Can anxiety cause sleep problems?
Anxiety and stress can most definitely interfere with your sleep, when we are feeling anxious or stressed our sympathetic nervous system stimulates our fight or flight response. This is a natural evolutionary response that is designed to protect us from danger – so it’s an excellent process that is genetically engineered to help our survival but it’s a not so great when you’re kept awake at night because of it.
So, why does anxiety keep us awake at night? Anxiety and stress share a lot of overlaps in terms of symptoms. This is because both conditions usually go hand in hand, and anxiety is often seen as an inability to cope with overwhelming stress. Some of the main physiological symptoms of anxiety include:
• Rapid heart rate
• Increased blood pressure
• Constipation or diarrhoea
• Muscle tightness
• Rapid breathing
Looking at this list of physical symptoms it’s hardly surprising to see why anxiety can interfere with our sleep. These symptoms are meant to keep you awake and alert so that you can best tackle whatever danger comes your way. However, these days most perceived threats are in the workplace or are due to family stresses or too much responsibility meaning that this response is not actually needed.
Cortisol and your sleeping patterns
When we are stressed our stress hormones (mainly cortisol) are released by the pituitary gland. This inflammatory hormone, although often negatively associated with stress, actually has benefits too. For example, our levels of cortisol tend to be higher in the morning to make us feel alert and ready to start the day and prevent us from feeling groggy.
Ideally our cortisol levels should be relatively low by the time you want to head to bed to allow us to wind down for a good night’s sleep. However, if we are feeling stressed or anxious our cortisol levels can skyrocket meaning that we’ll feel more alert and awake which can prevent us from getting to sleep and from getting good quality sleep.
Can sleep problems cause anxiety?
We’ve taken a look at how anxiety can prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep, but can this work in reverse too? Can sleep deprivation make us more anxious? A study looking at the effect of sleep duration on young adolescents suggests that this might be the case. The study found that levels of depression and anxiety were lower in boys who had between 8 and 9 hours sleep than girls who slept between 7 and 8 hours.1 But why does sleep deprivation cause anxiety?
There are a number of factors and reasons as to why this could be the case so below I’ve listed a few of the main contributors.
Lack of sleep puts your body under physical stress as sleep gives your body the opportunity to carry out necessary repair processes and relax any muscle tensions that can be created by stress and anxiety. Without this vital down time we can feel the negative effects carry on into the next day. What’s more, lack of sleep can also aggravate inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, with studies showing that even one night of poor sleep can increase your sensitivity to pain.2 For more information on how sleep can interrupt pain perceptions in the body check out this blog.
Sleep is also important for emotionally processing the events of the day at a deeper, more subconscious level. It is thought that poor sleep can activate areas of the brain that contribute to excessive worrying. What’s more, neuroscientists believe that sleep deprivation could stimulate areas of the brain that are responsible for emotional processing which is what causes neural activity that is commonly seen in those with anxiety.3
Dreams could also play a role here as one theory suggests that we use our dreams as a means of carrying out this important emotional processing. However, if we don’t get enough sleep then we won’t reach that all-important REM sleep where dreaming takes place. To learn more about how dreaming can impact your health check out my blog ‘the dangers of dream deprivation.’
Sleep can also stress us out in terms of our hormones. We need a good, regular sleep routine to help to regulate our hormones both during sleep and also whilst we’re awake. Sleep deprivation can cause our hormones to become imbalanced which can interfere with our mood, appetite (and dietary choices), digestion, menstrual cycles and our immune system to name a few. Click here to learn more about how sleep deprivation can affect your hormones.
Sleep deprivation can interfere with optimal digestive functioning in a number of ways. For example, it can make us crave sugary foods (which in turn can put us in a rubbish mood!) and it can aggravate existing digestive issues such as IBS, constipation and diarrhoea.
Unfortunately, this can result in a cycle of poor digestion and poor mood because around 90% of our serotonin is actually produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that is also sometimes called the happy chemical because of its beneficial effect on our mood; low levels of this chemical have been linked to depression and low mood. To find out more about how you can rest and digest better check out this blog.
Want a better night's sleep? Get your FREE 6-day personalised sleep programme now
Simply answer 2 quick questions to receive personalised sleep tips straight to your email inbox.
Are there herbal remedies that can help me?
When it comes to improving your sleep and mental wellbeing there are many simple and easy dietary and lifestyle changes you can make. Herbs can also offer a helping hand too, for trouble sleeping our first recommendation is Dormeasan. This product helps to support your body’s natural sleeping rhythms and the gentle combination of herbs also help to calm and soothe the nervous system making it a great anxiety reliever too.