Proven Ways to Break the Anxiety-Insomnia Cycle

Stop racing thoughts and learn how to get rid of sleep anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 7 out of 10 adults in the United States report that they feel symptoms of stress and anxiety on a daily basis. There are plenty of reasons why it’s important to address these symptoms, since stress and anxiety can affect your health in many ways. It can increase your risk for heart problems like high blood pressure and heart attacks as well as other health conditions like diabetes. Anxiety can also interfere with your sleep and even lead to insomnia. 

We talked to family practitioner Barbra Alvir, DO, of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Farmington Hills, Michigan, about anxiety-induced insomnia, and ways to break the cycle. 

What is anxiety? 
Most everyone feels anxious at times—before making a presentation, buying a new home, even meeting a new partner’s relatives for the first time. That’s normal. But there’s a difference between “normal” anxiety and the type that disrupts your life, endangers your health and disrupts your sleep. Anxiety can be constant or it may be recurrent, happening over and over again; there are also degrees to which you might feel anxious. For some, it’s feeling jittery or uneasy most of the time, while others may feel excessive fear and panicky. Anxiety is usually associated with feelings of worry more days than not, for at least six months, says Dr. Alvir.  

While there are many types of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders and social anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorders typically cause people to experience long-term symptoms. 

“When anxiety starts to affect how you function in your day-to-day life and you start to feel anxious over small things, it may be more serious,” says Alvir. Here are common signs of an anxiety disorder: 

  • Restlessness 
  • Fatigue 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Irritability 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Worrying 
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep  

What is insomnia? 
Insomnia is a condition that makes it difficult for you to fall asleep, or stay asleep once you doze off. There are different types of insomnia. Acute insomnia doesn’t last long and is usually caused by something happening in your life, such as your child having trouble in school. It typically goes away without treatment once the situation is resolved. Those with chronic, or long-term insomnia, experience sleep problems three or more times a week, for three months or longer. Chronic insomnia is caused by unhealthy sleeping habits, shift work, various medical conditions and certain medications. Here are some common insomnia symptoms to watch for: 

  • Fatigue 
  • Decreased energy levels 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Mood swings 
  • Declined performance at work or school 

So, how do they affect each other? 
According to Alvir, anxiety and sleep are intertwined. “I have a lot of patients with insomnia and anxiety, and a lot of them tell me they just can’t get their minds to shut down,” she says. And obviously, if you’re worrying about things all the time, it’s hard to get sleep. “On the flip side, when you can’t sleep, you’re more likely to be stressed,” she adds. 

“Normally, when you’re sleeping, your brain is able to take a break, your heart rate slows and it’s almost like your body resets. If you don’t allow that, it’s even harder to deal with daily stress.” 

Research shows that sleep problems (especially sleep deprivation) can cause anxiety disorders. And those with chronic insomnia have an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder. 

4 ways to get rid of sleep anxiety 
Learning to manage anxiety can work wonders when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. Here are some ways to turn down the anxiety dial: 

  1. Get regular exercise: Regular exercise provides a variety of benefits, but when it comes to anxiety, it can help you release your frustrations. Working out also releases endorphins—hormones that can boost your mood. Alvir says yoga is one of the best ways to relax. Try to squeeze in 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, like brisk walking or biking, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, like running or swimming, each week. 
  2. Try meditating: Spend time during the day and before bed sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. Simply breathe in and breathe out while thinking about a peaceful place or setting, like the beach at sunset. 
  3. Make a to-do list: Organize your thoughts by creating a to-do list and prioritizing what needs to be done by when. This alone can help alleviate the anxiety you may feel that you’ll forget something important. Break up larger tasks into smaller steps to avoid feeling overwhelmed. 
  4. Talk to someone you trust: Talking to a family member, friend or therapist can leave you feeling calmer. You may even gain a new perspective on what’s troubling you. 

7 ways to get better slumber 
In addition to reducing anxiety, here are a few things you can do to get better ZZZs: 

  1. Keep a schedule: It’s important to keep your sleep and wake times the same (even on weekends) to regulate your circadian rhythm. 
  2. Nap wisely: Short naps—in moderation—can actually boost your mood, performance and alertness. But, naps that go on for hours or naps too late in the day, can leave you feeling groggy. If you do need a nap, keep it under 30 minutes and make sure it's earlier in the afternoon.  
  3. Experiment with noise machines: City traffic and other loud noises may keep you from falling asleep—and may wake you in the night once you do fall asleep. Alvir recommends that you try white noise machines or apps, devices that play calming sounds, such as flowing streams, to help drown out the disturbances. 
  4. Avoid stimulants: Stimulants like coffee, nicotine and technology use can activate your brain and keep you up at night, Alvir says. Avoid caffeinated beverages after about 2 p.m., or six hours before you plan to go to sleep. And power down your electronics (including laptops, tablets, smart phones and TVs) at least one hour before bedtime. Also stay away from alcohol, which may make you sleepy initially, but can interfere with sleep quality and wake you up throughout the night. 
  5. Use your bedroom for sleep and sex only: “Avoid things like working in the bedroom,” says Alvir. If you’re unable to fall asleep within 15 minutes, head to a different room to read until you feel tired.  
  6. Keep your bedroom cool and dark: It’s easier to fall asleep—and stay asleep—if your bedroom is cool and free of light. Set your thermostat somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees. Get shades or curtains that black out light from outside. 
  7. Exercise often: In addition tohelping lower anxiety levels, exercise can also help you get restful sleep—as long as you don't exercise too close to bedtime. Getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week can help you feel less tired during the day and can improve the quality of your sleep.  

See your healthcare provider if you’re still having problems 
If you’re having trouble managing anxiety-induced insomnia on your own, it’s always best to see your healthcare provider. From there, they will be able to recommend a mental health professional or sleep specialist if needed. 

Medically reviewed in January 2019. Updated in March 2021. 

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