Anxiety may be a mental health condition, but it also manifests itself via physical symptoms. Many of these symptoms, such as sweating, heart palpitations and muscle tension, are benign, but others can be far more problematic. Lack of sleep, for instance, may not seem like a big deal, partly because of how common it is — but if left untreated, the side effects of sleep-deprivation can cause a domino effect and severely impact your long-term health. This is one scary symptom of anxiety that some people may overlook.
“People who are anxious are more likely to struggle with either falling or staying asleep,” Rachel Dubrow, a therapist who specializes in anxiety and depression, told The Active Times in an email. “They have a hard time getting their minds to ‘turn off’ so that they are relaxed enough to get to sleep — or they wake up in the middle of the night, start ruminating or thinking about things.”
If your sleep is only occasionally disrupted by worries or circling thoughts, it might not seem like a big deal. But for some people with anxiety, this can occur nearly every night.
In addition to being physically uncomfortable — no one likes feeling tired all the time — sleep-deprivation can actually make your anxiety worse, creating a vicious cycle. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 75 percent of adults whose sleep habits are affected by anxiety say that lack of sleep has made their anxiety even worse. And on top of the increased anxiety, failing to get the hours of sleep you really need can cause irritability, an inability to control emotions, cognitive decline and even an increased risk of certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
But don’t worry — if you are able to recognize that anxiety is at the root of your sleep disruption, you can take steps to effectively deal with it before you go to bed.
“I tell clients that it can be helpful to write down whatever is on your mind before you get into bed, so that those thoughts will be there in the morning when you need them,” Dubrow added. She also recommends trying not to spend too much time in bed tossing and turning. “If you aren’t able to sleep after 15 minutes, get out of bed, do something else until you feel tired, and then get back into bed,” she advised.
You should especially avoid looking at your phone before you go to sleep — research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed a connection between blue light from phone screens and suppressed levels of melatonin, the compound that signals to your body that it’s time to sleep. Put your phone away and out of reach at least 30 minutes before you lie down.
The National Sleep Foundation also recommends meditation, exercising earlier in the day, avoiding stressful activities before bed and taking a half hour before bed to wind down. You may try a short breathing exercise or impose a time limit on stressful activities such as paying bills.
Your mental health care provider can work with you to manage the anxiety that is keeping you awake, and create a more personalized treatment plan. Treating your anxiety can not only help you sleep better, it can also help to mitigate these other physical effects of anxiety you may not know about.