Can’t sleep due to anxiety? You’re not alone. Sleep disorders are so prevalent in society today, more than 40 million people deal with them. From anxiety, to stress, to apnea, to insomnia, it seems we’re collectively having sleeping problems these days. Sleep anxiety is one of the more common (but treatable) conditions that may be interfering in your ability to get healthy sleep. Left unaddressed, a generalized anxiety disorder can cause performance problems and detract from your mental health. Fortunately, help is out there. 

If you feel uneasy, worried, or nervous before going to bed at night, read on to answer the question: what is sleep anxiety? Learn about common symptoms and various ways you can combat bedtime anxiousness and improve your sleep schedule.

What is Sleep Anxiety?

Sleep anxiety or “can’t sleep anxiety” is a type of performance anxiety marked by feelings of stress or fear when it’s time for bed. It typically involves anxious thoughts at bedtime that cause you to have sleep loss. Although this is the case, it is important to be aware of the difference between stress vs anxiety along with fear vs anxiety

The good news is that anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the United States and there are various holistic ways to effectively manage it.

Symptoms of sleep anxiety

The symptoms of sleep anxiety are diverse, and everyone experiences them uniquely. Anxiousness at bedtime is not different from anxiousness during the daytime. However, it may seem more intense because our body and brain expect nighttime to typically be calmer than the daytime. Thus, in theory, there should be fewer distractions to occupy your thoughts. Yet it’s sometimes when your mind is supposed to be calm that you begin to focus more on nervousness and fear.

“For a lot of us, we’re fairly busy during the day. There’s less room for negative thoughts to flood our brain when we’re busy, but when we’re trying to go to sleep or have already managed to get to sleep, the brain has more freedom to slip into old, dysfunctional patterns.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC

While sleep anxiety is different for everyone, there are some common symptoms, including:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling nervous, restless, or afraid
  • Finding it hard to focus your thoughts
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Hypnagogic jerking
  • Panic attacks
  • Night terrors
  • Nightmares

Chronic sleep anxiety can negatively affect your mood, cause you to perform poorly at work or school, dull your ability to learn, slow down your cognitive reaction times, and increase your risk of developing depression. A long-term lack of healthy sleep can lead to multiple serious health conditions including obesity, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure). This is why dealing with sleep anxiety is so important.

Why Do I Get Anxiety When I Sleep?

Unaddressed sleep anxiety can become cyclic and ultimately cause long-term sleeping problems. If you have nighttime anxiety often, it can be difficult to discern whether you feel anxious because you can’t sleep, or you can’t sleep because you feel anxious.

The two can become blurred. Anxiety can cause poor sleep, and chronically poor sleeping habits can exacerbate anxiety. You can end up with sleep deprivation and feeling fatigued all the time.

How to Treat Sleep Anxiety

So now that we understand more about sleep anxiety and its symptoms, we can look at how to fall asleep with anxiety along with how to treat anxiety. Consider the following simple strategies that are known to be effective for relaxing the mind and body and encouraging full nights of better sleep.

Seek help from a licensed therapist

Talk therapy, as well as online therapy sessions, can be very helpful when you have sleep deprivation due to anxiety. Therapy for anxiety can teach you new skills to help you anticipate and manage your anxiety symptoms better. 

“Treating sleep anxiety is relatively complex, but we can work to increase our physical exertion, find stimulating activities, and talk about anything aversive that comes up for us throughout the day. That way, we can design a bedtime routine that’s mindful and grounded, so we have a higher probability of conquering sleep anxiety in the night.”- Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC

Make your sleeping environment welcoming

Make it a point to keep your bedroom clean, cool, and conducive to sleeping. Develop a quick routine of getting your sleeping area ready before you go to bed. Consider running a fan or playing some other white noise in the background to block out a potential sleep disturbance. Consider diffusing relaxing essential oils like chamomile and lavender to help your brain calm down.

Reduce stress with exercise

Regular exercise significantly reduces the production of stress hormones like cortisol. According to studies, exercising can be beneficial for middle-aged to older adults in ensuring sufficient, high-quality sleep.  

Allow your mind time to wind down before bed

If you are in need of better sleep, beginning a relaxing routine near bedtime can be very helpful. Consider calming activities like listening to soothing music or sounds, reading a book, listening to a podcast, dimming the lights, or soaking in an Epsom salt bath. Turn off the TV and say good night to social media. Allow your brain the chance to be still and quiet.

Consider melatonin supplementation

According to research, melatonin can have a positive effect on adults with a sleep disorder. This natural, holistic supplement can help you unwind and calm your mind before you turn in at night. Be sure to use as directed and not for extended amounts of time.  

Limit your exposure to stress during the daytime

Our world and days are filled with stressful events. It’s important to be selective about what you allow in your mind space. You can’t expect your brain to immediately switch from stressed to calm at bedtime. What you subject yourself to all day long will certainly follow you to bed. Limit your intake of news, social media, and work to earlier in the day, so you can process your anxious thoughts long before getting ready to go to bed.

Get your thoughts in check

Mindfulness meditation can be effective for calming the symptoms of anxiety. Watching your breathing and thoughts as they develop allows you to remain in better control of your emotions. Meditating before bed quiets your mind and puts you in a peaceful place that encourages sleep.

Sleep anxiety is a common problem that can lead to more serious physical and mental health conditions if not dealt with. If you’ve been feeling like you have bad sleep habits due to anxiety, learn ways to significantly decrease anxiety symptoms at night (and throughout your day) by using any or all of the tips here. 

Above all, keep in mind that the simple act of intending to be calm is very powerful. It can help you find the restful sleep you’ve been missing.