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The connection between anxiety and sleep

Sleep is so important for our bodies and minds to repair, and even more so for people who suffer from anxiety. Unfortunately, sleep isn’t something that comes very easy when you have anxiety. With your mind constantly thinking about things, it can be a struggle to switch off and sleep.

Discover why anxiety affects our sleep and how you can improve the quality of your sleep with our top tips.

What is anxiety?

Man on laptop struggling to sleepOur bodies react when we're in a situation where a fight or flight response might be required. The hormone adrenaline is released making our hearts beat faster, ready for action. However, it becomes a real problem when that state of heightened nerves and increased alertness sticks around. This condition can be described as ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’. 

Physiological things happen within the body as well as chemical activity going on in the brain. Adrenaline has a big role to play in anxiety. It is released when we perceive a threat, which is useful because it helps us to utilise energy and get on the move quickly. But when that response persists when there is no threat, we become anxious.

Added to the mix are the hormones cortisone and cortisol which are produced when we are stressed. The symptoms of anxiety are unpleasant and can be all-consuming: feeling breathless, tense, sweaty, nauseous and an increased heart rate. It also has a big impact on sleep. For more information on how hormones help us sleep, click here.

How are anxiety and sleep connected?

Woman in pyjamas looking out of windowWhilst anxiety can certainly cause sleep disorders, sleep disorders can also cause anxiety. As the night wears on and still sleep won't come it's so hard not to get more and more anxious about the day ahead. The initial worries that began your sleepless nights start to grow. When sleep does eventually come, it's filled with nightmares and anxious feelings.It has long been known that anxiety can make it very difficult to sleep. The mind races, unhelpful thoughts intrude, and the clock ticks slowly towards morning. Recent studies have shown that this is a two-way process that can lead to a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

In order to fall asleep, we need our brains to quieten and our muscles relax. To help us do this, neurotransmitters are released to induce drowsiness, including the hormone melatonin, helping us not only fall asleep but stay asleep.

People with persistent insomnia have been found to have increased levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and cortisone, as well as high levels of adrenaline. It’s these hormones that play a part in keeping us awake at night.

During sleep various chemicals including hormones and toxins are broken down, making sure our systems are ready for action the next day. That's one reason a lack of sleep makes us feel so bad. Our bodies and brains aren't really ready for the day ahead.

Anxiety also reduces the quality of sleep when you do manage to drift off. When we are sleep deprived, instead of dropping down into restorative deep sleep, we skip this stage and go straight into R.E.M sleep. This is when our dreams are most vivid with anxiety suffers experiencing fraught and frightening dreams.

Some people with anxiety can suffer from ‘Nocturnal Panic Attacks’. This type of panic attack brings with it all the symptoms of any other panic attack – increased heart rate, a sense of impending doom, chest palpitations, shortness of breath, chills, and dizziness – but they happen when someone is asleep. This can be extremely distressing, and it's not surprising that it is very difficult to fall back to sleep after a nocturnal panic attack.

How to sleep better with anxiety

There are several strategies that can make it easier for someone with anxiety to sleep better.

1) Meditation - Meditating before you go to bed may help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly once you’ve fallen asleep.

2) Writing a to-do list - Getting your thoughts down on paper and then remembering that you've got it covered can help reduce some of the anxiety about the day ahead.

3) Make exercise a daily habit - Exercise during the day can help the body to use up some of that nervous energy and be ready at the end of the day to wind down to sleep.

4) Sort your sleep schedule - A sleep schedule can help regulate sleep; getting up and going to bed at the same time each day helps the body know when it needs to quieten down for sleep.

5) Stay away from stimulants - Try to avoid common stimulants including alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes for at least four hours before bed.

6) Avoid technology - Keep electronics out of the bedroom. Some research suggests the blue light from screens can disrupt the way our bodies regulate sleep through light signals.

7) Set the scene Make sure the bed is comfortable and the room is the right temperature for sleep – not too hot and not too cold.

How a weighted blanket can help?

The Weighted Blanket by Remy SleepDeep pressure from a weighted blanket, or even when you receive a hug stimulates the production of both serotonin and melatonin, whilst decreasing the production of cortisol. Research began with Dr. Temple Grandin in the 1980s. Dr. Grandin has an autism spectrum disorder and her research looked into the benefits of deep pressure both for those on the autism spectrum and later, more broadly for those with anxiety and stress. Since then scientists have been looking into why deep pressure makes us feel better.

Deep pressure helps your body to produce the hormones that help with relaxation and sleep whilst reducing the production of stress hormones. A weighted blanket calms the nervous system, helping us to switch off the fight and flight response. It reduces blood pressure and our brain starts to realise it's time to quieten down. It also helps reduce the muscle movements that can disturb us as we are drifting off to sleep and enables us to stay asleep for longer.

For more information on the benefits of weighted blankets, read our blog post here.