Sleep apnea is a common problem affecting millions of Americans and millions more around the world. What makes apnea even more interesting is that over 50% of those with apnea remain undiagnosed, leading to millions of people not only with poor sleep, but also with anxiety.
Sleep apnea isn't generally considered a cause for anxiety, but apnea can actually lead to several issues that may create or contribute to anxiety symptoms.
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Apnea alone rarely leads to anxiety itself. Learn more about your anxiety by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test now. The test is a great way to get a snapshot of your symptoms and learn the next steps to treating them.
How Apnea Causes Anxiety
While apnea can cause anxiety, it's more common for apnea to make current anxiety worse. If you haven't taken my anxiety test yet you should do so now. Many people that suffer from both apnea and anxiety find that the problems that apnea creates contribute to further anxiety symptoms in a way that can be extremely stressful.
Recall that apnea is when the fat and tissues in the neck get weak when you sleep and block your airways in a way that prevents you from breathing - sometimes for as long as 30 seconds or more. Your body wakes you up as a result. Some people wake up with severe stress, but others wake up so little that they never remember waking up, falling right back asleep. It's the latter that often never finds out that they have apnea.
The following are a few of the ways that apnea and anxiety interact:
- Nighttime Panic Attacks Panic attacks are attacks of anxiety that have such severe physical symptoms they can feel like heart attacks. As sudden as these can occur, they're still the result of thought - so they rarely happen when you sleep, because your mind isn't on your body. Those with sleep apnea though may have nighttime panic attacks, because they're jolted awake by the apnea and reacting quickly to the symptoms.
- Sleep Debt Sleep debt is a major problem. Sleep recharges your ability to naturally cope with anxiety and stress, and long term sleep deprivation can lead to physical symptoms that may create anxiety on their own, such as feeling as though you're on edge, weak, or lightheaded. Sleep debt also can create acid reflux symptoms which are known to cause anxiety attacks, and may contribute to significant long term physical stress - something that is known to cause anxiety.
- Trouble Concentrating Finally, apnea and sleep loss can create their own issues going through your day. It's harder to be active, it's harder to be happy, it's harder to concentrate, and it's harder to meet goals. Sleep loss can become a serious problem, especially when it occurs slowly over an extended period of time in such a way that the person may not even realize it's happening.
The specific physical symptoms of apnea may also contribute to anxiety. Sleep apnea causes extremely poor sleep quality, and without a restful night's sleep your body will often massively struggle to deal with stress.
The Other Relationships Between Apnea and Anxiety
It's also important to realize that apnea and anxiety may be two symptoms of a larger problem - obesity. Those that have gained a lot of weight are far more prone to suffering from sleep apnea and anxiety. Apnea is the result of weight gain and inactivity, while anxiety can be caused by poor nutrition, inactivity, and trouble with handling physical stress - all of which are anxiety problems.
That's why it's important to realize that even if apnea appears to be causing your anxiety, the two are often still separate issues. It's important that you address them separately even if you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
How to Overcome Apnea Caused Anxiety
Because sleep apnea is a problematic health issue, you'll need to make sure that you address your apnea in addition to your anxiety. Talk to your doctor about healthy methods of losing weight, and see if there are any strategies that they can recommend to reduce the apnea symptoms.
Sleep deprivation causes so much distress to your body that unless you find a way to successfully fight your apnea you're going to have problems reducing your anxiety. But you should also do more than just address your apnea, because in all likelihood your anxiety is still its own unique problem.
I've worked with many people suffering from apnea helping them overcome their anxiety issues. In order to get started, take my free 7 minute anxiety test. It will compare your anxiety to others and give you specific recommendations for treatment based on your symptoms.
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Kjelsberg, Frank N., Espen A. Ruud, and Knut Stavem. Predictors of symptoms of anxiety and depression in obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep Medicine 6.4 (2005): 341-346.
Sanchez, Ana Isabel, et al. The effects of continuous positive air pressure treatment on anxiety and depression levels in apnea patients. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences 55.6 (2001): 641-646.
Edlund, Matthew J., M. Eileen McNamara, and Richard P. Millman. Sleep apnea and panic attacks. Comprehensive psychiatry 32.2 (1991): 130-132.
Craske, Michelle G., and Jennie CI Tsao. Assessment and treatment of nocturnal panic attacks. Sleep Medicine Reviews 9.3 (2005): 173-184.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.