-wake cycles are powered by light.
- Be cautious with your naps.
If you are feeling sleep-deprived, the temptation to nap during the day can be overwhelming. While this can help you get some much-needed rest, naps may also interfere with your nighttime sleep. So, if you nap, keep it short. And try not to snooze after 3pm.
- Try a white noise machine or app.
White noise apps are downloaded frequently to be used as sleep aids. The idea behind them is that they may help you get the sleep you need by blocking out environmental sounds.
But it’s important to note that the research is mixed on this one. There’s some evidence to suggest that white noise may even be detrimental to both your sleep and hearing. Watch this space as scientists investigate this issue further.
- Steer clear of anything that may bring on heartburn.
That’s alcohol, spicy food, and big meals. Research suggests that there is a strong link between gastrointestinal reflux, anxiety and poor sleep. Avoiding the triggers before bedtime might put you on the path to a decent night’s sleep.
- Have a warm bath.
This can be the perfect wind-down after a long day. Pairing this with a good book and/or your favourite relaxing sounds can go a long way.
- Get medical advice for other health conditions that might be affecting your sleep.
Conditions such as sleep apnea have significant links to mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. If there’s an underlying issue that is causing your sleep trouble, getting to the bottom of it may be the first step to getting the rest you need.
- Get up.
This may seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to get to sleep , but lying awake coping with negative thoughts can help perpetuate the vicious cycle that is keeping you awake. If you haven’t fallen asleep within about twenty minutes of trying, it can help to get up and do something you enjoy before going to sleep again.
Nighttime anxiety can have a huge impact on your sleep and, in turn, on your quality of life. If negative thoughts are rushing through your mind in the middle of the night, it can be challenging to turn them off. If you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to get treatment. Beyond medication and talk therapy, there are useful methods available that can help you get to sleep. These include setting up your sleeping space and schedule to make it conducive to rest, trying relaxation techniques, and avoiding harmful triggers.