Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest

Woman SleepingMaybe you’ve been struggling with anxiety and panic and you’ve tried everything: medication, progressive relaxation, meditation, exercise, deep breathing, herbs, watching TV till your eyes glaze over in a stuporous fog—and still you’re feeling nervous, irritable, unable to focus, panicky, and tense.

What you’re missing might surprise you: you could be suffering from lack of sleep.

Studies show sleep deprivation to be one of the primary contributors to anxiety problems, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. Sleep appears to be very important for emotional regulation and processing.

At University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, assistant professor Matthew Walker’s experiment with sleep deprivation in humans showed that without sleep, the brain reverts back to more primitive patterns of activity. People then become less able to put emotional events into context and respond appropriately.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that prepares the body to protect itself when it perceives danger. When it senses danger, it sends a message to the prefrontal cortex, which then interprets and assesses the situation and decides whether to activate the fight or flight response. Under normal circumstances, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex work together to respond appropriately to danger while also keeping people from overreacting to emotional experiences. Under conditions of sleep deprivation, subjects’ amygdales and prefrontal cortexes stopped working together. Emotional centers were 60% more active, resulting in slower reflexes, increased irritation, problems with focus and concentration, and higher feelings of anxiety.

Other studies suggest that lack of REM sleep causes or worsens psychological problems. REM sleep, also known as dreaming sleep, is very important for processing emotions and memories, clearing the mind of the stressful events of the day, and dreaming. During this stage of sleep, the areas of the brain used in learning and developing new skills are stimulated. About 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep, the first REM cycle occurs; ideally, people will have three to five REM episodes per night. Getting more and better REM sleep has been shown to boost people’s moods during the day. Fortunately, improving the quantity and quality of REM sleep you get is relatively easy.

Many experts recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night, although some say that the quality of sleep is more important than quantity. Getting six hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep is more beneficial than eight hours of restless, interrupted sleep. You can immediately improve the quality of your sleep by making two important changes: change what you put into your body and what you do with your body, both during the day and when getting ready for sleep.

Change What You Put into Your Body

  • Eating, drinking, and medication habits may be disrupting your sleep more than you think. Too much food, especially rich, fatty food, can keep your stomach working overtime to digest, and spicy food can cause heartburn. Too much liquid can cause numerous trips to the bathroom at night. Your first step to better sleep is to limit your intake of rich, fatty, or spicy food, especially during your evening meal. Stop eating and drinking fluids several hours before you go to bed for the night.
  • Alcohol and caffeine use can also be very disruptive to your sleep cycle. Although you may feel temporarily relaxed after using alcohol, it causes you to wake up later at night, interrupting deep sleep and REM sleep. Caffeine can disturb sleep for up to ten to twelve hours after ingestion, so cut out the caffeine after lunchtime. Nicotine is another stimulant which disrupts sleep, so cut down or eliminate smoking to improve your sleep—although if you’ve been a smoker for a while, nicotine withdrawal may temporarily make it harder for you to sleep.

Change What You Do with Your Body

  • Regular exercise can help you fall asleep easier and achieve better rest. It doesn’t even have to be intense or rigorous: a brisk walk or bike ride is plenty. As little as twenty or thirty minutes per day of moderate exercise can be very helpful, and you can even break your activity up into ten- or fifteen-minute segments if you wish. You will want to schedule your exercise in the morning or early afternoon, because your body needs sufficient cool-down time to sleep well.
  • Set up a consistent, relaxing routine before bed. This trains your brain to recognize that it is time to wind down, making it easier for you to fall asleep. For thirty minutes to an hour before bed, find peaceful, quiet things to do to relax your body and mind. You might try things such as reading a light, entertaining book or magazine, listening to soft music or audiobooks, enjoying a hobby such as knitting or doing puzzles, or making simple preparations for the next day. A cup of hot tea or a glass of warm milk can also be helpful.
  • Although many people use watching TV as a way to relax or fall asleep, television actually stimulates your brain rather than relaxing it. Watching disturbing, violent material on the news or prime-time shows stimulates thinking as well as your physiology. Even if you do manage to fall asleep with the TV on, the continuous flickering of the screen can interfere with your body’s clock, which is sensitive to any light. You will get higher-quality sleep with the TV and computer off. If you have a hard time getting used to sleeping without the television, try turning on soft music, a sleep sound maker, or a fan.
  • Avoid napping during the day, which interferes with your body’s clock. Set up your nightly relaxation routine and stick to a consistent sleep schedule, and your quality of sleep will improve.

Getting adequate, quality sleep is extremely important for emotional regulation and processing. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to make changes in this area. Start today, and the effects can be felt almost immediately.

Reference:

  1. Yoo, S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F.A., Walker, M.P. (2007) The human emotional brain without sleep: A prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology 17: 877-878

© Copyright 2010 by Becki Hein, MS, LPC, therapist in Mckinney, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kenneth

    March 29th, 2010 at 2:36 PM

    I strongly agree that sleep helps you tide over anxiety…this has worked for me in the past and not only for anxiety but also for stress and for difficult situations whee I need to make a decision…I get some sleep wake up and will be in a much better position to decide.

  • CANTONA

    March 30th, 2010 at 1:49 AM

    Sleep is something like a ‘refresh’ button in our lives…it gives us a whole new perspective of the situation and relaxes our mind like nothing else…this in turn helps us think in new dimensions and can often result in solving the problem.

  • jeff d

    March 30th, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    But I can’t sleep because I am so anxious!!

  • AR

    March 30th, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    I am a bit confused after reading this…whenever I have anxiety or any problem on hand, I just can’t fall asleep and this lack of sleep often makes things worse for me… I just hope I can get over with this falling asleep problem because then I think I can get rid of the anxiety as well.

  • Becki Hein

    Becki Hein

    April 1st, 2010 at 2:43 PM

    Thanks for your comments! And especially Jeff D and AR…you make really good points!! People get themselves into a vicious cycle of not sleeping/feeling anxious/not sleeping/feeling anxious. The anxiety is driven by the racing thoughts in the mind and your paying VERY CLOSE attention to the racing thoughts. Even trying to distract yourself is adding to the thougths, not taking away. So the key is to break the cycle; to take attention AWAY from the thoughts altogether. One of the best ways to to this is to put your attention on your breathing. Repeatedly. By intensely focusing on your breathing, you place yourself in the present, not in the past or future. This really works. The problem is people don’t want to spend the time learning and practicing their deep breathing/grounding skills. And if they do remember to try and breathe, they take a few breaths, spending maybe one or two minutes and then give up. If you are going to learn to calm your body and your mind (especially without drugs), you are going to have to practice, practice, PRACTICE. (It will take two to four weeks of dedicated practice to get really good at this) And when you feel panic or a wave of anxiety starting (such as when you’re trying to sleep) you immediately begin the deep breathing/focusing and keep it up for at least 10 minutes. AT LEAST 10 minutes! THe longer, the better. It takes your body time to undo the damage from the chemical dump you put it through when the anxiety started.
    Your brain has a deeply ingrained habit of worrying/panic and that is why you must practice multiple times per day for several weeks. But if you do, it really pays off. You can learn to calm yourself within minutes and you don’t have to pollute your system with sleeping drugs anymore.
    You get to decide though, are you willing to do whatever it takes to change? Change your eating, drinking, exercise, thinking habits? Learn to breath and ground your energy? Give your brain the time it takes to learn this new way?
    These are such good comments from you all that I think I’ll continue on with the subject in my next article. More detail about breathing, grounding, and what it takes to actually change your brain. Look for it in about a week. Thanks all!

  • David

    January 30th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    After the military I was agoraphobic. I had 10-12 panic attacks daily and depression. Through medicine, healthy eating, drinking only water, and exercise I began to start going into public more and more. 3 years later I still have anxiety and depression however the improvement is astronomical! My wife often complains that I sleep too much. I do sleep a lot. I use sleeping for 40 – 90 minutes sessions as a way to reset my brain. I awake feeling refreshed. Continue productivity till I start feeling funny then repeat. It seems to work. But is it healthy?

  • Kat

    March 10th, 2017 at 5:13 PM

    Spine issues, sciatica and knee pain is the main reason I never sleep. 3 days each week are totally sleepless. No fun.

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