Anxiety comes in many forms, from the general worry that comes from everyday life to the intense fear caused by major psychiatric disorders. As debilitating as anxiety can be to our mental and physical health, it’s also corrosive to our quality of sleep—whether you’re a college student pulling an all-nighter or a veteran jolted awake from a nightmare caused by PTSD.
This guide covers how anxiety and sleep are interrelated, change with age, and what you can do to improve both.
Anxiety and Sleep
Nearly 40 million people in the US experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. More than 40 million Americans also suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders. Those numbers aren’t a coincidence. Anxiety and sleep are intimately connected: The less sleep you get, the more anxious you feel. The more anxious you feel, the less sleep you get. It’s a cycle many insomnia and anxiety sufferers find hard to break.
Common anxiety symptoms like restlessness, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems make it difficult to fall asleep.
Because insomnia and anxiety are so closely linked, one of the first steps in treatment is to determine which is causing the other — that is, which is the primary cause and which is the secondary symptom. “Sometimes, insomnia is secondary,” says psychotherapist Brooke Sprowl, “in that it is caused by another primary disorder such as depression, anxiety, or a medical condition. In this case, usually treating the primary disorder [improves] the insomnia.”
Whether insomnia is the primary or secondary cause, natural remedies like magnesium glycinate and melatonin have been shown to help with sleep, says Sprowl. Non-medication treatments like cognitive behavior therapyalong with good sleep hygiene are also effective at combating insomnia and anxiety.
Health Risks of Insomnia
Insomnia affects cognitive functions and cripples school and work performance. According to one study, 70% of college students with lower GPAs also had difficulty falling asleep. Insomnia also slows reaction times, raising the risks of driving a car or operating heavy machinery.
Sleep deprivation is also bad for your physical health, increasing your risk for developing high blood pressure and heart disease. And long-term sleep disruptions may even raise the risk of some forms of cancer.
Common Sleep Disorders
There are many forms of sleep disorder besides insomnia. All interrupt sleep, threaten our health, and increase nervousness and stress. Here are a few common ones:
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
Anyone who has changed time zones or experienced “jet lag” understands the effects of delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). When your sleep and wake cycles don’t align with the current time zone, you feel groggy when you shouldn’t.
While these symptoms are temporary for most, people with DSPS stay out of sync for long stretches of time, negatively affecting their work and activities. Because people with DSPS are forced to conform to the external clock rather than their internal one, they suffer from lack of sleep and increased anxiety.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is when a sleeper’s relaxed airways close and obstruct breathing. Interrupted breathing episodes occur numerous times during sleep and are usually accompanied by snoring.
Obstructed airways result in lowered oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide in the blood. Sufferers are often unaware they have the condition. Sleep apnea increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Sleep studies are required to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea.
Forms of Anxiety
How do you know if you have garden-variety nervousness or a more serious anxiety disorder? Usually, the difference is how significantly your anxiety affects your life.
For someone at a party who doesn’t know anyone, a certain level of anxiety is normal. However, if their anxiety is interfering with daily activities (e.g. making friends, school work, job performance), they may have a serious anxiety disorder.
Whether social nervousness or a serious phobia, every form of anxiety will affect your quality of sleep if it goes on long enough. Below are descriptions of the five major anxiety disorders. If you think you may have one, consult your physician or therapist about diagnosis and treatment.
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