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Can Anxiety Cause Sleep Apnea?

Denise Griswold, MSc, LCAS
Can Anxiety Cause Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a significant sleep disorder, and one that can actually hurt your health. Those that suffer from sleep apnea rarely even realize that they have this disturbance, although some end up waking up in the middle of the night with severe panic attacks.

Some of the causes of sleep apnea are known. Others are much less clear. Many people have wondered in the past if sleep apnea may be a symptom of anxiety. We'll explore that idea in this article.

Anxiety and Sleep Apnea

Anxiety does cause many physical symptoms, and some of those symptoms do occur while you sleep. From tooth grinding to muscle tension to nighttime anxiety, there are countless examples of physical symptoms that affect you while you sleep, so it's possible that sleep apnea is one of them. 

According to most available research, it's unlikely that anxiety causes sleep apnea. There have been some studies in the past that have linked apnea to a stress response, so it's possible that there is some small link between anxiety (which causes stress) and the development of sleep apnea, but it appears to be unlikely.

Why Do Many People With Anxiety Have Sleep Apnea?

You should first find out if you even have sleep apnea. Make sure you're not self-diagnosing. People wake up in the middle of the night for a variety of reasons. Sleep apnea is a very specific condition, and not something that you can easily diagnose on your own.

Sleep apnea can actually cause significant anxiety and panic attacks. It interrupts sleep and leads to sleep debt, which makes it harder for the brain to cope with stress. It also causes stress on the mind and body because apnea prevents you from recovering after sleep. Your heart and blood pressure may also be affected, leading to additional physical symptoms. Apnea can cause anxiety, and increase anxiety in those that already have it.

Some research has theorized that anxiety may cause sleep apnea to be worse as well, although it's not entirely clear why and few studies have actually provided such a link.

Some people may develop nighttime panic attacks as a result of their sleep apnea as well. These panic attacks are often triggered by the way the heart reacts to the breathing problems sleep apnea causes. It's not uncommon to feel like your panic attacks are causing that apnea, when in fact it's the other way around.

Recognizing Apnea and Anxiety Link

So it doesn't appear that sleep apnea is caused by stress or anxiety. It should be noted that very few studies have tried to link the two conditions, and because sleep apnea is known to cause anxiety it's difficult for researchers to determine which came first.

It's clear that apnea is a very common cause of panic attacks and anxiety. It's also known that anxiety can affect the body in many different ways, as well as react poorly to the effects of apnea. Rather than consider the two similar conditions, they should be treated separately where you will follow your doctor's advice to treat your apnea and make sure you're committed to a long term treatment option for anxiety.

Article Resources
  1. Andrews, Jonathan G., and Tian PS Oei. The roles of depression and anxiety in the understanding and treatment of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome . Clinical psychology review 24.8 (2004): 1031-1049.
  2. Saunamki, Tiia, and Mervi Jehkonen. Depression and anxiety in obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: a review . Acta Neurologica Scandinavica 116.5 (2007): 277-288.
  3. 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.
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