It's said so often it has become cliche, but the truth is that the mind and body are genuinely connected. The way your body feels affects the way your mind feels, and vice versa.
That's why one of the most important tools for fighting anxiety is sleep, and that's also why not getting enough sleep for multiple days in a row also known as "sleep debt" can be a serious problem for those living with anxiety and anxiety disorders.
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Sleep Debt Can Cause Unusual Anxiety Problems
Sleep debt can cause anxiety even in those that do not experience anxiety regularly. When you don't get enough sleep, several issues affect your body that can ultimately lead to trouble with anxiety and stress. But sleep debt tends to affect those that already have anxiety the most and makes it harder to cope with symptoms.
If you believe you have anxiety with or without sleep deprivation, take my free anxiety test now. It will compare your anxiety to others and give you background on its causes and treatments.
The Causes of Anxiety From Sleep Deprivation
What's most interesting about sleep debt is that it doesn't just cause anxiety in one way. It causes countless different issues that can all lead to an increase in your overall anxiety symptoms. Just some of the causes include:
The most important cause is simply stress on your body. But it's not just stress created by sleep debt. It's also the inability of your body to relieve the stresses of the day during sleep.
Sleep is where your body repairs itself and relaxes the muscle tensions and other issues that are created by stress. Without sleep, that stress starts to build up, which can lead to further issues coping with stress the next day.
Remember, the mind and body connection is very real, and research has confirmed that stress on the body leads to stressful thoughts. So it's no surprise that when your body doesn't have an opportunity to heal, that stress starts to build up dramatically.
It's not just body stress either. Studies have shown that those that are sleep deprived often have significant brain "dysfunctions" that can cause further anxiety. In fact, extreme sleep deprivation can cause the brain to start hallucinating, and experiencing many symptoms (both mental and emotional) that mimic paranoid schizophrenia.
The reason this occurs is not entirely clear, but it is believed that during sleep the brain regenerates neurons that affect various areas of thought, emotion, and health. When you don't sleep, these neurons do not regenerate, and in some cases stop firing altogether. Scientists found that some areas of the brain like the entire temporal lobe simply turn off when the brain doesn't receive enough sleep.
That type of reaction likely causes two issues with regards to anxiety and sleep. First, it's very likely that some part of the brain that controls coping turns off. Second, it also increases the likelihood that your brain experiences more generic stress and tension from working hard to compensate for the parts of the brain that shut down, and stress on the brain does lead to anxiety.
Sleep also affects hormonal levels. Your body is able to regulate hormones both during sleep and when your body is healthiest (which occurs only after you experience enough sleep), and when you become more sleep deprived you increase the risk of developing unbalanced hormones, which in turn affect your overall anxiety levels.
When the body doesn't get enough sleep, it can have some very unusual physical symptoms. You may find that your nerves seem to fire in weird ways, your legs and arms may tingle at different times, you may get headaches or back aches, and you may find that you experience weird pains and sensations in different parts of your body.
For those with anxiety especially those with panic attacks this can be extremely stressful. Physical symptoms often mimic more serious diseases, and those with anxiety have a tendency to feel the worst when they've racked up sleep debt.
This is especially problematic for those that are getting "some" sleep and feel fairly rested, but aren't getting enough sleep and are increasing their "sleep debt." They may have the cognitive functioning of those that got sleep, but their body is still reacting like they did not, causing those with panic attacks to experience fear over health issues.
The brain has a quality known as "anticipatory anxiety," which is a natural type of anxiety that occurs when the brain is "ready" to have anxiety in different situations. Studies showed that those with sleep debt, and especially those that already suffered from anxiety, tended to have more an increase in anticipatory anxiety which lead to an increase in actual anxiety when confronted with stress.
Stress Over Lack of Sleep
Sometimes the issues with anxiety are not even that complex. One common issue for those with sleep debt is stress over the fact that they're not getting enough sleep. Often people will stay awake at night angry at themselves or stressed over their lack of sleep, and since anxiety is cumulative, any added stress can lead to further issues dealing with anxiety even if it is self-inflicted.
Chronic Elevated Levels of Adrenaline
Finally, one of the things that we know about anxiety is that it can be caused by chronic adrenaline release. The body, for whatever reason, seems to release adrenaline too quickly and too easily even when there is no stress present, and this rush of adrenaline causes the entire body to be on edge and ultimately leads to anxiety symptoms.
So what's interesting is that scientists have shown that those with sleep debt often have chronically elevated levels of adrenaline. That means that when you don't get enough sleep, adrenaline starts to course through your veins more often. For those without anxiety this may not be too big a problem, but those with anxiety are likely to interpret the adrenaline poorly, and thus experience an increase in overall anxiety levels.
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Anxiety Can Lead to Sleep Debt
One of the "Catch-22s" of sleep debt anxiety is that it's not uncommon for the anxiety caused by sleep debt to lead to further sleep issues. Many people struggle to sleep with anxiety, and unfortunately even when that anxiety is caused by a lack of sleep it can be hard to turn off your brain and get rest. This is entirely normal, and something that you can reduce if you take my anxiety test and learn to control your anxiety.
But keep this in mind when you're going to sleep. If you have anxiety because of sleep debt and it disrupts your sleep causing more sleep debt, you're not alone. This problem affects millions of those with sleep deprivation, and is something you will learn to work on in the future as you start to address both your sleep and your anxiety issues.
How to Stop Sleep Debt Related Anxiety
When sleep debt causes or contributes to anxiety, the solution is simple: get more sleep. If you're able to go to sleep earlier then you can solve the problem by simply taking it upon yourself to get sleep whenever possible, and allowing that sleep to refresh your body.
Don't expect this to stop your anxiety right away. Sleep debt issues tend to linger, and you may need to have a good night's sleep for a few weeks in a row if you want to fully recover. But if you can get to sleep, it's your responsibility to start going to bed earlier, otherwise the anxiety will not go away.
For those who can't seem to get enough sleep and find that their sleep deprivation anxiety causes them to continue struggling to rest, here are several techniques you can try:
Often when anxiety keeps you awake it's because you have a thought in your head that cannot seem to escape. It may not be a stressful thought, but it's something you focus on that you can't stop focusing on, and it ultimately keeps you awake. One strategy is to write out these thoughts in a journal near your bed. This technique tells your brain it's okay to forget your stressful thought because it's in a permanent place. Some people find this strategy calms their active minds down a bit.
When you struggle with stress and sleep for a long enough period of time, your bed may stop representing the comfortable place that it represented in the past. It may instead become associated with stress, and so you need to try your best to break the association. One way to do this is to take a break from your bed. Find another place to sleep like a couch or comfy chair, and sleep there for a while until you're comfortable enough to go back to bed.
Long, annoying, and boring pre-sleep routines can be valuable. For at least 30 minutes before bed, turn off all bright lights and technology and do something slow and boring around the house. Make sure you do the same things every day until they develop into a "routine." After a few weeks, your mind will get used to the idea that that routine means you're about to go to sleep, and you should find some relaxation in the process.
Many people with anxiety find very mild distractions to be helpful at shutting off their brain and going to sleep. An example that you can try is using some type of smartphone or computer to download podcasts you're not interested in listening to, and then turning on these podcasts before bed at a volume low enough that you can make out a few words if you listen closely, but otherwise the volume is too quiet to listen to. This type of noise can be mentally distracting, which is useful for blocking out unwanted thoughts that may keep you awake.
Tackle Anxiety First
You do need to try your best to get more sleep, because sleep debt can cause anxiety even in those that do not have an anxiety disorder. But if anxiety and stress are keeping you awake or if you already had an anxiety issue that sleep debt makes worse, then reducing your anxiety can be one of the best ways to solve it.
I've helped thousands of people with sleep debt anxiety control their anxiety forever. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test. The test will teach you more about your anxiety and provide you with a recommendation for how best to treat it.
Thomas, Maria, et al. Neural basis of alertness and cognitive performance impairments during sleepiness. I. Effects of 24 h of sleep deprivation on waking human regional brain activity. Journal of sleep research 9.4 (2008): 335-352.
McEwen, Bruce S. Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: allostasis and allostatic load. Metabolism 55 (2006): S20-S23.
Roy-Byrne, Peter P., Thomas W. Uhde, and Robert M. Post. Effects of one night's sleep deprivation on mood and behavior in panic disorder: Patients with panic disorder compared with depressed patients and normal controls. Archives of General Psychiatry 43.9 (1986): 895.