The Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep

What is the relationship between sleep and anxiety?

The relationship is simple: as anxiety increases, sleep decreases. 

Anxiety is (in an over-simplified explanation) the feeling of unease, dread, or nervousness in relation to a possible upcoming event. By focusing our attention on a future occurrence, we create the feeling of anxiety by overthinking. As a result, an anxious mind is a busy mind, and overthinking undermines the natural tendency to sleep.

When we overthink, we don’t sleep, and anxiety worsens. In fact, it snowballs: being sleep deprived increases irritability, decreases productivity, and reduces the ability to manage any anxiety that already exists.

So how do we calm our minds in order to increase sleep? Here are several tips to calm the mind before bed:

1) Good sleep comes from sticking to regular routines.

Pay attention to what you do right before you sleep. Does what you're do agitate you? Does it calm you?

  • Avoid any activity that might be stressful or agitating, like watching the season finale of Game of Thrones.
  • Some actions which may have calming effects before going to sleep include having a shower or bath, or engaging in some light reading. 
  • Use less blue-light screen time before bed — if possible, use a yellow-light nighttime mode, or look into downloading an app for your device such as f.lux.

2) It is also important to pay attention to what you are doing once in bed.

  • Ask yourself: “Where is my attention now?”  Because anxiety is fuelled by thinking about the future, it is important to focus on the present before going to sleep. 
  • Engaging in calm breathing or counting techniques are actually quite effective because they demand your full attention. Box Breathing, for example, is a technique which requires holding your breath, something we typically do not enjoy, and requires focus. This means instead of focusing your attention on the future, your attention is focused on the present, on breathing. The 54321 technique is another popular breathing technique that can help you relax before bed. 
  • Keeping a notepad near your bed can also be helpful to record any thoughts you may have if you find your mind is wandering at bedtime. Once these thoughts are recorded, you can allow yourself to sleep knowing you can deal with them the next day. 

When it comes to sleep, it is important to establish regular patterns and habits. When our sleep is disrupted, it can be difficult to get back on track! That’s why consistent sleeping habits, which are almost impossible to maintain as a student or young person, are very important, especially for those who suffer from anxiety.