How Anxiety Affects Sleep

How Anxiety Affects Sleep

As was discussed in a previous blog on the difference between anxiety and fear, anxiety involves:

  • An activation of the flight/fight (sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system) response;
  • This is a physiological stress response which involves such things as increased heart rate, muscle tension, increased blood pressure, etc.
  • This response is triggered by a thought or mental image.

To understand how anxiety affects sleep, one must understand how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) works.

How does the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) work?

The ANS is made up of two separate branches: the sympathetic or activating side and the para sympathetic or calming side. If working well these two branches work together to attain the optimal level of activation for whatever task or situation confronts us.

During the day, the sympathetic side should be a little dominant over the parasympathetic side so we remain awake and alert, and ready for the next thing we will do.

When we fall asleep the parasympathetic side becomes dominant, as we travel through the stages of sleep. Anxiety leads to an over dominance of the sympathetic side while we are awake. That is, we are more activated than we need to be. Consequently, we can have trouble falling asleep as the shift from sympathetic dominance to parasympathetic dominance may take longer to happen.

We may also wake up during the night because the sympathetic side is used to be very dominant, so it keeps rising up which wakes us up.

To make things worse, we may wake up not feeling as rested because, even though we remain asleep, we are not able to spend as much time in the restful stages of sleep due to our tendency to activate more than we should. Therefore, our sleep is not of optimal quality.

Analogue Alarm clock on a bed

So, how do we fight the anxiety and sleep better?

The obvious answer to the negative effects anxiety can have on sleep is to help the ANS achieve a better balance, which means finding ways to counter our anxiety. Simply stated, treating anxiety involves finding ways to reduce the over activation level of the body and the brain and helping the individual learn ways to avoid having the system get out of balance again.

A functional EEG evaluation at Sadar Psychology and Sports Center leads to recommendations (e.g. changes in daily routine, exercise, psychotherapy, biofeedback, etc.) that will allow for a better balanced nervous system and an improved ability to manage your anxiety.

What is the difference between anxiety and fear?

What is the difference between anxiety and fear?

What is Anxiety?

There is a lot of talk currently about “anxiety”. There is said to be “normal anxiety”, but anxiety is also said to be linked with many mental health disorders that require treatment. Also, anxiety is talked about in terms of causing or exacerbating medical problems (e.g. cardiac problems, gastro-intestinal problems, decreasing auto-immunity, etc.). So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about anxiety, and how is it different from fear?

Anxiety is a Stress Response

Basically, anxiety is a physiological (or physical) stress response. It is the body’s reaction to a perceived danger or threat. You have probably heard of the “fight or flight” response. This is an evolutionary response that has allowed our species to survive by alerting us to danger and equipping us to handle it in the best way possible. This response involves the two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. Simply stated, the sympathetic side is the excitatory side whose job it is to increase our arousal or activation level. This is termed the “fight or flight” side. The parasympathetic side is the inhibitory or calming side, whose job it is to decrease our arousal or activation level. This is termed the “rest and digest” side. These two sides of the autonomic nervous system are meant to work together to allow us to be in the best level of activation for whatever situation we are in. Whenever the sympathetic side kicks in there is physical stress because muscles tense, heart rate increases, breath becomes shallow, etc. as we prepare to run or to fight.

If working optimally, the activation of the sympathetic side only lasts as long as the threat is present. Once we are safe, the autonomic nervous system should become rebalanced. In an evolutionary perspective this response developed to help human kind avoid getting eliminated by very real threats to our survival as a species. This is where fear comes in. Fear is a stress response to a definite and present threat to our survival. For example, if we are about to be eaten by a sabre toothed tiger. Once that danger is no longer present, we are designed to relax, and return to our baseline to recharge and get ready for the next definite and present threat. Anxiety was not possible until our brains had evolved and were able to imagine possible future threats. This was a good thing in that it allowed us to plan, which was a big advantage over other species. But, the down side is it enabled us to have a stress response to a future, not present in the here and now, threat. The threat only existed in our minds.

Child crying, anxious and alone

What is the difference between anxiety and fear?

Anxiety and fear involve the same physical reaction (i.e. sympathetic nervous system activation). The difference lies in the cause of the activation. Is it a present danger or is it an imagined threat about the future? In either case, the body and the brain are stressed. I think you can see how it is easier to relax when a physically present danger is no longer present versus a situation where the threat is basically in our mind. Unfortunately the body and the brain do not distinguish between a real and present threat versus one that is only in our mind at present. In either case, a stress response occurs.

So, to answer the question- anxiety is a physical stress reaction caused by our mental reaction to events in our lives. Possible ways to evaluate and treat/manage stress can be found at Anxiety treatment at Sadar Psychological and Sports Center.

An unhealthy gut is an unhealthy brain

An unhealthy gut is an unhealthy brain

Did you know mental illnesses may begin with your gut? It’s true! Gut bacteria plays just as large a role, in mind “health,” as the brain! With proper intake of food, the gut can resist stress and other mood disorders (such as depression and anxiety). The brain and the gut are directly connected through the vagus nerve. It is a two way connection. A troubled stomach/intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Consequently, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, depression, or stress.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017). Source: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml. Mental Illness includes conditions that range from mild to moderate to severe. Conditions like anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Do you know which is known as the most common mental illness in the United States?

a.) Anxiety disorders

b.) Depression

c.) Sleep disorders

d.) Eating disorders

The answer is A! Do you know that eating a proper diet supplemented by taking a simple prebiotic or probiotic as needed may prevent the development of a common mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders?

Photo of vegetable salad in bowls

What can cause poor gut bacteria?

  • Antibiotics. Talk with your physician to see if there are any alternatives to taking an antibiotic or if taking a probiotic during/following the course of antibiotics is recommended.
  • Diet. It is important to stay away from saturated fats and foods high in sugar. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables should be plentiful in one’s standard diet. Also foods such as yogurt, kefir, almonds, olive oil, etc. are a source of good gut bacteria.
  • High levels of stress. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can all achieve lower stress, as can anything one finds to be calming and relaxing.

At what age is gut bacteria most influential on the brain?

Adolescence! The brain is undergoing major changes in connectivity and processes, so keeping the gut healthy is very important. Consuming probiotics during puberty to facilitate optimal gut functioning can improve one’s mood and cognition (such as learning and memory).

Take-away message?

Keeping your gut healthy through a nutritious diet, adding stress reduction activities to your routine, and supplementing with probiotics as needed is a great way to increase your ability to resist mental illness.

*Marano, Hara E. (2017, May). A Bug in the System. Psychology Today, 31-32.