Insomnia or anxiety – which comes first?
Does this seem familiar? You’re in bed at your normal time, the lights are off, you’re ready to relax and fall asleep, and then all your worries come bubbling to the surface. It’s a never-ending stream of concerns about Covid-19, family, finances, work, relationships or the world in chaos. And you can’t seem to get these worries under control. If you recognize this pattern, you’re far from being alone. No matter how hard you will yourself to go to sleep, nothing seems to work. You catch yourself glancing at your alarm clock and worrying about how fatigued you’ll be tomorrow unless you grab some shuteye. Or maybe you’re the type that falls asleep easily but then wakes up disturbed by repetitive thoughts and can’t fall asleep again?
If you belong to the lucky few who only experience this every now and then, then count your lucky stars. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “sleep problems affect more than 50 percent of adults with generalized anxiety disorder.” So, what’s the difference between insomnia and anxiety, and how are they related? The dictionary defines Insomnia as “having difficulty in sleeping, which can include: difficulty in falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking up too early or waking up feeling tired. Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress, where you feel apprehension or fear about what’s going to happen next.” I consider myself to be one of the “lucky few,” but I have also wrestled with demons at night on occasion, especially following my two knee-replacement surgeries.
The chicken or the egg?
But which does what? Well, that depends on which came first. Many believe that loss of sleep is the result of insomnia caused by anxiety because anxiety signals the release of stress hormones like cortisol that make it difficult to sleep. But that’s not the full story. According to a recent study from the University of California, Berkley, Overanxious and Underslept, “one night of poor sleep increased anxiety levels by up to 30 percent.” The same researchers also found that a good night’s sleep helps stabilize emotions and calms the brain. While sleep deprivation can elevate your risk for anxiety disorders, insomnia can worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorders or even prevent recovery. Anxiety can cause sleep problems and sleep deprivation can also lead to an anxiety disorder. Other studies found that brain activity after periods of sleep deprivation is similar to brain activity in anxiety disorders. More specifically, your brain’s fight-or-flight response turns on when you haven’t slept enough. It appears, however, that sleep is a drug-free way to reduce anxiety.
The sound of your own wheels
I think The Eagles said it best: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”When it’s time for bed, you don’t want to spend your time tossing and turning, thinking about all the tasks you must accomplish tomorrow or what happened at the beginning of your day. And compounding this is the added worry of not being able to function the next day because you didn’t get enough sleep. No matter how important your thoughts and worries may seem, you’ve got to make sleep a priority. You can start by developing good sleep strategies starting with a good bedtime ritual, such as practicing relation techniques (breathing exercises or a warm bath), shutting off the electronics, going to bed and getting up at the same time (establishing a routine) and avoiding stimulants close to bedtime. My own personal favorite is making a worry list. If I still feel anxious before I go to bed despite my rituals, I ask myself if I’m worried about anything in particular. I place a pencil and pad by my bed, and if something pops up during the night, I jot it down on the list and tell myself either “I’ve dealt with it,” or “I’m dealing with it.” Find out what works best for you. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether insomnia, anxiety or both of them are the culprits. They both suck! And sometimes you just have to embrace the suck. Sweet dreams!