The Sleep-Anxiety Connection: Can Better Rest Improve Mental Health? Thumbnail

Discover the fascinating link between sleep and anxiety, and learn how improving your sleep habits could lead to better mental health.

If you suffer from restless sleep and anxiety, you’re not alone. Sleep and anxiety are intertwined, and not getting enough quality sleep can increase anxiety symptoms. How are the two connected; and is it possible to improve your mental health by getting more rest?

Let's take a closer look at anxiety, the prevalence of sleep problems and anxiety, what happens in the body while we sleep, and the relationship between sleep and anxiety. Research shows reducing anxiety and establishing good sleep habits can help you rest more soundly and, consequently, improve your mental health.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease about something with an unknown outcome. Anxiety is a normal and healthy emotion that most of us feel from time to time. However, a person who regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety that interfere with their daily life may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are often comorbid with other mental health conditions, such as depression and substance abuse, and can have a significant impact on an individual's quality of life.

Often, anxiety can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. It can cause disturbing nightmares and disrupted sleep cycles. . In the same way that worry can make it difficult to sleep, a lack of sleep can make anxiety symptoms worse, and a combination of sleep deprivation and pervasive anxiety can make day-to-day functioning very difficult.

The Prevalence of Sleep Problems and Anxiety

Sleep problems are a common issue in today's busy society. According to the National Library of Medicine, about 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, with insomnia being the most prevalent. Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to poor quality sleep. Anxiety disorders are also widespread, with the National Institute of Mental Health estimating that 19.1% of American adults have experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year.

What Happens To Your Body During Sleep

Sleep is a vital part of our daily lives, and we spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping. Although it may seem like a completely passive and uneventful state, sleep is a complex process that involves several physiological changes in the body. So what happens to your body during sleep? It goes through varying stages of rest, experiences important changes in brain activity, and restores function.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is divided into two main categories: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. NREM sleep is further divided into three stages: N1, N2, and N3, with each stage representing a deeper level of sleep.

  • N1: This is the lightest stage of sleep and usually lasts only a few minutes. During this stage, you may experience muscle twitches and be easily awakened by even low-pitch noises.
  • N2: This stage represents a deeper level of sleep and typically lasts 20–30 minutes. During this stage, your body's temperature and heart rate decrease, and your brain begins to produce sleep spindles, which are rapid bursts of brain activity.
  • N3: This stage represents the deepest level of sleep and is also known as slow-wave sleep. During this stage, your body's temperature and heart rate continue to decrease, and your brain produces slow waves of brain activity. This stage is crucial for the body's restorative functions.
  • REM sleep: This stage typically occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep and is characterized by rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming. During this stage, your brain is highly active, and your body's muscles are temporarily paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams.

Changes in Brain Activity

When you sleep, the brain undergoes several changes in activity, particularly during REM sleep. The brain is just as active during REM sleep as it is when you are awake. This suggests that the brain is processing and storing memories during this time. Additionally, during NREM sleep, the brain's activity decreases, allowing your body to rest and restore.

Your Body's Restorative Functions

Sleep is essential for your body's restorative functions, particularly during N3 or slow-wave sleep. During this stage, your body produces growth hormone, which is essential for repairing damaged tissues and building muscle. Additionally, your body's immune system is activated during sleep, which helps fight off infections and diseases.

Sleep is also crucial for cognitive functioning, particularly for memory consolidation and learning. Research has shown that sleep helps to consolidate memories, particularly those related to procedural skills and emotional experiences. Quality sleep is essential for attention, concentration, and problem-solving, and if you are sleep-deprived, you are more likely to experience cognitive impairments.

As you can see, sleep is a complex process that involves several physiological changes in the body. The stages of sleep, changes in brain activity, and the body's restorative functions are all essential components of the sleep process.

The Connection Between Sleep and Anxiety

There is quite a lot happening when you sleep and it can be significantly impacted by anxiety and vice versa. Your anxiety may cause racing thoughts, fear, and worry that can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Anxiety-induced hyperarousal can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in increased heart rate, breathing, and perspiration, which also makes it harder to fall asleep. The poor sleep quality that is caused by worrying can further increase your anxiety symptoms, creating a vicious cycle.

If your body is unable to restore itself during sleep, the deprivation can diminish the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood and appetite. Continued serotonin deficiency can then lead to the onset of even more intense anxiety symptoms. With less serotonin, you also might find it increasingly difficult to make decisions and regulate your emotions.

Improving Sleep Quality to Improve Mental Health

Increasing your sleep quality can help decrease your anxiety symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is a highly effective way to treat insomnia and has been shown to help people with insomnia feel less anxious (Harvey, 2008). CBT-I is a structured treatment that focuses on recognizing and modifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to insomnia. In addition, relaxation techniques, sleep hygiene education, and sleep restriction therapy may be included.

Education on sleep hygiene is another helpful intervention for improving sleep quality. Sleep hygiene entails establishing healthy sleep habits and fostering an environment conducive to sleep. Chen et al. (2020) observed that sleep hygiene instruction increased sleep quality and reduced anxiety symptoms in insomniacs. If you are having difficulty sleeping, try the following tips to begin establishing better sleep hygiene habits:

  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule: A consistent sleep schedule can help regulate your body's internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the same time each day. It is recommended to aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night, although this can vary depending on your age and lifestyle.
  • Create a bedtime routine: Establishing a bedtime routine, such as reading a book or taking a warm bath, can help signal to your body that it is time to sleep.
  • Limit screen time before bed: The blue light emitted by electronic devices can interfere with your body's natural sleep cycle. It is recommended to avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed. Try putting your phone or Ipad on the other side of your bedroom to avoid any temptation to keep scrolling.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment: Creating a comfortable sleep environment, including a cool and dark room, can help improve sleep quality. If noise and light tend to easily bother you, try wearing earplugs and an eye mask. Ensure your bedding is lightweight and breathable.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption: Caffeine and alcohol can definitely interfere with sleep, so it is recommended to limit consumption, particularly in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. Low-impact exercises like yoga, pilates, and light stretching can also be useful in relaxing the mind and body before getting into bed.
  • Seek professional help: If sleep problems or anxiety symptoms persist despite lifestyle changes, seeking professional help from a medical provider to rule out organic causes of insomnia as well as a mental health provider to address sleep hygiene and anxiety may be necessary.

Prioritizing good sleep habits can make a big difference in your overall health and well-being, especially in how well you think and feel as you go about your day.

Mental Health Services for Sleep and Anxiety Disorders

Although the link between anxiety and sleep is complex and bidirectional, it is clear that increasing the quality of your sleep can decrease your anxiety symptoms. For many people, cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia and personalized sleep hygiene education can both be beneficial. A restful night’s sleep is within reach. If you are struggling with sleep and anxiety, the mental health professionals at CHE are here to support you.

For more information about sleep and anxiety disorders and the treatment options offered by CHE, please call 888-515-3834. We are ready to talk and ready to listen.