What Is Sleep Anxiety?

Sleep anxiety is the fear or worry about going to sleep. It can happen for many different reasons and the thought of lying awake worrying at night may leave us feeling anxious about getting into bed. Sleep anxiety can affect adults, teenagers and children.

We may be anxious about falling asleep in the first instance and/or not being able to go back to sleep should we wake up during the night. Sleep disturbances are a very common symptom of general anxiety.

Alternatively, we may be scared of having nightmares or night terrors, or we may believe something terrible will happen in the night, such as a burglary or a house fire. Some people fear that they just won’t wake up in the morning.

Why Do I Feel So Anxious at Bedtime?

Anxious thoughts are more likely to intrude when we are lying awake in bed and have no distractions to, well, distract us! Our minds can go into overdrive, and we can start overthinking and ruminating about our worries. The problem is that a lack of sleep can make us more anxious, and our anxiety can then make it harder to get to sleep, which makes us even more anxious, which can make it even harder to get to sleep…. it can seem like a never-ending cycle.

While anxiety affects 1 in 4 of us today and is the most common mental health disorder, it is a completely normal emotion and exists to protect us from danger.

Challenges occur when everyday things exasperate our anxiety further and we develop an anxiety disorder, which will last for an extended period of time and causes us to worry excessively about a wide range of situations instead of just one or two issues. We may feel fearful of everyday situations like traffic jams, eating in front of others and falling asleep.

Anxiety disorders are now seen as the most common mental health problem in our world today, and a lack of sleep is well known to have a negative impact on our cognitive functioning and overall health. As a result, understanding and addressing the connection between anxiety and sleep is essential to improving our emotional and physical wellness.

What Are The Symptoms Of Sleep Anxiety?

We are often advised we should be aiming for 7 - 8 hours of sleep each night, but when we are feeling anxious, that often feels impossible to achieve. Worrying about falling asleep could result in us avoiding going to bed when we are tired, which may create challenges for a healthy sleep schedule.

When we can’t sleep due to anxiety, we may notice we start to feel overwhelmed during the day and find it hard to concentrate, learn and pay attention. We can have trouble recalling information or making decisions and have low energy. This will potentially have an impact on school or work. We may start to notice we have angry outbursts and feel irritable and short tempered, which could impact our relationships with our family and colleagues.

Daytime sleepiness can also reduce our effectiveness during the day and lead to an increase of accidents. This feeling of impending doom and gloom could result in us no longer wanting to engage in the things we previously enjoyed or avoid going to school or work.

Our brain cycles through different stages of sleep. So, when we finally do get to sleep, research suggests that sleep anxiety can affect the stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the stage of sleep when we tend to have vivid dreams. If we have anxiety, the dreams may be disturbing or turn into nightmares that wake us up.

The physical effects of sleep anxiety may include digestive problems, excessive sweating and an increased heart rate. You may also find yourself feeling restless and nervous and your muscles may feel tense and twitchy. Panic attacks can also occur at night-time and this can lead to further anxiety about getting another attack, making it harder to fall asleep.

What Are The Long Term Impacts Of Sleep Anxiety?

We all know that sleep is vital for repairing our bodies and cognitive functioning and improving our general health. Long term sleep deprivation makes us more susceptible to infections and could lead to long term health impacts in later life.

Prolonged anxiety and/or lack of sleep can affect our bodies in so many ways. Sleep anxiety puts us at a higher risk of the following long-term complications:

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes

  • Stroke

  • Heart attack

  • Heart disease

  • Heart failure

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)

  • High blood pressure

How Can I Reduce Sleep Anxiety?

You may be able to reduce your risk of sleep anxiety by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and practicing good sleeping habits, also known as sleep hygiene.

 1. Often, we are so busy during the day, the only time we have a chance to think about our worries is when we get into bed, however, it is more conducive to sleep if we have put aside some worry time earlier in the day. Journaling to get any thoughts and worries onto paper may be helpful for some people but best avoided just before going to sleep if you are feeling anxious.

2. If possible, exercise regularly and expose yourself to sunlight during the day. Avoid any strenuous exercise two hours before bed, however yoga or gentle stretching may help you prepare for sleep.
3. Avoid eating anything heavy for two hours before you want to go to bed, and limit how much you drink at the end of the day to prevent getting up too much in the night. Avoid caffeine or any other stimulant from late afternoon onwards. Its best to limit alcohol too as while alcohol may sometimes be used to reduce anxiety, it can actually increase anxiety instead.
4. It is best to avoid screen time right before sleep so maybe you can try reading or listening to a podcast or audiobook instead. These wind-down rituals can condition your brain to associate them with preparing for sleep.
5. Ensure your bedroom is comfortable, cool and dark. Coping strategies such as keeping a light on or having the TV on quietly in the background are not advised, even with young children, as it does not address the underlying issue and could cause later issues.
6. If possible, create a relaxing bedtime routine so you can prepare your body and mind for sleep. If you can, go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning so your body and mind can adjust to a new routine. Try and resist the urge to take a nap during the day if you can.
7. Try and do some relaxing activities before bed, such as muscle relaxation, meditation, visualisation or listening to soft, peaceful music. These relaxation strategies may require some perseverance and patience initially, but they can help you to sleep better. There are lots of phone apps available that can help you to relax at bedtime and throughout the day. You can also use aromatherapy sprays or oils.
8. Before sleep, you could try focusing on three things you are grateful for that day, so your last thoughts before sleep are positive ones.
9. Limit your bedroom activities to sleep and sex. If you are unable to get to sleep, get out of bed and do something calming in another room. You want to associate your bedroom with sleeping, so wait until you feel tired again before returning to bed.

10. To get a better understanding of your sleep pattern, you may find it helpful to keep a sleep diary to make a note of the activities you were doing before bed, the thoughts and feelings you were having, how you slept during the night and how long you were able to sleep. This understanding can then help you to take steps to improve your sleep anxiety going forward.

If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of your anxiety. You can book a FREE 45 minute discovery call here