Anxiety and sleep directly impact one another and can easily spiral. Not getting enough quality sleep can make anxiety symptoms worse, and experiencing anxiety before bed can keep us up with wide eyes, unable to sleep.
Trying to fall asleep with intrusive thoughts is no easy task. When we are anxious, our body is in stress mode, making it very difficult to rest and recover. However, sleep offers some really important restorative qualities to the body and the mind. Getting enough quality sleep can regulate our mood, balance our hormones, consolidate our memories and so, so much more.
For those of us who experience anxiety, sleep can be a tool we use to manage and reduce symptoms. However, for many of us, our sleep routine has been morphed into another moment in the day when the ruminating thoughts can reappear.
In this article, we’re going to explore some ways in which you can start to improve the relationship between sleep and anxiety.
Why do we experience Anxiety?
First things first, why do we experience anxiety? What purpose does it serve?
Anxiety is a type of stress disorder. We experience stress as a survival trait. When we see a bear that could attack us, our sympathetic nervous system responds, otherwise known as fight, flight, freeze. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, our breath becomes rapid and shallow. The body physically responds to stress to protect us from the perceived danger.
When we experience chronic stress, with no relief for long periods of time, staying in a heightened state of stress, we can start to experience stress disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Essentially, we need to experience stress and anxiety for survival, however, in the modern-day, the type of stress we experience on a daily basis isn’t stress for survival, it’s stress from work, stress from arguing with a loved one, stress from home life. The body doesn’t recognize the difference, it will respond to stress as if it was a life or death situation because survival is a human instinct.
Thankfully, the body has its own built-in mechanisms to be able to communicate if the perceived danger is in fact not survival stress.
Leveraging our breath
If we think about what happens to our breath when stressed or anxious, we might describe the breath as short, rapid, and shallow. When we’re calm and relaxed, we might describe the breath as being long, slow, and deep.
Just as the breath can inform us as to how we’re feeling, we can also influence how we respond to a situation by leveraging our breath.
If we have time to take intentional, deep breaths, the body can recognize this action as meaning we are in a safe environment; if we have time to breathe deeply, we likely aren’t being chased by a bear. When we breathe deeply, the body sends messages to the brain’s fear center to let it know to activate our parasympathetic response, otherwise known as rest and digest.
The balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system
We’re good at the things we do often, which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but the same goes for the way our body responds to situations.
If we typically respond to stressful situations with a sympathetic response, and we get that sympathetic response multiple times a day, the body’s going to get really good at activating that response and staying in that heightened state of stress.
If we frequently and consistently activate a parasympathetic response throughout the day, the body will get really good at activating the parasympathetic response and staying in that relaxed, calm state.
When we suffer from anxiety, the body is frequently in a sympathetic response. What we want to aim to do is to train our parasympathetic response to help the body get better at getting into and staying in this response.
One of the moments that anxiety can be super loud is in bed just as we try to fall asleep, so we’re going to look at a couple of exercises you can do in bed to trigger that parasympathetic response.
Breathing in Bed
We can practice this deep breathing exercise anywhere at any time. To help calm the anxious mind before sleeping, get into bed and get comfy.
Place your left hand on your stomach and your right hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in through the nose, and a long, deep breath out through the mouth. Take a couple of deep breaths in through the nose, and out through the mouth.
Keep as much ease in the breath as possible, keep the shoulders and arms relaxed. You may notice your left or right hand rising and falling with each deep breath you take. Maybe only one hand is moving. Continuing to breathe deeply, now in and out through the nose, bring your focus to the movement of the breath in your body. Notice your hands moving as your stomach and lungs fill with breath.
If the anxious mind is racing, as it frequently is just before bed, you can introduce a mantra into this exercise. A mantra is something you can repeat in the mind that is inherently good. Something that you’d like to invite into your life. A quality of mind that you’d like to adopt. For example: As you inhale, thinking ‘I am worthy’ and as you exhale, thinking ‘I am enough’.
Notice how you feel as you say these words to yourself, with each inhale, ‘I am worthy’, with each exhale, ‘I am enough’. It’s okay to feel silly when you repeat a mantra, just notice how you feel knowing that there are no right or wrong answers. If you have your own mantra you’d like to adopt, make sure it’s always a positive one that offers you encouragement or compliments.
You can practice this deep breathing for as little as 2 minutes before starting to feel the calming effects. Practice for as long as you need before going to sleep.
Keep in Mind
To benefit from all of sleep’s restorative qualities, adults need to be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We have four different sleep stages while we sleep that we should cycle through five consecutive times for optimal sleep quality.
When we benefit from all of sleep’s restorative qualities, our decision-making is improved, we’re much more able to regulate our mood and the brain and body are able to recover from damage or trauma.
Getting enough sleep is paramount for mental health recovery. Poor quality sleep can be linked to worsened symptoms while getting enough quality sleep can really help us manage our symptoms and heal. When we’re well-rested, we’re much better prepared to manage our mental and physical wellbeing.
If you’re concerned you aren’t getting enough quality sleep and it’s affecting your mental health, be sure to speak openly with your healthcare provider. From us at Somnus Therapy, we hope you sleep well with sweet dreams.