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  • Writer's pictureBright Light Counseling Center

Sleep Deprivation and Anxiety: Understanding How Lack of Sleep Impacts Mental Health

Updated: May 22

pink alarm clock

Ever found yourself tossing and turning at night, your mind racing with worries and anxieties? Then, the next day, you find that you are exhausted - irritable - and even more anxious. You're not alone! Anxiety and sleep often dance together in a frustrating tango, leaving many of us feeling like we're trapped in a restless cycle. Ruminating thoughts and worries is only one sleep problem that may make it difficult to fall asleep. Some people may fall asleep with no problem only to find themselves wide awake at 3 AM staring at the ceiling caught up in a web of worries, endlessly running through the future to do list, or counting the minutes until their alarm goes off wishing sleep to come. Some struggle with nightmares that jolt them awake with a racing heart, vivid images, and distressing emotions. Others may struggle with over sleeping - sleeping through alarms, taking naps to try and not feel as exhausted or to try and “catch up” on sleep.

Join us as we explore how the lack of sleep fuels anxiety symptoms and makes it difficult to regulate your emotions throughout the day. We also offer some strategies to improve your sleep hygiene and cope with nightly ruminating thoughts. So, grab your favorite blanket, cozy up, and let's learn more about sleep and anxiety together!

Lack of Sleep Exacerbates Anxiety Symptoms

woman laying in bed covering her face

Sleep difficulties and its impact on mental health cannot be underestimated. Research has shown that insufficient sleep can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and people diagnosed with anxiety disorders often report subjective sleep disturbances. Sleep problems and anxiety symptoms are like the chicken and the egg - which came first? For some, your symptoms of anxiety (e.g., stresses, worries, muscle tension, restlessness, nightmares, difficulties relaxing) may make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or feel well rested. For others, difficulties with falling asleep and staying asleep leads to developing mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or suicidal ideations. Recognizing the bidirectional relationship between sleep and anxiety is crucial in understanding how these two factors influence each other. Anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night. This lack of quality sleep can then exacerbate anxiety symptoms, leading to a vicious cycle that impacts overall well-being.

Sleep is restorative for our body and brain. Imagine your brain as a bustling city, with neurons buzzing like busy commuters during rush hour. Now, picture this city at night, its streets empty, its lights dimmed—this is your brain during sleep, a time of restoration and renewal. But what happens when this city never truly rests, when its lights stay on, its activity relentless? Well, chaos ensues! Just like a city needs downtime to repair roads and clear debris, your brain needs sleep to tidy up its neural pathways and consolidate memories.

Now, let's talk about the consequences of sleep deprivation—a bit like trying to navigate a maze with a flashlight running low on batteries. Your cognitive functions, like decision-making and problem-solving, start to stumble. Suddenly, choosing between cereal or toast for breakfast feels like an Olympic feat, and finding your keys becomes a Herculean task. You feel in a fog, slowed down, and are not at the top of your game.

man with a blue hooded sweatshirt and covering his face

But it's not just your cognitive abilities taking a hit; your emotions start to rebel too. You have very little tolerance. With sleep deprivation throwing our brain's emotional thermostat out of whack, anxiety takes center stage, strutting around like it owns the place. Suddenly, the smallest worries feel like looming giants, and the tiniest setbacks send us spiraling into panic mode. Don’t forget about irritability - she is there too. Loud and proud, everything is annoying, everyone is frustrating, and you just want to burn it all down - sound familiar?

When we don't get enough rest, our brain's ability to regulate emotions is disrupted, making it harder to manage anxious thoughts and feelings. Essentially, insufficient sleep acts as fuel for the anxiety fire, intensifying its impact on our mental well-being.

Ensuring adequate and quality sleep is crucial in managing anxiety symptoms and promoting overall mental well-being. So, the next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling, remember that a good night's sleep isn't just a luxury—it's a crucial component of maintaining mental health and resilience.

Importance of Prioritizing Sleep Hygiene

Ok, so, you get it - anxiety symptoms are impacting your sleep and your sleep is impacting your anxiety. Now what?

Prioritizing sleep hygiene is essential because it sets the stage for quality rest, allowing the body and mind to recharge and function optimally. Consistent sleep hygiene practices can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle, improve sleep quality, and mitigate the impact of sleep disturbances on overall health and well-being.

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, it's easy to overlook the importance of sleep hygiene. Yet, for individuals battling anxiety, prioritizing good sleep habits can be a game-changer. So, let's dive into the world of sleep hygiene and uncover how simple changes to our nighttime routine can make all the difference.

brown teddy bear in bed under white sheets

Consistent Bed and Wake Times

First things first: consistency is key. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate your body's internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. If your bed and wake time is inconsistent, you are constantly throwing your body into jetlag, and this exacerbates fatigue, difficulties with feeling rested, brain fog, and your ability to emotionally regulate and navigate your day. We know this is incredibly difficult, but your body will thank you for it. We recommend a bed a wake time that is within 30 to 60 minutes of each other each day. Example, between 6 AM - 7 AM wake up and between 10 P and 11 P bedtime (if this is your schedule).

Optimizing Your Evening for Better Sleep

dark background with a person holding a cell phone

Next up, let's talk about bedtime rituals. Just like a warm-up before a workout, a relaxing bedtime routine signals to your body that it's time to wind down. You have identified your bedtime, now you need to identify when your bedtime ritual needs to begin. Most start 60 minutes before bed to start winding down. This is the time when you start to slow down. Consider dimming the lights in your home and engaging in soothing activities. Whether it's sipping on a cup of chamomile tea, taking a warm bath, engaging in some light reading, or practicing mindfulness exercises, find what works for you and make it a non-negotiable part of your evening routine. A crucial component: unplugging from electronic devices, such as your phone, tablet, computer, and TV, at least an hour before bedtime. Not only does the blue light emitted from screens disrupt your body's production of melatonin, but the constant stream of information can also keep your mind buzzing when it should be winding down for sleep. So, trade in scrolling through social media feeds for a calming activity that helps signal to your brain that it's time to relax and prepare for sleep.

Strategies to Quiet Your Mind Before Bed

If you find yourself battling ruminating thoughts and anxious worries before bedtime, there are several effective strategies you can try to quiet your mind and promote relaxation.

  1. Journaling: As part of your wind down routine, and before you get into bed, take sometime to write down your thoughts and worries to help clear your mind and release any pent-up emotions. Then, as you are laying in bed and drifting asleep, and the worry pops into your mind, you can remind yourself, ‘I wrote that down, I do not need to focus on that now.’ and return to focusing on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or your listening to your sleep story.

  2. Practice deep breathing exercises: Once you get into bed, you can prepare your body and mind for quiet and relaxation. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths to help calm your nervous system and quiet your mind. Try 4-7-8 Breathing.

  3. Engage in progressive muscle relaxation: Another strategy for once you are in bed to assist in relaxing your body is progressive muscle relaxation. Tense and then release each muscle group in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head, to promote relaxation and reduce physical tension. Give this one a try.

  4. Sleep Stories: Explore the calming allure of sleep stories—a therapeutic solution for those seeking to have something else for their brains to focus on while falling asleep. These narrated tales provide a gentle escape from the day's hustle and bustle, guiding listeners into a state of deep relaxation conducive to restful sleep. There are many different sleep stories on YouTube, one of our favorites is: Rainday Antiques

Breaking the Cycle: Managing Anxiety and Improving Sleep Quality

In conclusion, addressing both anxiety and sleep disturbances concurrently is vital to breaking this challenging cycle effectively. Seeking therapy or treatment for anxiety can be instrumental in managing symptoms and enhancing overall mental well-being. Therapists can also collaborate with individuals to identify any factors contributing to poor sleep quality, such as stress or lifestyle habits. By prioritizing healthy sleep habits alongside treatment for anxiety, individuals can empower themselves to better manage their symptoms, fostering improved mental health and promoting better sleep.


Disclaimer: Our content is on and related to the topic of mental health. The content is general information that may or may not apply to you. The content is not a substitute for professional services. This website does not contain professional advice, nor is any professional-client relationship established with you through your use of this website.


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