We all have our poor sleep horror stories; that night before a presentation when our minds were racing too quickly to let us nod off, or the time we went to a party we’d been anticipating for weeks, only to find ourselves too exhausted to enjoy it. Like bad weather, blemishes, and other unpleasantries, poor sleep is an occasional and inevitable part of life.
Yet for those with mental health concerns, that “occasional” aspect can become chronic. Instead of just struggling to doze off once in a while, people with psychological disorders often also suffer from sleep disorders that affect their daily (and nightly) experiences.
This can be particularly problematic for individuals coping with anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As therapist Elizabeth Tschoegl, LICSW, MSc explains, “anxiety interferes with sleep in any number of ways, from trouble falling asleep, to restlessness during sleep, to waking up in the middle of the night with panic, and more.” As if those interferences aren’t enough, they may increase your general anxiety around falling or staying asleep, making it that much harder to get some much needed rest.
Statistics back up the connection between anxiety and sleep trouble. According to the Cleveland Clinic, over 50 percent of people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are found to have sleep disorders such as insomnia and nocturnal panic attacks. Likewise, a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that severe insomnia is 24.9 – 45.5 percent more prevalent in those with anxiety disorders than in the general population. It hardly seems fair that people should have to deal with sleep and anxiety issues simultaneously, but the two problems have a high rate of comorbidity (simultaneous occurrence).
This comorbidity warrants attention because of the short and long-term threats it poses to personal health and functioning. Unsurprisingly, school and office work tend to suffer as a result of disturbed slumber, putting one’s education and career at risk and jeopardizing their productivity, potential for advancement, and professional alliances. Sleep disorders have also been connected with serious physiological issues; increased risk of injury, heart failure, stroke, and diabetes are just a few of the risks posed by chronic sleep problems.
It’s a relief, then, that those with anxiety and sleep troubles aren’t helpless when it comes to combating their problems. In fact, there are a variety of methods one can pursue to improve their quality of rest.
One simple, cost-free solution is to incorporate calming breathing exercises into your nightly routine. Focusing on your breath can lower your heart rate, calming your system and making it easier to relax. Breathing exercises have also been found to decrease anxiety, which can keep our thoughts racing before bed, and lower our blood pressure. We recommend trying out one of the five breathing exercises demonstrated here.
Of course, when sleep problems are linked with mental health issues, working with a therapist with experience in sleep complications is a smart move. One great modality for sleep or fatigue related issues is neurofeedback, during which you and your clinician will train your brain to engage in healthier behavioral patterns. If you have issues with hypersomnolence (being overly sleepy), you can work on rewarding neurological behavior that promotes energy and alertness; if your issue is the inability to settle down, neurofeedback can reward your brain for calming activity. Through the receipt of stimulating rewards, your brain will learn to repeat the desired patterns and alter its behavior. Mindfulness meditation is another great modality for those looking for techniques to help them center themselves before bed.
Sometimes, soothing your nighttime anxiety is as simple as practicing good sleep hygiene. Tschoegl recommends managing your worry with the following tricks: turn off electric devices 2-3 hours before bed and remove them from your bedroom; create calming rituals like a warm cup of tea or a warm bath to start relaxing your body and brain before sleep; and/or practice a relaxing activity like meditation or yoga nidra before bed.
What if your problem isn’t getting to sleep, but staying asleep? “If anxiety wakes you and you are having trouble getting back to sleep, get out of bed,” Tschoegl advises. “Go to another room, preferably keeping the lights low, and distract yourself by reading, meditating, and deep breathing. As best you can, resist the temptation to look at the clock, as that will only feed your anxiety.”
What tricks help you get a good night’s rest? Are you struggling with any issues we didn’t cover? As always, we look forward to discussing this with you via Twitter. In the meantime, you can find information on the work our brains do while we sleep, improving your summer sleep schedule, and maximizing rest on a busy schedule in our blog archives.