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.

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