Being anxious and not sleeping well are very closely linked.
Our bodies are telling us to shut down but our brains just won´t let us.
When we do finally fall asleep it’s a fitful, uneasy sleep or we are woken up easily.
This blog explores the connection between disturbed sleep and anxiety and some advice on how to combat it. We explore anxiety in general and then how it affects sleep.
How anxiety works:
Anxiety occurs when we consciously or unconsciously perceive a threat. The body’s fight or flight system gears up to protect us. However, due to persistent negative thinking, we can make our bodies be on high alert all the time.
Negative thinking of any kind creates in the body a stress response. Take this example to see how strong just the power of thought can be.
We have been working all week and some friends invite us out for dinner at their house. We are really excited and ready to go out, we baked some food in the oven to bring as a starter. We leave the house and get just to our friend’s door. Suddenly the thought comes into our head: did I turn off the oven?
Imaging this it would be easy to picture how we might feel panicky, how our bodies would react and how we might be compelled to go home and check.
This story shows how just a little thought flashing across the mind will make our bodies react. When we worry the brain sends information to the rest of our body that we have to act. Humans are the species on this planet capable of the most complex reasons for a stress response.
We worry about our self-image, about offending others, about appearing stupid, about exams and success and about lies and exaggerations we have told. Other animals tend not to have all these things to worry about so it is not a stretch to say that we are uniquely preoccupied.
Plus we get stressed and our thinking on certain things can certainly become repetitive and negative. As this is happening the body of a human and our fight or flight doesn´t differentiate between an actual physical dangerous situation and something that is worrying us.
The body response
So then if we have a mind full of thoughts that are negative, imagine what this is doing to a human body.
A lot! Our heart rate and blood pressure are up. Our breathing may go quicker. Our cortisol (stress hormone) is being produced and extra adrenaline is being released.
Blood flows into our arms and legs to get us ready to run. Many people report feeling dizzy or ready to bounce into action. All the energy flooding us is telling us to fight or flee as per our biological response to danger.
Should this fail to be an option our nervous system can also tell us just to freeze and shut down. Imagine playing dead.
Yet as opposed to being in danger, in everyday life the energy has nowhere to go so we worry about what can´t be solved by running or fighting. That energy has to go somewhere so it goes back to our head and our thinking may speed up as a means to do something about it.
Of course, when this happens we just add more fuel to the fire especially if we catastrophizee, employ polarized thinking, control fallacies, the fallacy of fairness and filtering by only seeing the negative.
The deeper we worry the more we are telling our body to react. The more our body reacts the more our thinking may speed up. Now all this is starting to resemble a spring being tightly wound. Pressure is mounting and the temperature is rising.
Even if we are not suffering in this escalating model, we can still be stuck in worry mode, which gives us some of the physical symptoms above. This most critically can be disastrous for getting asleep.
Now, let’s think about this from the point of view of what it prevents us from doing. The body normally when it is under stress reacts because the sympathetic nervous system (sympathetic to danger) activates. It gears us up for all we said above and is designed to keep us safe.
When a physical danger passes our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It floods us with a cocktail of different hormones which brings us back down to earth. Following its release, we can feel tired but also relieved that the danger has passed.
But in life, often the things we worry about don´t change. It’s not like the physical danger. Therefore we end up stuck in the sense highly activated or anxious state all of the time.
Now think about a soldier sitting in a trench. He has been told to get a couple of hours sleep but yet the danger is all around. Any slight noise or movement will make him nervy and jumpy. His flight or fight system is stuck on red alert.
For many of us with what I described we are in a similar state but may be stuck on amber alert. We worry before we go to bed; we worry in bed and we worry when we wake up. Our bodies are going to have a hard time going to sleep and when they do it will be fitful.
This is down to the hormones in the body. These can even come to us when we dream. Many will know how sometimes stress comes out in dreams. Just because we are asleep does not mean that we are not processing the day before and the worries.
Worrying about not sleeping
Some clients talk to me about waking in the middle of the night and not falling back asleep. The worse thing then can be that eventually forget what we were originally fretting about and worrying about not sleeping becomes the new enemy.
Already our brain is getting hardwired to worry and when sleep deprivation kicks in it is no joke. Our energy and mood can be greatly affected.
Emotionally we can become overwhelmed easier. We are quicker to anger or sadness or fear. Physically our co-ordination is not the same and we are clumsier.
This state is not very nice to find ourselves in. It is no wonder that doctors are prescribing so many sleeping pills and so many are turning up to school, work and college exhausted.
Everyone is different and of course not being able to sleep can have a biological component such as being in pain etc. But when it is worry that is keeping us up at night or waking us up and keeping us awake then there are some things that we can do.
We can try to limit our focus on things that we worry about before bed. Not going on social media or reading the news before bed and practicing sleep hygiene can be one that is effective.
I have explored with many clients in session how all this worrying gets them nowhere. They all agree but state that it is hard to stop.
So I often suggest to clients that they can have some control over their thoughts by telling themselves that they can worry about that tomorrow.
I would even suggest to them that they can set a time in the morning before they start their day where they can have 30 minutes of worry time. Anytime the worry comes into their heads I tell them to catch it in the moment and to remind themselves, ok I can worry about this tomorrow at 9am when I´m in the shower.
Meditation and mindfulness works in a similar way and is very helpful for anxieties and worries. Practicing before bed can shut down the mind and prepare one for a deep sleep.
Therapy is another way to get to the bottom of these questions and at Anxiety Ireland, we have a team of accredited psychotherapists who work helping thousands of people with anxiety every year.
Anxiety Ireland’s therapists help hundred of people each year with Anxiety related issues. If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. We are always happy to answer messages to our page or I am also happy to take calls/text to see how I can help: 087 063 0948.
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.