Written By: Dan Dowling

Quick Takeaways

  • Anxiety and sleep issues affect over a third of the world’s population.
  • Anxiety causes sleep disturbances, and poor sleep causes anxiety – it’s a cycle.
  • Some anxiety can be a good thing, however, chronic anxiety is like an alarm system that never shuts off.
  • An overactive sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system promotes anxiety while the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” promotes sleep.
  • Simple activities like bright light exposure and deep breathing can prevent anxiety while enhancing sleep.

Anxiety and sleep issues often go hand in hand. As one increases, so does the other – much to our frustration. A night spent tossing and turning leads to more anxiety the next day, and this anxiety, if left unchecked, can cause a fitful night’s sleep.

You’ve probably experienced this anxiety-stress relationship, if not frequently. Almost 20% of people experience persistent anxiety that regularly disrupts their sleep patterns. And, because of the pandemic, sleep issues now affect up to 35% of the global population.

With health and financial concerns considered, the anxiety figure could well be higher.

So how do we get a good night’s sleep and better manage stress and anxiety when life gets hectic? The first step is to learn about what anxiety is, and the relationship between anxiety and sleep. 

(Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered with several action steps, too.)

What is Anxiety? 

Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and apprehension about particular stressors or life generally. 

Everyone experiences anxiety on a daily basis, to some degree. But whether that anxiety interferes with your life (and sleep) depends on the size and duration of a stressor, your nutritional and overall health, and your perceived ability to handle stress.   

In the Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, MD Luc Staner described anxiety as an “internal alarm that warns of potential danger.” For non-severe cases, this anxiety is useful and helps us navigate life, he says. But untreated anxiety is like an alarm system that never shuts off, only causing more stress. Looming threats, irrational fears, and daily worries all add up to an increased state of arousal. And arousal prevents your body from relaxing and falling asleep. It’s no surprise, then, that sleep disturbance is one of the many symptoms of anxiety. 

Signs of anxiety:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Difficulty in controlling worry
  • Irritability 
  • Excessive worry or apprehension more days than not for at least six months
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating, or mind going blank
  • Muscle tension

Depression increases the risk of anxiety. Also, low self-esteem and disturbed family environments are anxiety risk factors.

The Science Behind the Sleep and Anxiety Cycle

Sleep and anxiety are caught up in a zero-sum game with each other. As one increases, the other has to recede. This is because sleep and anxiety are located on polar opposite branches of the autonomic nervous system:

  • Sleep is a behavior of the parasympathetic nervous system – rest and digest. 
  • Anxiety engages the sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight. 

Whether you’re stressing about traffic or a deadline at work, your amygdala (the primitive brain) responds with a distress signal as if you were being physically threatened by a lion. This triggers the release of fight-or-flight hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

Your heart rate and respiration increase. Your senses sharpen. And your ability to sleep disappears.

The rest-and-digest system acts as a brake to the sympathetic nervous system. Once a perceived threat is either eliminated or evaded, the rest-and-digest kicks in and stimulates the release of acetylcholine, which slows down the heart and reverses the excitement of adrenal hormones.

But with chronic anxiety, your perceived threat may never fully disappear because it’s in your mind. So even if you want to sleep, your body continues to sound the alarm and ramps up to fend off a predator. 

Sleep, on the other hand, has a limiting effect on anxiety.

According to a clinical trial published in the American Journal of Hypertension, not getting enough sleep has been correlated with high blood pressure and increased fight-or-flight activity. A lack of sleep is associated with more activity in the amygdala, which is the anxiety-inducing part of the brain. And getting enough sleep has been observed to reduce social isolation, one of the gravest causes of anxiety.

If acetylcholine is the parasympathetic hormone, then sleep is the parasympathetic activity. 

The connection between sleep and anxiety is more nuanced and complex than this article can hope to convey, but now that you have an idea of the interplay, let’s get into the ways you can reduce anxiety and improve your sleep quality.

5 Ways to Reduce Anxiety and Improve Sleep

1. Bright light exposure

Bright light exposure is a quick way to bolster your circadian rhythm while accessing instant mental health benefits. Getting bright light exposure (ideally the sun) for thirty minutes to an hour each morning helps reset the suprachiasmatic nucleus, your body’s master clock. This ensures that your wakeful hours are alert and your rest-and-relax hormones are primed when it’s time for bed. 

(Reducing bright light exposure at night can be just as helpful for sleep and anxiety, so try cutting off phone and computer time a couple hours before sleep.)

2. Deep breathing

Want to know the fastest rest-and-digest hack? You’re already doing it. Okay, maybe you’re just regular breathing – but deep, diaphragmatic breathing works in at least a couple of ways. 

First, you can’t ruminate on anxious thoughts when you’re focused on breathing as deeply as you can. Second, the act of pushing out your diaphragm while inhaling and relaxing it on the exhale stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the PNS.

Try practicing 10 deep, diaphragmatic breaths before bed to fall asleep faster, and 6 any time you feel anxiety coming on.

3. Write your to-dos before bed

People generally know that journaling before bed is good for sleep. But writing down a very specific to-do list works even better, scientifically speaking.

A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General showed that participants who wrote a to-do list for the next day fell asleep faster than those who journaled about what they accomplished and that more specific to-dos resulted in faster sleep onset. 

Researchers recommended writing down the next day’s tasks for five minutes at bedtime.

4. Don’t hyperfocus on your daily Sleep Score

Similar to a person weighing themselves too frequently and getting anxious over small fluctuations, putting too much stock in your Sleep Score can result in more anxious thought patterns and a nocebo effect.

The nocebo effect is placebo in reverse: you expect a bad outcome, and you get a bad result.

The better option is to focus more on the overall trend of your scores (macro) and not put your hopes and dreams into one night’s worth of data (micro).

5. Replace an alcoholic drink with a cup of Kava 

Drinking alcohol before bed makes you feel drowsy, but it’ll actually impair your deep sleep and refreshment upon waking. Alcohol even depletes magnesium, which can be a cause of anxiety and sleeplessness itself.

Before you give up hope on happy evening routines, though, consider Kava.

This root-based beverage (and supplement) has its origins in the southwestern Pacific islands, and it’s been studied as a potent anxiety reducer.

Whatever you decide to try, just know that anxiety and sleep issues are not beyond your control. You’re only an adjustment or two away from calmer days and more restful nights. 

Oura Ring products and services are not medical devices and are not intended to mitigate, prevent, treat, cure or diagnose any disease or condition. Oura’s insights are suggestions based upon your data, and shouldn’t be substituted for medical advice or prevent you from taking a holistic view of your overall health. If you have any concerns about your health, please consult your doctor.

About the Author

Dan Dowling is a health and fitness expert based in Albuquerque, NM. A biohacker-turned-writer, Dan cured two years of insomnia with time-restricted eating and beat chronic fatigue with essential amino acids and B3.


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