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How does sleep affect anxiety?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

In this FAQ series, we asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher how sleep affects anxiety levels.

When it comes to self-care and looking after ourselves, more often than not we instantly think of achieving a healthy diet and maintaining regular exercise. But how many of us consider the impact that sleep plays on our health and happiness?

Sleep is not a one-size-fits-all model. It is important to remember that how much sleep is required by one person, may not necessarily be the same as another. So why is sleep so important? A good night’s rest ticks a number of different boxes – from helping us concentrate and learn better, to improving our overall functioning and allowing our body time to repair and recover. This can all have a direct impact on our mood and mental health, so make time to put sleep at the top of your priority list.

When it comes to looking at the theories behind how sleep can be good for our minds, the results come back a little mixed. Some say that sleep works as a sort of ‘de-fogger’ giving our brain the chance to clear away anything that isn’t necessary for us to worry or think about. Others, however, consider quality sleep as a chance for us to consolidate new learning and lay down the foundations for new pathways within our brain. While the jury may still be out on a definite answer here, one thing we do know for certain is that a lack of sleep or quality sleep can be harmful to our wellbeing and health. It can hurt how we think, how we concentrate, and can also increase the likelihood of us feeling a little stressed as our bodies haven’t had a proper chance to shut down and reboot.

Here is where things start to get a little trickier. When we get stressed, feelings of anxiety start to also creep in. One thing that can increase such anxious feelings is when our brain starts to get ‘busy’ – which often seems to happen right when our head finally hits the pillow and we are ready and wanting to drift off to sleep. The scene is set; it’s nighttime, the lights are out, devices have been put down and we are left alone with our thoughts. We know we need to get a good night's sleep and hope to drift off into a peaceful slumber soon. But for many of us, our busy brain uses this opportunity to swirl thought after thought through our head – with one mantra often on repeat: “What if I don’t get enough sleep?”.

So begins the vicious cycle. Fueling our anxiety and decreasing the quality of our sleep, we get anxious and stressed as we struggle to get off to sleep, only to then become further upset by the fact that the longer we try and get the sleep, the less rest we are actually achieving as we creep towards our morning alarms. Worry, stress, worry, stress -repeat. While it’s easy to get caught up in this sleep anxiety circle, it is important not to panic over this potential lack of sleep, but rather to prioritize the need to rest and relax, setting up an environment that is going to make sleep more likely.

So how can we increase our chances of a decent night's sleep? Experts often refer to

this as sleep hygiene, and yes, it is just as important as brushing your teeth. Sleep hygiene looks at all of your routines and practices surrounding bedtime and your place of rest. Consider your setup; is your room dark enough, or quiet enough? Do you need less stimulation surrounding you, such as removing your tv from the bedroom if you have one? All of these can play a part in hindering the onset of sleep by sending signals to your brain convincing it that it is still time to be awake and active.

So what can we do if we just can’t drift off? To prevent that vicious cycle from taking hold and the anxiety building up, one good trick can be to get out of bed and try another activity. This helps to prevent you from building a strong association of being in bed, not being able to sleep, and then stressing over the lack and quality of that good night's rest that you’re not achieving. Try a relaxing activity to help calm you down – such as drinking a hot, non-caffeinated drink (try warm milk), or alternatively a ‘boring’ activity (try reading the phone book) that might make you weary. Find what works for you – calms you down, relaxes your mind - and stick with it. This will help to lower that alert system and decrease those anxiety levels before heading back to bed, allowing us a better chance of drifting off.

Sleep is important and it’s time we started prioritizing it. However, if you do find yourself stuck in the sleep-anxiety circle, just remember that it is important to make sure you have some good practices in place and ways of managing those restless nights. Getting a good night's sleep can be a long game, but if we can manage any anxiety we feel around it, then ultimately we can start to develop better sleep cycles and long-term routines.

To learn more about sleep skills, try out the oVRcome 7-day wellness challenge.


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