Lack of sleep can lead to anxiety and vice versa. For example, worrying and feeling tense during bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep, but having trouble falling asleep, and in turn not getting enough sleep, can also result in more anxiety.
Does lack of sleep cause anxiety?
This is a great question. The answer isn’t straightforward though.
Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for our mental and physical wellbeing. However, research published in the international Sleep Health Journal indicates that 33-45% of Australian adults don’t get enough sleep.
The majority of evidence suggests that the relationship between lack of sleep and anxiety is strong and goes both ways. In other words, lack of sleep can lead to anxiety and vice versa. For example, worrying and feeling tense during bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep, but having trouble falling asleep, and in turn not getting enough sleep, can also result in more anxiety.
In every study on sleep and psychological distress (ie stress and anxiety), the data is unequivocal: when people get an adequate amount of sleep, psychological distress decreases.
Sleep is essential to help stabilise your emotional and mental health. Without sleep, the emotional circuits of your brain become hyperactive and irrational.
This means that our moods and emotions can swing drastically from one extreme to the other in a very short space of time: eg. going from giddy or happy to angry, disillusioned or upset in only a few seconds. Otherwise known as “mood swings”.
Lack of sleep is unlikely to be the sole cause of anxiety
Although lack of sleep can help with the symptoms of anxiety, it’s unlikely to be the sole cause of anxiety. The reality is that anxiety is not caused by just one thing. It is usually a combination of factors, including:
- Genetic predisposition: there is some evidence to suggest that there is a particular gene associated with anxiety. However, an association does not mean it’s the cause. As mentioned above, the cause is likely to be an interplay between both genetic and lifestyle factors.
- Brain chemistry: problems with, or a deficiency of, the neurotransmitters in the brain have been linked to Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
- Life experiences, in particular stressful ones in childhood or a recent trauma can contribute to a person developing anxiety.
- Personality: people with certain personality traits such as timidity or negativity have an increased risk of developing anxiety.
- Other illnesses: having another mental health disorder or a chronic illness can lead to increased risk.
Anxiety is more common in those who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse or a family history of anxiety.
People usually ask this question because they suspect they may not be getting enough sleep.
Here are a couple of things to bear in mind:
We know that there are two types of sleep – ‘deep sleep’ and ‘dream sleep’. Good quality sleep is about the amount of ‘deep sleep’ a person gets, not the length of sleep. Most ‘deep sleep’ occurs during the first five hours after falling asleep.
Having said that, the general consensus is that the number of hours sleep needed each night is:
Adults (18-64 years): 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Need help falling asleep? Try these simple strategies to relax your body and mind
Learning to quiet your mind can be a helpful skill, both for navigating stressful daytime periods, and for falling asleep at night. If you’ve never tried it, start with this article.
I’ve also recorded a meditation for restful sleep here which guides you into a deep sleep, allowing you to wake refreshed and relaxed.
Exercise during the day
Many studies have concluded that regular exercisers fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. In fact, according to one study, even a single moderate-intensity workout, like a brisk walk, can improve sleep among people with chronic insomnia.
Wind down time
A healthy bedtime routine allows your body and mind time to slow down before lights out. Take at least half an hour to play quiet music, take a bath, or read a book.
Avoid stressful activities before bed
Leave work and bill paying alone and skip the evening news.
Write down your to-dos
Keep a pad of paper and pen by the bed and instead of letting your to-do list run through your head, write them down so your brain can relax and let go.
Tense and relax
Try this relaxation exercise lying down in bed: Squeeze your toes for 5 seconds, then relax them. Then do the same thing with your feet, calves, thighs and work your way all the way to the top of your body, focusing on each part of your body as you go. By the time you finish, your body should feel relaxed, heavy and ready for sleep.
If you can’t fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, get up
Don’t lie in bed awake
If you can’t fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, get up, and keeping the lights low, do something relaxing (and ideally sleep-inducing). For example, have a cup of herbal tea and read a book. Be sure to avoid screens: The light that they emit can signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up.
Take it easy on yourself
If you are struggling to fall asleep, remember that rest is as good as sleep if that’s all you can manage. Working yourself up is not going to help the situation so accept that you may not sleep and give yourself permission for that to be ok.