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    Anxiety’s Toll on Sleep: How Anxiety Affects Sleep

    April 5, 2021
    man laying frustrated in bed with his pillow pushed up against his ears

    Feelings of anxiety are a common human experience. Daily stressors, like taking on a new project or meeting a new person, can trigger feelings of stress and uncertainty. One common symptom of anxiety is disrupted sleep. Even when you are tired, you may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Take a moment to think about how anxiety is affecting your mental health and the quality of your sleep. 

    What Is Anxiety?

    Anxiety is a hard-wired response built into your nervous system, meant to alert you to threats in your environment. Whether you feel stressed from a socially awkward situation or from encountering a bear in the woods, your brain responds through the same ancient fight-or-flight pathways in your body. Anxiety can help your mind focus on details in your environment and prepare you for action. Those butterflies in your stomach and your nervous energy are biological cues that your body is ready to fight or flee. Then, when the threat passes, your body will return to a state of calm.

    While anxiety is helpful in some situations, it can also be extremely disruptive. In our modern society, there are few immediate threats to our physical safety, and we don’t really fight or flee when we feel anxious. Instead, feelings of anxiety can last for a few moments or up to several days, weeks, or more. This anxiety can upset your sleep schedule and become an ongoing distraction.

    If you find ways to cope with your anxiety or adapt to the situation, your anxiety will usually improve on its own. 

    What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

    Anxiety triggers responses in your mind, body, and emotions. When you feel stressed and anxious about something, your senses can feel flooded. You may feel restless, irritable, and overwhelmed as waves of anxiety come over you. Anxiety can make it very difficult to get a restful night's sleep. 

    Everyone feels anxiety from time to time, and each person experiences it in a unique way. 

    How Anxiety Affects Sleep

    Disrupted sleep is a common symptom of anxiety. If you feel anxious, you may experience poor sleep and wake up feeling exhausted and cranky. Examine how your thoughts, emotions, and body react when you feel anxious and try to sleep.

    • Cognitive: anxiety can affect your thoughts. You may have trouble thinking clearly, lay awake with doubts or racing thoughts, or anticipate bad outcomes. You may feel overstimulated and unable to sleep. 
    • Emotional: anxiety can cause emotional responses such as fear, uncertainty, uneasiness, and feeling trapped or stuck.
    • Physical: anxiety can cause physical symptoms like sweaty palms, feeling on-edge, muscle tension, and/or a rapid heartbeat. You may have an upset stomach, and have difficulty sleeping.

    However, the relationship between sleep and anxiety goes both ways. Poor sleep can also increase your risk of developing a mental health condition. When you do not have regular, restful sleep, you are more likely to feel stressed and anxious.

    How Sleep Can Improve Your Mental Health

    Getting quality sleep can decrease feelings of anxiety and improve your mental health. Here are some of the key benefits of getting a good night's rest:

    • Improved mental skills like attention, memory, and decision making. 
    • Improved overall mood.
    • Decreased risk of developing anxiety or depression.
    • Lowered stress response to non-threatening situations. 

    Tips To Reduce Anxiety And Improve Sleep

    When you support your physical, mental, and emotional health, you can become more resilient to stress and change. Try these tips to reduce anxiety and improve your sleep:

    • Do deep breathing exercises before bed. This activates a calming response through the parasympathetic nervous system.
    • Listen to relaxing music, affirmations, or guided meditations with nature sounds.
    • Reduce or eliminate substances that can affect your anxiety. This includes alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. If you have panic disorder, you may be more sensitive to caffeine.
    • Your digestive system is more sensitive when you feel anxious or stressed, sometimes resulting in symptoms like nausea and stomach pain. Eating spicy foods or large meals might worsen these symptoms, so avoid foods that may cause sickness.
    • If your anxiety emerges while you are in bed, get out of bed until you are ready to try and sleep. You want to associate your bed with restful, peaceful feelings, so avoid using it for other activities. 
    • Check social media or read the news earlier in the day, avoiding it before bed.
    • Discuss possible medication side effects with your clinician or pharmacist. Some medications (even supplements) can disrupt sleep, so make sure you are taking your medications at the recommended time of day.

    Personalized Strategies for Managing Your Anxiety and Sleep

    Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but your genetics play a role in how you experience anxiety and how you respond to it. Some people are genetically predisposed to showing more of certain anxiety symptoms like excessive worrying, tension, nervousness, or lingering guilt. Being predisposed to feel or behave in those ways in response to anxieties can have a tangible impact on someone’s mental wellness. 

    The Genomind Mental Health Map™ looks for genetic variants linked to those predispositions across anxiety, as well as for variants associated with distinct sleep traits like trouble falling asleep. That wealth of information is organized in a way that allows you to understand your genetic foundation. 

    The in-depth reports then connect your genetic predispositions with specific, evidence-based actions you can take to target the underlying biological processes responsible for that predisposition. The thorough understanding and personalized, targeted strategies given to you with your Mental Health Map empower you to make real changes in your life to control your anxiety and sleeping behavior. 

    While the tips listed above can be a great starting point for many people, the Mental Health Map gives you a truly expert starting point for sustaining and improving your mental wellness. 

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    When At-Home Strategies Don’t Work For Your Anxiety 

    Many at-home strategies can lower stress and provide relief from the symptoms of anxiety. However, if your anxiety persists, talk to your healthcare provider about your feelings of stress and anxiety. These are some signs it may be time to seek professional intervention:

    • You have tried different methods for several weeks and felt no change.
    • You have felt some improvement, but it stopped getting better or some symptoms persist.
    • Your symptoms are so overwhelming you have trouble doing typical daily activities like school, work, self-care, or social interactions.

    Talk with your clinician about your symptoms and explore intervention options. Your clinician may recommend additional behavioral or lifestyle changes that can reduce anxiety and help you sleep. You can also discuss further treatment options, such as anti-anxiety medication.

    What Are Anxiety Disorders?

    Everyone feels anxious at times, but when your anxiety persistently interferes with daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is often characterized by an anxious reaction that is out of proportion to the trigger or issue that caused it. 

    Anxiety disorders are a prevalent mental health condition, and approximately 30% of adults will struggle with anxiety disorders during their life. The most common anxiety disorders are:    

    • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) - A person has overwhelming worries about typical stressors like money, work, and relationship issues. The anxiety is out of proportion to the stressor.
    • Panic Disorder - A person has repeated panic attacks. These short episodes of intense overwhelming anxiety last for a few minutes or hours. Symptoms can resemble a heart attack. 
    • Agoraphobia - A person has fears about being in places or situations that could cause a panic attack
    • Specific Phobias - A person has heightened fears about objects or situations like insects, flying, or enclosed spaces that pose little risk.
    • Social Anxiety Disorder - A person worries about being judged or humiliated in social situations.

    Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and your clinician can help you find the right treatment options. Many people notice a reduction of symptoms in the first month or two after starting treatment. 

    Treat Anxiety to Improve Sleep

    Anxiety can have a major impact on sleep, keeping you awake at night and leading to worse mental health outcomes. If feelings of anxiety make it difficult to get the rest you need, keep track of your sleep patterns, and take note of how this interacts with your stress. Try some at-home tips to reduce stress and talk to your clinician about your symptoms of anxiety. Finding an appropriate treatment plan can improve your sleep and your mental wellness.

    Topics: anxiety, Mental Wellness

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