How to counter lack of sleep because of stress or anxiety

Discover how to counter lack of sleep because of stress or anxiety and learn strategies to break the cycle for better mental health and improved sleep quality.
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We’ve all had those restless nights. Eyes open, ceiling staring, and the mind racing. But here’s something that might surprise you: lack of sleep can actually fuel the very anxiety keeping you awake. Stick around to discover how to mitigate lack of sleep because of stress or anxiety 12.

Key Takeaways

  • Anxiety disorders and excessive stress often co-occur with sleep disorders like insomnia.
  • Lack of sleep causes impaired emotional regulation, increased stress hormones like cortisol, and brain changes that worsen anxiety.
  • Tips like following a bedtime routine, limiting caffeine, and reducing screen time before bed can improve sleep.
  • Treatment options like therapy, sleep medication, or anti-anxiety medication may be needed in some cases.
  • Getting enough deep, uninterrupted sleep is crucial for mental health and the ability to cope with anxiety.

Sleep and anxiety impact each other in a vicious cycle. The Sleep Foundation reports that about 50% of adults with anxiety disorders also have insomnia. Anxiety causes hyperarousal and intrusive thoughts that make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. The lack of sleep then further elevates stress hormones and worsens mood.

Research shows that lack of sleep is linked to increased symptoms of anxiety, irritability, difficulties with focus and memory, and emotional reactivity. Sleep deprivation also activates the areas of the brain tied to excessive worrying, panic attacks, fear, and anxiety.

How Anxiety Disrupts Sleep

People prone to anxiety often experience racing thoughts, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, and nervous system arousal that makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and panic disorder involve excessive worrying and physical symptoms of anxiety that keep the mind and body activated. This heightened arousal at bedtime interferes with the ability to relax into sleep.

The anxious thoughts and constant noise of worry and rumination make it challenging to quiet the mind. Anxiety creates a state of hypervigilance that prevents the nervous system from settling into sleep.

Lack of Sleep Causes Anxiety and Worsens Symptoms

Just as anxiety disrupts sleep, poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation also exacerbate anxiety. Studies show that lack of deep, restorative sleep impairs your brain’s ability to properly regulate emotions.

When you’re sleep-deprived, even small stressors can feel unmanageable. You’re more emotionally reactive, prone to negative thought patterns, and less equipped to cope with feelings of anxiety or stressful situations.

How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety
How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety

Sleep loss also elevates levels of cortisol and adrenaline — your body’s stress hormones. High cortisol levels create a biochemical state of excess anxiety.

Brain imaging scans show that lack of sleep activates the areas of your brain associated with anxiety, fear, and emotional reactivity while decreasing activity in the prefrontal cortex which handles rational thought and decision-making.

In essence, skimping on sleep sets you up for a fight-or-flight state of mind where anxiety thrives.

Other Effects of Sleep Loss on Mental Health:

  • Impaired cognitive function, focus, memory
  • Heightened sensitivity and emotional reactivity
  • Worsening of depression symptoms
  • Increased irritability and proneness to outbursts
  • Difficulty coping with stress and regulating emotions

Tips for Better Sleep to Lessen Anxiety

If you struggle with stress, anxiety, or an anxiety disorder, focus on developing good sleep habits. Getting enough uninterrupted, high-quality sleep in a pitch-dark setting makes a big difference. Here are some tips for minimizing anxiety and improving sleep:

Environmental Adjustments:

  • Darkening the Room: The benefits of using blackout curtains or blinds.
  • Eliminating Noise: The advantage of a quiet environment or considering earplugs.
  • White Noise Machines: How consistent sounds can mask disruptive noises.
  • Sleeping Cooler: The science behind optimal sleep temperatures.
  • Sleep Masks: Why they can be beneficial, especially in urban settings.
Sleep masks
Sleep masks

Synchronizing with Nature:

  • Avoid screens before bed. The blue light emitted from phones, tablets, computers, and TVs is very stimulating for your brain. This tricks your body into thinking it’s still daytime, suppressing melatonin production and shifting your circadian rhythm later. Try to avoid using screens 1-2 hours before bedtime. If you must use them, enable Night Shift or blue light filter settings. The stimulation from screens makes it much harder for your mind to unwind. Read a book or listen to calm music instead.
  • Stick to a sleep/wake schedule. Keeping your wake-up time consistent, even on weekends, is vital for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. When you sleep and wake at different times each day, it confuses your body’s internal clock. This contributes to insomnia and sleep disorders over time. Pick a wake-up time you can stick to daily and go to bed at a consistent time to allow for your ideal hours of sleep. Consistency trains your brain and internal clock for better sleep regulation.
  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine. The 90 minutes before bedtime set the stage for how easily you’ll fall asleep. Having a relaxing routine is key. Options like a warm bath, light stretches, meditation or calming music promote deep relaxation. Dim lighting starts the release of sleepiness-inducing melatonin. Reading fiction or listening to a sleep meditation keeps your mind from racing or worrying. Being consistent nightly conditions your body to become drowsy and ready for bed at the same time daily.

Dietary Adjustments:

  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and big meals before bed. Consuming caffeine, alcohol, heavy or spicy foods too close to bedtime can negatively impact sleep quality. Caffeine’s stimulant effect makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Heavy foods can cause indigestion that disrupts sleep. Alcohol helps induce faster sleep onset but causes more nighttime awakenings later as the alcohol wears off. For better rest, limit these items to at least 4-6 hours before bedtime. Light snacks like turkey, bananas, chamomile tea, and foods rich in tryptophan can help induce drowsiness.
  • Sleep-promoting Foods. Certain foods and drinks contain compounds and nutrients that can help boost the production of sleep hormones like melatonin and serotonin. Tart cherry juice contains melatonin that helps regulate circadian rhythm. Chamomile tea has apigenin, an antioxidant that induces drowsiness. Foods rich in tryptophan like turkey, nuts, seeds, and legumes can increase serotonin and melatonin levels. A light snack with these sleep-promoting foods 30-60 minutes before bedtime can help induce a relaxed, sleepy state without causing indigestion or jolts of energy.

Setting Yourself Up For Success:

  • Start a worry journal. Writing down your worries, to-dos, and intrusive thoughts earlier in the day can help clear your mind before bedtime. If you know there’s a place to capture these thoughts for later processing, you won’t feel the need to ruminate on them when trying to sleep. Schedule 15 minutes in the late afternoon or early evening to journal. List everything on your mind, then close the journal and mentally set those thoughts aside until the next worry session.
  • Use relaxation techniquesWhen feeling anxious or stressed at bedtime, practice relaxation techniques to calm your nervous system. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, and visualization exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This triggers biochemical changes that lower heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. Regularly using these techniques conditions your body to relax more easily. Guided meditations are also very effective for quieting racing thoughts at night.
  • Exercise during the day. Getting in 20-30 minutes of exercise daily can significantly reduce anxiety levels and improve sleep quality. However, vigorous late-night workouts can over-stimulate your body, making it harder to fall asleep. Aim for morning or afternoon moderate-intensity exercise like walking, yoga, swimming, cycling, or light strength training. Moving your body releases endorphins and serotonin which improve mood while also expending energy to enable deeper rest at night.

When to Seek Help

If you try good sleep hygiene and anti-anxiety strategies but are still struggling with sleep and heightened anxiety, consult your doctor or a sleep specialist. They may recommend CBT-I (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia), sleep medication, or anti-anxiety medication.

For anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and OCD, therapy and psychiatric treatment are often needed to address the root causes. Work closely with your mental health providers to find relief. Getting good sleep makes it much easier to manage anxiety disorders and lessen symptoms.

Sleep Medications and Anxiety

Sleeping pills can help in the short term but risk dependence and impaired cognition. They should be used with caution under medical guidance.

Anti-anxiety medications that act as sedatives like benzodiazepines have sedative effects that can improve sleep. But these also have downsides like daytime grogginess or dependence.

Natural sleep aids like melatonin, magnesium, theanine, glycine and chamomile have fewer risks and can help mildly improve sleep quality. Under medical guidance, some combinations may be helpful for anxiety-related insomnia. But consult your doctor before starting any new supplements.


Our ability to manage emotions, handle stressors, and minimize anxiety is greatly impacted by the quantity and quality of our sleep. Getting enough uninterrupted nightly sleep allows the brain to recharge and function optimally.

The connection between anxiety and sleep might seem intricate, but with knowledge and actionable steps, peaceful nights are within reach. Remember, tackling sleep problems isn’t just about rest; it’s about holistic well-being.

If you are sleeping well already, you may want to check out our guides on other coping mechanisms such as Relaxation TechniquesTime ManagementBreathing Techniques or Cold Exposure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can lack of sleep cause panic attacks?

Yes, lack of sleep can cause panic attacks. In fact, one study found sleep disruption is often a triggering factor for panic attacks. This is particularly present in people with anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

What’s the relationship between anxiety and sleep deprivation?

Anxiety and sleep deprivation often have a reciprocal relationship. Anxiety can lead to sleep deprivation, as the symptoms of anxiety (including racing thoughts and worry) can make it harder to sleep. Conversely, lack of sleep doesn’t just cause physical tiredness. It can also increase feelings of stress and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.

Can panic attacks disrupt my night’s sleep?

Yes, panic attacks can disrupt your sleep. Individuals with panic disorder often experience panic attacks during the initial stages of falling asleep or during REM sleep, causing a disruption in their sleep pattern and preventing much-needed rest.

If your lack of sleep is caused by stress and anxiety, it is crucial to work on managing these issues. This can include lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and a healthy diet, implementing a consistent sleep schedule, and potentially seeking help with anxiety through therapy or medication. The Depression Association of America offers resources for managing anxiety disorders.

Does anxiety disorder have a significant impact on sleep duration?

Yes, anxiety disorder can significantly impact sleep duration. People with anxiety disorders tend to have lighter, less restful sleep, may find it challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep, and generally experience sleep disturbance regularly. These issues can lead to a significant decrease in sleep duration.


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  2. Stress and Insomnia | Sleep Foundation[]
Alex Reijnierse
Alex Reijnierse

Alex Reijnierse is a stress management expert with over a decade of experience in helping individuals effectively manage and reduce stress. He holds a Master of Science (MSc) and has a background in high-pressure environments, which has given him firsthand experience in dealing with chronic stress.