Is sleep anxiety a real thing?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@emmatalkshealth
@EmmaThornton
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11 March 2021

Is sleep anxiety a real thing?

Sleep anxiety, or 'somniphobia' is an extreme form of anxiety, technically considered a phobia or fear of going to bed to sleep at night.

True sleep anxiety is considered an anxiety disorder. This means it is a more acute form of anxiety which can be recurring, overwhelming and debilitating. Anxiety disorders can, in some cases, be formed from specific triggers (in the case of phobias) or may have developed as a result of excessive or persistent anxiety being present for some time.

Whilst there is limited research on 'sleep anxiety' as it is a very specific anxiety disorder, there is much more research exploring how anxiety, more generally, can affect our sleep.

What about anxiety at night?

Many people suffer from more occasional anxiety, and night-time is actually thought to be quite a common time for a bout of anxiety to rear its ugly head. This is thought to have emerged, to some degree, from evolutionary times. Traditionally, allowing yourself to go to sleep meant that you were ultimately making yourself more vulnerable and 'open to attack.' Whilst this threat is much less likely nowadays, the residual fear may still be lurking somewhere beneath the surface. It is a well-known fact, that we can only fall asleep if we feel safe and when we are stressed and have on-going worries, it can disrupt our sleep patterns.

From a more modern stand point though, going to bed is when you actually get a break from your hectic life. You finally have some down-time and your mind can rest – ideally, that is! In reality, many of you achieve this little bit of respite only to then have a long barrage of to-do's or worries suddenly come flooding over you. Don't fret, though, having an active mind at night is quite common and you can help yourself by writing down your worries or even to-do lists, so they don't keep swirling around in your mind keeping you awake at night, allowing you to fall asleep quicker.1

Is it a vicious cycle between sleep and anxiety?

If you've ever experienced anxiety at night, you might have noticed that it can affect your sleep. But there is also reason to believe that this relationship is bi-directional as a lack of sleep may make us more susceptible to suffering from anxiety.2

Unfortunately, this can easily turn into a horrible vicious cycle when you can become stressed at the thought of not sleeping, but the stress alone of trying to fall asleep, can disturb your sleep further!

How does sleep anxiety feel?

Sleep anxiety, or anxiety at night, can often be associated with the following symptoms:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or panicky
  • Experiencing excessive worrying or overthinking
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Increased heart rate, breathing rate or palpitations
  • Feeling hot, sweaty or experiencing chills
  • Digestive upset
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

However, please note that the symptoms of anxiety are individual and can be experienced to varying degrees. Also, not everyone will only experience the symptoms of anxiety at night.

Then, whilst there are some herbal remedies which may help with the symptoms of sleep disturbance associated with issues such as anxiety, such as Dormeasan, this may not be suitable for everyone depending on the degree of your symptoms and if you are already on medication for anxiety or sleep issues.


My Top Tip:


Take 30 drops in a little water half an hour before bedtime to help restore natural sleep.

"I love this product. I keep it for periods of time when I cannot get to sleep, have a busy brain or feel overly anxious. It gets my normal sleeping pattern back after a couple of nights of taking. I recommend it to everyone I know."

Read more customer reviews

Please note if your symptoms persist or get any worse, stop Dormeasan and contact your doctor for advice instead.

How can I stop sleep anxiety?

Remember, recurrent anxiety and established anxiety disorders should always be treated by a doctor. However, there may be some steps you can take at home to help manage some of the symptoms of occasional anxiety. My advice is as follows:

1. Eat a fresh food diet

A fresh food diet is a must, in order to help ensure you are getting sufficient nutrients to help support your nervous system and keep symptoms of stress and anxiety at bay, whilst ultimately also helping to achieve better sleep.

Nutrients including magnesium and B vitamins are particularly nourishing for the nervous system and can be found readily in green leafy veg, hearty wholegrains including brown rice, oats and quinoa, and nut and seed options. There are certain foods like bananas that help promote sleep because they contain the natural muscle-relaxants magnesium and potassium. Also helpful to consume in the evenings are things like cherries, yoghurt, milk, rice, grapefruit, kiwis, oats, turkey, walnuts and almonds.

Remember, your sleep quality affects your choices when it comes to food - the less you sleep, the more you crave sweet, greasy, salty food.3

2. Limit stimulants

If anxiety or trouble sleeping is a frequent issue then considering what drinks you rely on most can be a useful tactic. Options such as caffeine and alcohol could easily be contributing to more severe symptoms of anxiety and disturbing your sleep as they activate your adrenal glands, heighten your stress response, affect your blood sugar and ultimately can make it trickier for you to switch off.

At the very least, my advice is to try to avoid caffeine after 2pm. Despite claims that alcohol improves sleep, the opposite is actually true. If you use alcohol you will lose critical deep (REM) sleep during the night. Alcohol dehydrates you and disturbs normal REM and the more you drink the less REM sleep you will get. 

So, limit how much alcohol you drink and keep it to lunchtime if you can. Save it for a treat and always pair a tipple or two with a hearty meal and follow the 2:1 rule of 2 glasses of water for every 1 unit of alcohol you drink to help limit any after-effects. Watch my self-care tip video below for more on the effects of caffeine later in the day:

My Self-Care Tip: Cut caffeine earlier in the day to support better sleep

In this video I explain how cutting out caffeine as early as 2pm might be necessary to support a better night’s sleep

3. Slow your breathing

When we are anxious, our breathing and heart-rate speeds up, so by focusing on slowing your breathing, you can slow your heart-rate too, and your body will start to calm down naturally.

Practicing self-care is often an important step in helping to manage the symptoms of anxiety and supporting better sleep.

4. Have a technology sunset after 8.30pm

Establish a bedtime routine, ideally, aim to go to bed by 10 pm for your body to be able to fully rest. From sunset onwards are bodies are designed to wind down and our bodies will increase the production of growth and repair hormones. At around 10pm we start our sleep and at this stage our body then begins its physical repair. Switch off screens, especially news 1-2 hours before bedtime so your brain can start the natural sleep cycle of melatonin (sleep hormone) production that helps you fall asleep.

Engaging in a relaxing activity are amongst some of my must-dos. The evening time is the perfect time to focus on winding down in a bid to help you relax and empty your mind of any negative or distracting thoughts ahead of bedtime. You could keep a gratitude journal, and spend a few minutes writing down any small positive thing that happened in the day, as doing this helps us to 'relive' the positive feelings associated with it.4

5. Move more

Exercise is not only a terrific stress-reliever as it helps with getting rid of stress hormone buildup (such as cortisol) in the body, but it is also the perfect antidote for helping you to get a good night's sleep. The combination of feel-good endorphins following exercising plus expending some extra energy has been shown in research to help support a better night's sleep.5 My advice is to do exercise earlier on in the day and save the more relaxing practices like stretching or Pilates for the evening time.

6. Don't be afraid to talk

Talking, in more ways than one, can be beneficial if your sleep is being affected by anxiety-like symptoms. By simply putting our emotions into words, it helps to reduce the intensity of the feelings. So, call a friend! Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved even from the perspective of the brain!

Also, as mentioned, herbs or home remedies like Avena Sativa or the Valerian in our Dormeasan or can often help with sleep disturbances. However, if the symptoms persist or it starts to interfere with your energy levels and your daytime activities, do chat with your doctor who can advise you further.

They will also be able to point you in the direction of psychosensory techniques like Havening that help with generating delta-waves in the brain, naturally calming your body, so you can fall asleep easier6 or talking therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that have also been found to be an effective option for many.

Remember to go to sleep like a mushroom in a cool, dark room so you can rest and switch off and set a consistent time to wake up every morning to help your body-clock naturally restore its rhythm.

 

Peer reviewed by Professor Margareta James.

References

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5758411/
2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389945706005788
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3883872/
4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26746580/
5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341978/
6. havening.org

Dormeasan® Valerian & Hops

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Herbal sleep remedy containing organically grown valerian root and hops. Fresh herb tincture.
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As the A. Vogel Sleep advisor, I recommend Dormeasan®, a natural sleep remedy made from fresh extracts of Valerian root and Hops.

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The wrong sleep position can not only negatively impact the quality of your sleep, it can also have an impact your posture, your joints, your digestion and even your face by making wrinkles worse!

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