The Connection Between Sleep and Anxiety
One of the most overlooked and yet essential components of good mental health is enough sleep. Without enough sleep, each day can seem longer and more strenuous. Stress and overwork can be exhausting not just for our bodies, but our minds a well. Anxiety and sleep are much more closely connected than most people think. Anxiety causes the mind to race at a million miles per minute resulting in overwhelming thoughts, which make it difficult for us to properly relax. Instead, we may experience heightened, intense emotions, such as fear, anger, or strong feelings of sadness. During stress, our bodies also release more hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which contribute to bodily tension by making us more aware and raising our heart rate and blood pressure. Anxiety can be exhausting, leading to a vicious cycle of feeling tired and anxious day in and day out.
Poor Sleep and Anxiety – A Never Ending Cycle
When feeling anxious, it’s harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. We may find ourselves waking early for no reason other than our own feelings of stress, causing us to feel “out of it” throughout the day. Symptoms associated with anxiety resulting from lack of sleep can be indicative of the beginnings of insomnia. There are various forms of this condition, which is normally the result of periods of high anxiety. In fact, extreme stress, typically caused by unexpected life events or challenges, can cause what is known as acute insomnia. This condition comes on suddenly and lasts for a few days. By comparison, chronic insomnia occurs when such anxiety symptoms are constantly present. Chronic insomnia can last at least a month or more, which only contributes to existing feelings of anxiety.
Dr. Michael Breuss, clinical psychologist and Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, as well as a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, explains that “stress and sleep exist in a bidirectional relationship. Just as stress and anxiety trigger insomnia and other sleep problems, lack of sleep increases stress and anxiety.” Without proper sleep, we are likely to be more susceptible to symptoms of irritability, aggression, feeling overwhelmed, lacking energy or motivation, difficulty concentrating, or even heightened emotional sensitivity. This increased susceptibility also increases the risk of suffering from greater mental and physical illness as lack of sleep can really wear us down. Thankfully, therapists have offered a number of ways that we can manage stress and anxiety and improve our sleep cycles to ensure the rest we need to be both happy and healthy.
Three Things to Try to Sleep Better
One technique commonly recommended by healthcare professionals is a practice known as biofeedback. These techniques help us collect information about the body which raises our awareness of stress, allowing us the opportunity to relax before things progress any further. In biofeedback, sensors track and measure various physical functions including heart rate, perspiration, breathing, body temperature, muscle movement, and sleep stages. These measurements help us better understand our stress levels. When we learn to be aware of the physical changes we experience at the onset of stress, we can better prepare ourselves to combat these uncomfortable feelings using effective relaxation methods.
2. Autogenic Training
Another proven, although admittedly lesser known method of reducing stress-related sleep deprivation is autogenic training, or AT. AT incorporates various exercises to help us focus our attention on the physical sensations our body is experiencing. Similar to how biofeedback works, this heightened awareness places us back in control of our own experiences, with both our body and mind. AT training focuses on generating sensations of heaviness and warmth in various regions of the body. Using visual images and verbal cues, therapists can employ AT to help calm racing thoughts. Patients are encouraged to practice these exercises regularly, as they can help manage stress on a daily basis.
3. Guided Imagery
Many therapists employ guided imagery as a part of their primary treatment technique as it can be a successful way of helping the patient better understand their own thoughts and experiences. As Dr. Breuss explains: “When we imagine something, our bodies respond as though they were actually experiencing that moment.” Thus, this mind-body technique engages all of our senses, connecting our conscious and unconscious mind. This can help direct us towards more positive physical responses, like better sleep. In fact, guided images can be used with various goals in mind, among which is reducing mental stress and nighttime anxiety. Therapists can help the patient develop a successful practice for guided imagery which the patient can then practice on their own in an as-needed basis.
Physical and Mental Relaxation
The benefits of genuine physical and mental relaxation are well documented. These techniques have been tested and proven to be effective to treat a variety of symptoms of late night anxiety, stress, and insomnia. For best results, it is recommended that we combine these practices with other forms of therapeutic intervention. After all, the best way to remedy a problem is to uncover its source. Therapy can help determine what is causing us this unnecessary stress and, in doing so, help us discover the best path to treat these negative feelings. Through this, perhaps we can finally learn to relax.