This is why you can’t sleep when you’re feeling anxious

Feeling anxious is a common experience for many. Whether you’ve taken on a new project at work or are going on a first date. Sometimes it’s a feeling we just can’t avoid.

However, for some people this fear can become overwhelming. It can start to impact on your ability to function in your daily life. When anxiety is regularly disturbing your sleep, you need to take steps to deal with it – especially when sleep is one of the best things you can do to boost your immunity. 

So why can’t I sleep when I’m feeling anxious?

Anxiety is often thought of as a dramatic escalation of a response called arousal. Arousal in humans evolved to keep us alert to threats so we could protect ourselves. This was useful when sabre-toothed tigers lurked in the shadows – but now, not so much.

For people feeling anxious in the current climate, sleep disturbance is one of the key problems that may develop. Picture arousal as someone sounding a car horn. Throughout the day, you might notice it, and become vaguely irritated by the noise. But when it carries on into the night, it becomes impossible to sleep. This results in trouble falling and staying asleep, as well as causing you to experience sleep that isn’t refreshing. These are symptoms of insomnia.

When you climb into bed at night, this is when worries about your family, finances or your health may come to the surface. Difficulty falling asleep can then, in turn, generate more anxiety about how you’ll function the following day. This sleep deprivation may lead to more problems, such as low mood and poor concentration.

How do I tackle it?

  1. Stay connected. We know it can be hard not to, but don’t shut yourself away from friends and family. Having a sense of belonging is key to your mental wellbeing – it’s linked with lower levels of depression and anxiety.
  2. Re-frame your accomplishments. Celebrate the small wins. It’s important to feel like you’re achieving something every day, no matter how small. Finally done that washing you’ve been putting off for the past week? It’s the day-to-day tasks that can feel the hardest sometimes, but any progress is good progress
  3. Keep to a schedule. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time every morning. Develop a sleep ritual – try reading a book for half an hour before you go to bed each night.
  4. Turn off your screens. Blue light from electronic devices can trick your mind into thinking it’s still daytime. Try to not use your device at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.
  5. …And put your phone on silent. When your phone is pinging every 2 seconds, it can be tempting to take just one more glance. But before you know it, one glance turns into another hour mindlessly scrolling. 
  6. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine. While having a drink may help you initially fall asleep, it will affect your sleep quality and you may find yourself awake in an hour or two. Caffeine can also stop you sleeping well – the National Sleep Foundation identifies caffeine as a source of insomnia, as well as anxiety and irritability.
  7. Try breathing exercises. Performing a breathing exercise can help you feel calmer. The NHS website provides details on how to do this.
  8. Keep your bedroom cool and quiet. Most people sleep best in a cooler room, so you might want to try opening a window. A white noise machine will help block out sounds keeping you awake. If it’s snoring that’s stopping you from going back to sleep, you can deal with the problem directly by investing in a snoring relief product.

When to get help

Sometimes your anxiety symptoms will indicate a more serious problem. It’s time to get some help when:

  • Your anxiety is stopping you from functioning in your day-to-day life
  • Your anxiety feels overwhelming
  • Your symptoms are getting worse over time

Your GP can assess your symptoms, and help you find a treatment plan to get the sleep you need.

For more in-depth information, click here to read Sleep Advisor’s Anxiety and Sleep Guide.


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