If you are looking for a natural remedy for anxiety, a good night’s sleep might be what you need.
Those of us who suffer from anxiety know how difficult it is to sleep at night. I can barely keep my eyes open and yet my mind just won’t stop spinning. Then I start noticing even more strange sensations to worry about. Why does my heart keep missing a beat? Did I just see a flash of light? Oh no, my left side just went numb . . . No matter what I do, I just can’t seem to relax and get those much-needed zzzz’s.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, over 50 percent of individuals with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) have difficulty falling asleep. Sleep disturbance is also a diagnostic symptom of PTSD and social anxiety.
Newly published, an exciting study helps us better understand the connection between our anxiety and insomnia. According to the neuroscientists at UC Berkeley, not only does anxiety keep us up at night, lack of sleep itself can cause anxiety and increase levels by up to 30%. In fact, the authors suggest focusing on getting a full night’s sleep can lower anxiety and could be a natural remedy for many anxiety disorders.
How does Sleep affect Anxiety?
The researchers started by scanning the brains of 18 healthy individuals with MRI as they watched a collection of emotionally provoking and neutral images. The first scan was after a full night’s sleep and then another after staying awake for 24 hours. Each morning and evening the participants filled out a questionnaire to measure their anxiety levels.
The scans showed that not getting enough sleep inhibits the medial prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that helps manage our emotions. It keeps us from getting too overwhelmed, regulating how we feel.
The areas of the brain (the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC)) that coordinates our flight-or-fight and fear responses became overactive. As a result, ramping up these strong emotions while not having the ability to control them creates the perfect setting for our anxiety attacks. Walker explains in the study’s press release,
Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake
It’s tricky, my anxiety keeps me up at night and then this lack of sleep wires my brain for more anxiety. It’s hard to know which comes first and I think many of us struggle with this vicious cycle. But even for people not usually ‘anxious’, the study found missing just one night’s sleep was enough to significantly increase anxiety levels. And having poor sleep on a regular basis doubled the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Sleep More to Worry Less
The good news – those who got more “deep sleep” had significantly lower anxiety the following day. The researchers found that having more NREM SWS, the final stage of non-rapid-eye-movement sleep that involves slow delta brain waves, was able to balance and repair these networks.
Simon explains in the same statement,
Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety.
The results were so promising they suggest sleep could be a natural, non-drug remedy for anxiety disorders. Walker encourages:
The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep
Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep to Lower Anxiety
How much sleep we need is different for each of us. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need about 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night (wouldn’t that be nice!). Teenagers and children need even more. Here are my top 8 favorite evening routines and tips that helped me finally break the anxiety-sleep cycle.
1 – Create space for a quiet, screen-free time before bed
I set aside a transitional quiet space before bed. Now’s the time to turn off the screens. Electronic devices give off blue light which suppresses the release of melatonin. Without this sleep-inducing hormone, it’s harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep. You might try cozying up and listening to music or de-stress with some adult-coloring pages. I’m a book lover and use this time to read a novel or magazine. Check out BuzzFeed‘s most heartwarming books list or maybe an award winner from GoodReads.
2 – Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day
Our sleep/wake cycle (the circadian rhythm) is a biological pattern that establishes when its time to sleep and wake up. This process releases chemicals and hormones that make us feel drowsy or alert at certain times. We can use this cycle to our advantage by establishing a regular wake-up time. In their book, Overcoming Insomnia, Edinger and Carney suggest setting our alarms and getting out of bed no matter how much sleep we actually get.
They explain, “If you set your alarm for a standard wake-up time, you will soon notice that you will … become sleepy at about the right time each evening to allow you to get the sleep you need.”
This also means resisting that beloved long afternoon nap or restricting it to a 20 minute catnap.
3 – Keep the bed for sleeping and ‘snuggles’ only
This is definitely one I find challenging. I love reading that page-turning mystery or binge-watching my favorite dramas from Netflix while all cozy in bed. The problem is, this often means I can’t put down that book and it’s too tempting to watch ‘one more episode’. Next thing I know, it’s 3 a.m. and my alarm is set for 6:30 a.m.
According to HealthCentral, the bedroom should only be used for two things: sleep and ‘snuggles’. No eating, reading, watching tv, doing last-minute work, or checking our social media accounts. Sleep coach Martin Reed explains, “When you enter the bedroom, you want your mind to know that it’s time for sleep and nothing else!” Doing any other activity teaches us to be “awake in bed”. He suggests waiting until we feel sleepy before heading to the bedroom. If we can’t stop tossing and turning, it can be better to get out of bed, relax with some more quiet activities, and try again later.
4 – Exercise to get a better night’s sleep
New research shows that exercise not only benefits our body and mind, it also helps us fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep. According to Dr. Charlene Gamaldo from the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, moderate aerobic exercise increases how much slow-wave sleep we get. (This is that NREM sleep our earlier study found could lower anxiety.) She says, even exercising for just 30 minutes, earlier in the day, can improve our sleep that same night. Choose the best time of day for your own workout with this handy guide from Maccasin Guru.
5 – Work out our worries before we sleep
To avoid the nightly ‘fret frenzy’, I find it helps to keep a health journal. Before I head to bed, I take some time to work through any health concerns that may keep me up in the middle of the night. It gives me some much-needed perspective and helps me create an action plan going forward. Check out my post on Journaling for Health Anxiety and my free Write for H.E.A.L.T.H. printable writing prompts.
Edinger and Carney’s, Overcoming Insomnia, also has a Constructive Worry worksheet that may help. They suggest, “at bedtime, if you begin to worry …. tell yourself that you have dealt with your problems already in the best way you know how, and when you were at your problem solving best.”
6 – Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Bedtime routines are not just for our little ones. Creating my own bedtime ritual helps me feel less anxiety and transition between my active day and sleep. Here’s my routine:
A sleep-promoting snack before bed
Foods like walnuts, oats, bananas, or milk are rich in melatonin and can increase this important sleep hormone naturally. I love this Banana Oatmeal Muffin recipe by beyondthechickencoop with a cup of Chamomile Tea. For a list of The Best Foods to Help You Sleep Through the Night, check out Medical News Today.
A relaxing warm bath
It’s not always easy to find time for self-care. Running a warm bath, adding some lavender scented epsom salts or picking out a colorful bath bomb can help create that calming ‘home-spa’ experience.
Unwind with an evening yoga sequence
Yoga has many benefits – it’s linked to lower stress, increased focus, and improved strength and flexibility. According to Dr. Michael Breus from Psychology Today, several studies have also found a regular yoga practice can improve sleep onset and duration in those of us who suffer from insomnia. An excellent site for yoga information and routines is the Yoga Journal. Check out their Wind Down with a Calming Evening Yoga Practice.
7 – Set the scene for a good night’s sleep
Keeping our bedroom quiet and dark can promote better and longer sleep. A white noise machine, earplugs or turning on a fan helps block out unwanted sounds from the neighborhood and I find black-out curtains a must to keep away those early morning summer rays.
Studies also suggest that keeping our bedrooms cool creates a better sleep environment. The National Sleep Foundation has some great tips.
The use of sleep-inducing essential oils in aromatherapy has been shown to help us sleep sounder. Scientists are not sure why, but the idea is inhaling essential oil molecules can affect our brain chemistry. I use an ultrasonic diffuser so that I don’t need to worry about a heat source around my girls. Here is a good article from verywellhealth with information on Which Essential Oils Can Help You Sleep Better .
8 – Sleep still elusive? Explore some meditation
Meditation can help calm our racing thoughts and quiet our bodies. There are different types of meditation we can try, such as focused meditation, spiritual meditation, or mantra meditation. Some studies show that mindfulness meditation, where one focuses on their breathing and the present moment, can help treat sleep disorders and anxiety. As a newbie to meditation practice, I found following a guided meditation was a good introduction to these ancient traditions. Mindful‘s website is packed with information and some free audio mindfulness practices.
These routines and tips helped me start getting the sleep I needed to break the anxiety-sleep cycle. What strategies do you use? Share them with us in the comments!
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If you feel you have a sleep disorder, please consult your doctor for their advice.
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I’m not an expert. If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.
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“How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?,” National Sleep Foundation, accessed December 10, 2019.
“How to Stay Cool Whiles Sleeping,” National Sleep Foundation, accessed December 9, 2019.
Huizen, Jennifer. “Which foods can help you sleep?,” Medical News Today, January 25, 2019.
“Sleep & Psychiatric Disorders,” Cleveland Clinic, accessed December 10, 2019.
“Screen Time and Insomnia: What It Means for Teens,” National Sleep Foundation, accessed December 9, 2019.
Simon, Eti Ben, et al. “Overanxious and underslept.”Nature Human Behavior, 4 Nov. 2019.
Reed, Martin. “Here Are the Only Two Things You Should Be Doing in Bed.” HealthCentral, Aug 14, 2017.
Wong, Cathy. “Which Essential Oils Can Help You Sleep Better,” verywellhealth, November 26, 2019.