How Can Sleep Improve Anxiety? | Guest Post by Gabie Lazareff
Falling asleep with anxiety can be more than difficult. The catch 22 is that sleep is the most underused mood regulator we have in our toolbox. I’d like to start by acknowledging the struggle for those with anxiety to develop a healthy sleep routine. It is by no means easy, it often takes a lot of effort for someone with anxiety to fall asleep.
What is Anxiety?
We all experience anxiety to a certain degree. It’s a survival trait! Helping us to recognize danger and instigate change to help keep us safe and thriving. In the modern-day, however, the way we experience anxiety is no longer purely for surviving and thriving. Now, we experience anxiety when we do something wrong at work, or when we say something embarrassing to our friends, or when we’re by ourselves questioning our lives.
Evolution will never get rid of anxiety because it’s necessary for survival. This was really helpful back when we were hunters and gatherers who needed to experience anxiety when we heard paw prints in the night, preparing the body to fight, run away or freeze.
But we don’t get chased by bears very often anymore. Our bodies don’t have any frame of reference for perceived danger. If we’re stressed, we go into fight or flight mode. Whether that’s because our life is in danger, or because we missed a work deadline. The body can’t tell the difference and responds to stress in the same way whether life-threatening or not.
We get really good at the things we do often.
Our central nervous system consists of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, rest & digest) and our sympathetic nervous system (SNS, fight or flight).
When the body and mind are anxious or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is active, switching off our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).
We can view the PNS and SNS as muscles that need to be trained. If we practice activating our PNS, we’ll get really good at putting the body into rest & digest mode and staying there. If we practice activating our SNS, we’ll get really good at putting the body into fight or flight mode and staying there.
If the body is used to responding to situations with anxiety and stress, the body and mind will only get better at being anxious and stressed. We get really good at the things we do often.
And please don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that we choose to respond to situations with anxiety or stress. But the fact of the matter is, the more we do so, the better we get at being anxious and stressed. The good news is there are things we can do to manage the way we respond to situations. When we experience anxiety or stress, we can turn to a myriad of methods to try to encourage the body out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest. One of the tools we can turn to in order to help manage our fight or flight response and encourage the body to turn to rest and digest is sleep! But sleep is not so easy to get when we struggle with anxiety.
How does Anxiety Reduce Sleep?
I’m sure most of us can relate to lying in bed with eyes wide open, thoughts racing through the mind, unable to ‘switch off’ or turn down the volume of our thoughts enough to be able to fall asleep… whether we suffer from anxiety or not, we all know what a restless night feels like. Those with anxiety may very well experience this wide-eyed restlessness much more often than the average Joe.
Anxiety can be experienced on a small scale all the way through to it being a debilitating mental health issue. Depending on the severity of our anxiety, it can affect our sleep to a point of it worsening our anxiety.
Sleep is responsible for mood regulation. So it’s not surprising that sleep deprivation has been proven to be responsible for a range of mood and behavioral disorders. If we already struggle with anxiety and aren’t getting enough sleep, sleep deprivation is going to be worsening our mental health. When we are stressed due to something like the state of our mental health, it, in turn, makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Sleep deprivation and stress are essentially mutually dependent on each other. When we don’t get enough quality sleep, we experience disrupted cortisol levels in the body. This makes it more difficult to deal with daily stressors, causing even more stress and anxiety, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Sleep deprivation also creates a hormonal imbalance that can drive anxiety levels higher, alongside boosting adrenaline levels that can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
How does Sleep Reduce Anxiety?
You probably recognize the stereotypical depiction of a sleep-deprived person. They might be cranky, sad, angry, easily frustrated and more likely to express negative emotions. This is because of sleep’s mood-regulating effects. When we get enough quality sleep, our mood regulates.
‘Enough quality sleep’ can be defined as getting between 7-9 hours for most of us, going through our four sleep stages five times per night. Going through our four sleep stages once generally takes 1.5 hours.
1.5 hours times five sleep cycles = 7.5 hours average sleep required to get the optimal restorative benefits from sleep.
It’s worth noting that if we are undergoing physical and mental stress, we likely need more sleep than the average recommended amount to encourage mental and physical recovery.
While we’re asleep, our body’s neurons get a chance to repair themselves. When we don’t get enough quality sleep, our neurons don’t get the opportunity to repair, leading to our neurons being so depleted and polluted through normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction. An increase in protein production fuels growth and damage repair caused by stress and other factors, in turn, supporting anxiety recovery.
We make bad choices when we’re tired
Studies are showing us time and time again that when we are sleep deprived, we are fundamentally flawed in our decision-making process.
As we look for replacements for our depleted energy, we are more likely to opt for fast, convenient foods over the healthier options that might take more time and effort to prepare. What we eat can have an effect on our mental health, as nutrient deprivation can worsen anxiety symptoms.
Combating the Sleep-Anxiety Spiral. So we know that anxiety makes sleeping a challenge and that sleep deprivation worsens anxiety symptoms, causing more problems falling asleep, and so on and so on…
it’s important that we stop this spiral, as the longer we wait to tackle our sleep, the worse our anxiety will get and the more difficult it will become to fix our sleep patterns.
First things first, what do you do when you can’t sleep, lying in bed with your eyes wide open feeling super anxious?
Throw your legs up the wall
And BREATHE! It might sound a bit silly how simplistic this method is, but bringing the legs above the heart increases the blood flow to the brain, calming the central nervous system, activating our rest and digest mode, encouraging the body out of fight or flight.
Lay on the bed with your right hip pressed against the wall. Swing your legs up the wall, bringing your bum against the wall with your upper body laying down. Your legs can be heavily bent, you might feel a nice stretch into the backs of the legs. If the stretch feels too intense, bend your knees more. Relax your legs, bring your arms either side of the body, placing your left hand on your stomach and your right hand on your chest. Soften the gaze, or close your eyes. Take a deep inhale through the nose, keeping the body relaxed. Exhale slowly through the mouth. Repeat this deep breathing, feeling the rise and fall of your left and right hand as the chest and belly rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale.
Really try to keep the focus on your breathing and on your body. Notice if there are any areas of the body holding on to tension unnecessarily. If the teeth are pressed together, part the teeth, part the lips slightly, removing the tongue from the roof of the mouth. This will help to relax the jaw.
Turn back to the breath, feeling the rise and fall in the belly and the chest. Follow each inhale all the way in, keeping as much ease in the posture and the breath as possible. Follow each exhale all the way out. You can stay in this posture for between 60 seconds and 5 minutes. At least 2 minutes is optimal to really encourage the body into rest and digest.
Listen to your Breathing
The breath can inform us of how we’re feeling. When we’re stressed and anxious, we may notice the breath is short and shallow. When we’re calm and safe, our breath is longer and deeper.
Just as the breath can inform us of how we’re feeling, we can also use the breath to influence how we’re feeling. If we’re able to take long, slow breaths, the body takes this as information that we are in an environment where we are safe from perceived danger. As such, it puts us into rest and digest mode, taking us out of fight or flight. We can use our breath to influence a change in the way our body is responding to stress anytime, anywhere! If you don’t want to include the restorative posture bringing the legs up the wall, you can simply lay in bed, closing the eyes or softening the gaze, practicing some deep, mindful breathing to encourage the body into rest and digest mode.
It’s simple, but it works!
Planning for 8 Hours of Sleep
When improving your sleep routine to accommodate mental health recovery, planning for 8 hours of sleep is a good place to start. What time do you need to wake up tomorrow? Count backwards 9 hours. This is around the time that you should be aiming to get into bed. This gives you 1 hour in bed before you should be asleep.
This might mean eating dinner earlier, as it’s best to sleep 3-4 hours after eating to improve the quality of sleep. Next is to take a look at triggers that may be happening just before sleep. Do you feel anxiety scrolling on your phone in bed? If so, it could be worth looking for something else to do before sleep, like reading or listening to a podcast. Avoiding artificial light will help improve our sleep as blue light emitted from our screens stops the production of our natural sleepy hormone, melatonin.
When making improvements to our sleep routine, it’s important to ensure all of the habits we’re trying to implement are achievable consistently. Deciding to stop screen time 1 hour before bed? Maybe you decide to charge your phone in another room to encourage this habit. But what are you using as an alarm instead of your phone? Make sure you have everything you need in order to implement your new habit.
Take your time making sleep routine changes. Pick one thing you’d like to improve, and once that one thing becomes an automatic habit that we no longer need to put effort into doing, then we can look at introducing another improvement.
Managing anxiety is no easy task. Sleep is fundamental for our mental and physical wellbeing. If you’re concerned that you aren’t getting enough sleep to support your mental health recovery, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider about methods to improve your sleep.