How to Overcome Sleep Anxiety
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a collection of emotional and physical sensations which arrive in your body in response to certain events, such as speaking in public. Known as ‘fight or flight’, it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that prepares you to fight off or run away from predators. It is often associated with feelings of nervousness, being on edge, sweating, increased heart rate or a knot in the stomach. Whilst uncomfortable, such sensations are normal and harmless, and often subside as soon as the stress is removed.
Anxiety becomes a problem when the feelings don’t subside and much of your day (and night) is spent this way, impacting on your ability to live your life. Anxiety disorders can be the result of a traumatic life event or of constant high work and life stress; it is almost as if the body gets used to being on red alert. The worry about worrying is also another common way in which anxiety is fuelled and maintained. Research suggests that over 10% of people in the UK suffer from a disabling anxiety disorder.
What is Sleep Anxiety?
87% of Sleep School workshop attendees cite anxiety as the main causal factor for triggering and maintaining their sleeplessness. The more you worry about not sleeping, the less you sleep; and the less you sleep, the more you worry! This unfortunate vicious cycle fuels the biological ‘fight or flight’ mechanism releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, explaining why insomniacs are described as being ‘Tired but Wired’. Insomnia is a ‘Hyper-Arousal Syndrome’, which is great for fighting off bears, but not very good for sleeping.
To make matters worse, insomnia is also a learnt response, with many clients describing themselves becoming more alert as they put their head on the pillow or when they wake up in the night. The brain becomes conditioned to struggling with sleeplessness – so much so that, in preparation, it automatically activates the fight or flight response.
Which Came First . . . Anxiety or Insomnia?
A common discussion by clients attending our one-day insomnia workshops is which came first, their insomnia or anxiety. From my experience, the answer varies with every individual. Whilst worrying can make it challenging to sleep, sleeplessness increases the tendency to worry. Research now supports these fact demonstrating that insomnia can be both a symptom and a cause of anxiety.
Top Tips for Managing Sleep Anxiety
Let go of the props.
Sleep is a natural physiological process that can’t be controlled and becoming reliant on night time rituals or props (e.g. warm baths, pills, alcohol etc) can often fuel sleep anxiety and further sleeplessness. Follow a normal, regular wind down every night to retrain your brain to sleep. To avoid additional anxiety and sleeplessness, aim to come off your props slowly, and always consult with your Doctor if your props include prescribed medication. A rate of 25% less every two weeks is often enough to prevent unwanted rebound insomnia.
Let go of struggling with your worries.
Worrying about how bad your sleep has been or imagining how bad things will be in the future if you don’t sleep only helps to increase nighttime arousal/wakefulness levels. Regular mindfulness practice helps you to notice your worries objectively and without judgment, and let them go. In the night you can use the touch of your duvet on your toes or the gentle movement of your chest as you breathe to ground yourself in the present moment and as a place to return your attention when your mind wants to wander off. You can’t stop your mind from having worrisome thoughts, but you can always choose how much you buy into them.
Welcome your fears.
No one likes experiencing worrisome thoughts or strong emotional reactions such as anxiety. However, it is often the battle to get rid of or change them, which actually fuels them further and wakes you up more. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers a uniquely alternative approach by seeking to change your relationship with them. Welcoming your unwelcome thoughts and emotions can be a simple as describing what’s showing up in your mind and body such as ‘I am having the thought that… if I don’t sleep I won’t be able to cope tomorrow’ or ‘I can feel anxiety in my stomach right now’. Paradoxically, when you are open to experiencing them, the power that such thoughts have over you lessens, allowing natural sleep to emerge.
The Sleep School specialises in giving clients the tools to help them escape the vicious cycle of insomnia and anxiety, and regularly achieve good quality natural sleep.
If you need help overcoming insomnia , we recommend our Sleep School for Insomnia App. It contains proven tools to help you fall asleep quicker, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.