Does anxiety cause insomnia? Or is it the other way around? Trying to answer this question will get you nowhere. The truth is, there’s a circular relationship between sleep health and mental health. Research shows that 40 to 50 percent of people with insomnia also have a mental health disorder.1
Find out how anxiety and sleep problems are connected and explore tips for children and adults to get better sleep.
Anxiety is Frequently Connected to Sleep Problems
When we are anxious our mind races with worries, making it difficult to fall asleep. Similarly, when we are having trouble sleeping, we are more prone to feeling anxious.
According to the Sleep Foundation, a state of mental hyperarousal, which usually entails worry, is a key factor behind insomnia.2 And distress about falling asleep can make matters worse by creating sleep anxiety. You may find yourself dreading the thought of going to bed, which is a type of anticipatory anxiety that only feeds the insomnia.
And studies show that lack of sleep could then impair the brain’s ability to process negative emotions or experiences by increasing activity in the amygdala.3 The amygdala is the part of the brain that activates the fight-or-flight response, pumping your body full of stress hormones to evade danger.
Sleep Deprivation & Anxiety
While a person who has anxiety may find that their symptoms are exacerbated by a lack of sleep, the symptoms may even arise in those without a history of anxiety. Sleep deprivation studies show that otherwise healthy people can also experience increased anxiety and distress levels following poor sleep.4
In addition to anxiety, sleep deprivation is also associated with symptoms like tension, nervousness, cognitive decline, and irritability. While everyone is impacted by sleep deprivation, studies show that symptoms tend to be worse for adolescents and females, who report more negative effects on mood and more daytime sleepiness the next day.5
Can Lack of Sleep Cause an Anxiety Disorder or Panic Attacks?
Neuroscientist and sleep researcher Eti Ben Simon calls the bidirectional relationship between anxiety and sleep a “vicious cycle” and for good reason.6 Serious sleep issues, including insomnia, have been long recognized as a common symptom of anxiety disorders. And people who are prone to worrying often ruminate in bed, making it difficult to fall asleep.
According to Simon, people who suffer from poor sleep are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder relative to people who sleep well. In his 2019 study “Overanxious and underslept,” he discovered that sleep deprivation was associated with reduced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain connected to emotional control.7 This reduced activity led to an increase in anxiety. These effects were so powerful that lack of sleep instigated anxiety even after just one night.
Research also shows that anxious reactivity to acute sleep deprivation may make a person more vulnerable to developing panic spectrum problems, characterized by an increased sense of impending doom and a range of physiological symptoms.8 Panic attacks can also occur at night and wake you from sleep; these are known as nocturnal panic attacks.
Sleep & Anxiety in Adults
Healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.9 But these numbers may vary according to your own physiology and sleep patterns.
Some signs that you’re not getting enough sleep and struggling with anxiety include:
- Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- Increased moodiness and irritability
- Memory issues
- Needing caffeine to get through the day
- Less interest in sex
- Difficulty staying awake during meetings or while driving
- Tendency to sleep late on weekends
- Falling asleep on couch or other places not intended for sleeping
- More colds and illnesses
Common reasons for not getting enough sleep as an adult include:
- Financial worries
- Relationship issues
- Shift work
- Consuming too much caffeine
- Excessive screen time
- Insufficient exercise
- Substance abuse
- Having a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome
Sleep & Anxiety in Children
Sleep is crucial for children’s growth and development, which is why they need more of it than most adults. Infants need a whopping 12-15 hours of sleep, toddlers rely on 11-14 hours, preschool-age children need 10-13 hours, and school-age children need 9-11 hours.10 Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep, but polls show most of them are not getting enough. Around 23.8 percent of teens in the U.S. suffer from insomnia.11 When it comes to anxiety, data shows that around 31.9 percent of adolescents are affected.12
Some signs that your child or teen is not getting enough sleep and struggling with anxiety include:
- Difficulty paying attention
- Poor academic performance
- Hyperactivity and impulsivity
- Low energy
- Decreased sociability
- Falling asleep in class or in car
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Common reasons for not getting enough sleep as a child or teen include:
- Going asleep too late and/or waking up too early
- Academic stress
- Social anxiety
- Being bullied
- Excessive screen use
- Consuming too much sugar
- Having ADHD
- Having a sleep disorder
Tips on How to Overcome Nighttime Anxiety & Get Better Sleep (for you or your loved ones)
While it’s true that anxiety can worsen insomnia and insomnia can worsen anxiety, the flipside is that improving one can have a positive effect on the other as well. Here are some of the best tips both you and your child or teen can integrate into your life to better your sleep and your anxiety levels.
Move Your Body Regularly
Research shows that exercising regularly helps you fall asleep faster and improves sleep quality, as long as you don’t do it too close to bedtime.13 And you don’t have to join a gym or sign your child up for a sport they’re not interested in either. Family hikes and bicycle rides, dance parties, or just an evening walk around the neighborhood can fulfill your exercise quota for the day.
Go to Therapy
Therapy is another important way to process anxiety and learn better coping mechanisms, which can help you get better sleep. And therapy for children is becoming increasingly common. If you think your child or teen can benefit, have a discussion beforehand to normalize the experience by explaining that a therapist is simply a doctor that can help them with their feelings.
Make Sure You’re Getting Proper Nutrition
You may already know that too much caffeine and sugar can wreck your sleep. But they can also worsen anxiety.14 Set a healthy example by stocking the fridge with plenty of fruits and vegetables, involving your kids in meal preparation, and replacing not-so-nutritious treats with healthier alternatives.
Turn Off Electronics Early
Screen time keeps our minds psychologically engaged, which can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia. The blue light that screens emit is also known to disrupt our circadian rhythm and throw our sleep off track. A good way to avoid this is to power down electronics early and keep screen-free zones in the house, especially the bedroom.
Keep a Bedtime Routine
One way to quiet down the mind and ease your body into restful sleep is creating a relaxing bedtime routine for you and your child or teen. This may include listening to soft music, having a warm bath, or reading. It’s also important that you go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning to support your circadian rhythm.
Create a Sleep-Friendly Environment
Free from screens and distractions, your bedroom should be a haven for rest. To create a sleep-friendly environment, keep the room cool and quiet, make sure it is dark and use blackout curtains if you need to, and rid the area from distractions that may keep you or your child awake.
If you still need more support, consider using a homeopathic medication like Brillia, which uses targeted antibodies to reduce symptoms of anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability, and restlessness. Brillia will not induce sleepiness to help you fall asleep, but it will ease the anxiety that may be keeping you awake. Free from synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia offers two formulations: Brillia for Children and Teens and Brillia for Adults. The non-prescription medication is part of a holistic approach that combines healthier lifestyle habits, including adequate sleep, with active antibodies to stop anxiety at the root of symptoms.