It goes without saying that problems with anxiety and problems with sleep go hand in hand. Personally, throughout high school and college, I often had a cocktail of fear about the following day and general existential dread keeping me awake – almost every night. As a sufferer of GAD, my anxiety isn’t targeted at anything in particular, but is routed from irrational responses and thought processes to events that would otherwise merit no emotional response at all. My mind often needs to be distracted, or it will find something to worry about. Anxiety, therefore, is pretty much my default setting. This was only worsened by the arrival of exams, which gave me something serious and very real to be having late night panic attacks over.
The problem here is that a lack of sleep plays a crucial role in ramping up brain regions which trigger excessive worry, creating a relentless cycle of anxiety and sleep deprivation. Researchers have found that when tired, the brain reverts back to primitive patterns of behaviour, making it less likely for a person to respond appropriately to emotionally charged information and put it into context. In essence, people who are anxious by nature suffer the greatest harm from a damaged nights sleep, and are the same people who will struggle the most to fix the problem.
After discovering this connection, my counsellor in high school introduced me to the concept of sleep hygiene, which completely changed my attitudes towards sleep and how it could improve my anxiety symptoms. Sleep hygiene is a variety of different habits and practices which improve sleep and therefore improve daytime alertness, in turn reducing the severity of anxiety symptoms. Here are some the practises I find most useful to adjusting my sleep to benefit my anxiety treatment!
- Go to bed at the same time and get up from bed at the same time every day. Generally speaking, regular waking times leads to regular sleep onset and helps to “set” the body clock. I personally aim to be physically in my bed at least half an hour before I want to be asleep.
- Try to physically separate work, play and sleep. The area where you are productive and tend to be most stressed out should ideally be physically as far away as possible from the area where you have to sleep. This will program the mind to think of your bed as a safe, relaxing space specifically designed for sleep. If your bed is a place where you study, or play action packed video games, it may be optimal to rethink your layout where possible, as your mind will not automatically slow down upon getting into bed, not registering that ‘this is where I sleep, therefore it is sleep time.’
- Try to have adequate exposure to daylight during the day, and an appropriately dark space to sleep at night. Black out blinds are a big recommendation for the summer daylight savings months when it doesn’t get dark until much later. (For those interested in the science of this, light is an external factor that is proven to reset our biological circadian rhythms of sleep-wake.)
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine or large amounts of sugar for up to to four hours before you want to be asleep; for obvious reasons. I’ve personally started avoiding them entirely (which definitely isn’t the easiest thing when you have a bus to catch at 7:30am) as I found that they elevate my anxiety symptoms, increase my heart rate too much and overall disrupt my natural sleep patterns. With coffee as an excuse – to wake you up after a bad night – it becomes all too tempting not to bother with a proper night’s sleep, ignoring its other benefits.
- Limit daytime naps. These have the short term benefit of increasing alertness for a while, but overall they do not compensate for a bad night’s sleep. Rather, they make it harder for you to fall asleep at night, creating an endless cycle. Routine is key in creating a sleep cycle that alleviates anxiety.
- Find an activity to do in the thirty minutes before sleep that relaxes you. Most recommend light reading – and I can recommend a number of reads that are good to keep on the nightstand – but if you do want to go on your phone, avoid media sources that may trigger anxiety or stress, and apply a blue light filter to your phone screen – which can usually be downloaded through the app store. This prevents specific types of light from tricking melanopsin in the eye into thinking its daytime, and inhibiting the production of our sleep hormone melatonin. (A blue light filter is also good for migraine and headache prevention, and so has become a staple for me!) Generally speaking though, it’s best to disconnect and put down the phone – on silent – for a short while right before sleep, as it can create stressors that trigger a more disrupted sleep.
I hope that these tips can be helpful to anyone who’s anxiety is causing them sleep problems – or simply anyone wanting to improve their sleeping habits. Our minds aren’t always the greatest at being on our side, but we can certainly train them to work better for our lifestyles and our individual circumstances.