Sleep and Anxiety

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Baby awake in bed

Getting a good night’s sleep is very important if you suffer from anxiety. The problem is that people who suffer from anxiety can suffer with sleep problems – not being able to get to sleep, not being able to get back to sleep once you have woken up, and waking up too early can all lead to sleep deficit. The brain and body need more sleep, but they are not getting it.

Anyone who has had a baby or toddler who wakes up in the night demanding attention – they know the problem of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep makes you more likely to snap at little irritations, makes you more stressed, and it becomes easier to drift into that malaise of not bothering with the normal patterns of life. All these negative emotions come from the primitive part of the brain that needs sleep to keep it under control.

Sometimes, circumstances stop you getting enough sleep – your partner snores, you work unusual shift patterns, you have a child who needs you in the night, or you are in physical pain. These are things you cannot help and you have to choose – either live with it or find ways of working round the problem.

As well as giving the brain a chance to sort out the emotional memories, sleep also helps the physical body restore itself. Sleeping well helps an individual maintain their physical health, and long-standing poor sleep is associated with a wide range of health problems.

Why is sleep so important when you have anxiety?

Lack of sleep can make anxiety worse. When you are asleep, the brain processes the emotional experiences you have had during the day – in particular, it processes the stressful memories. The bad things that have happened will either be forgotten or processed, so that the emotion associated with those memories is removed or dulled down.

Most people will have experienced a time when they got angry about something or other, and then they wake up in the morning wondering why they ever got cross about it. During the night, your brain processes those stressful experiences leaving you with less stress on your plate the following day. You wake up wondering why you got so upset by it all.

So if you don’t get enough sleep, and you have a lot of unresolved stresses, your brain does not get a chance to process them all at night. The next day you wake up still carrying the stresses from the previous day. For people that have highly stressful experiences, such as a serious accident, a close friend or relative passing away, or the sudden loss of their job … for these people, the stress can take days, weeks or months to be processed. PTSD sufferers may have years of putting up with unresolved stress. People who are sleep-deprived don’t deal with the stresses of everyday life well – as they haven’t had a chance to deal with the stress that they have already experienced.

Sleep is important for everyone, but it is particularly important if you have anxiety – because it puts you in that vicious cycle of lack of sleep increasing the anxiety, which in turns disrupts your sleep. If you do suffer from anxiety – look at your sleep patterns and see what you can do to make sure you get as much sleep as you need.

Photo of baby awake in bed by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

Tim Maude

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