Sleep and Anxiety

By Maggie M. Ethridge

and anxiety are firmly linked. According to the Anxiety and Depression Clinic of America, anxiety can both cause and be caused by sleep disorders. Insomniacs are 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety.  A Harvard study found that 50% of adult patients with generalized anxiety disorder have sleep problems. American Special Forces use as part of their training, testing who breaks and who does not— a powerful example of how important sleep is to the functioning of the human brain.

Receiving less sleep than the recommended amount disrupts how the brain anticipates stress or trouble ahead, a process called ‘anticipatory responding’. Sleep deprivation can activate the anticipatory response even though there is no actual danger or reason to be anxious.  This “anticipatory responding”  explains why a person who chronically gets less than seven hours of sleep is at a significantly higher risk for panic attacks, phobias, or even generalized anxiety. Without enough sleep, the brain essentially does not correctly regulate fear, creating fear responses to stimuli that do not exist.

Any kind of sleep problem can contribute to or cause anxiety: , consistent nightmares or night-waking, and . Sleep apnea—when your airways are blocked in a way that prevents you from breathing while asleep– can contribute to anxiety in many ways. It may bring on nighttime anxiety attacks. In addition, sleep apnea can cause sleep deprivation, which can create acid reflux symptoms, which are linked to panic attacks. In this way, sleep apnea causes a snowball effect of anxiety issues: anxiety, then acid reflux, then nighttime panic attacks.

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported people who sleep soundly enjoy a daily reprieve from stress hormones, while insomniacs’ hormone levels stay high all day long.  

But perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from recent studies showing that mental illness and sleep disruption may share common and overlapping pathways in the brain. Circadian rhythms are the internal cycles inside of us that let us know when it is time to sleep, and when it is time to be awake. This complicated process is now being revealed as an essential part of early diagnosis of mental illness, as well as the treatment– some studies have been able to show that reducing sleep disruptions can decrease symptoms of anxiety from mental illness.

Sleep and anxiety are clearly linked: to treat one is to treat the other.


Tags:  circadian rhythm Insomnia mental health Sleep sleep & anxiety sleep apnea Sleep deprivation sleep science





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