7 Effective Ways to Manage Your Insomnia and Anxiety

moon stars and clouds

We have all been there-you’re getting ready for bed, exhausted after a long day. You get under your cozy blanket, lay down on your soft pillows, totally ready to drift off, letting all your worries melt away. WAIT.

Did I turn the stove off? I think I did. But what about the front door, is it locked? Oh God, do I have to get out of bed? That will waste so much time and energy. UGH, I’m not even that sleepy anymore. Maybe I should read? No, no, I need to sleep, since I have that meeting at work tomorrow. Darn, did I prepare enough for that meeting? My boss really doesn’t need another excuse to hate me. I should really start looking for another job. Can I afford to do that though? WAIT. What time is it? I’ve spent so much time being anxious when I could have been sleeping. Now all I have left is 5 hours, 37 minutes and..UGH…why did I look at the clock?

If that situation doesn’t sound familiar to you, consider yourself super lucky (also, please share your secrets with the rest of us.) However, if that does sound all too familiar, know that you are not alone if you have trouble sleeping at night. You may experience insomnia and even have some anxiety while trying to fall asleep –your thoughts racing through your mind preventing you from resting, which then causes you to feel anxious about not sleeping and thus the cycle goes on.

It goes without saying that sleep is important. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, we consider sleep to be a luxury when it should be a necessity. Seriously, when’s the last time you got a good night’s rest?

Do I Have Insomnia?

You might have insomnia if you often:

Have difficulty falling asleep

➻ Often wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep

➻ Are restless during the night and/or have poor quality sleep

And experience at least one of the following symptoms:

➻ Feel tired and sleepy during the day

➻ Feel irritable, moody, anxious because you didn’t sleep well

➻ Are unable to concentrate or focus on tasks

➻ Have headaches, body pain due to lack of sleep

➻ Are worried about not getting enough sleep

Sleep Is Not For The Weak

So what happens if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? Well, there’s the familiar side effects we’ve all experienced when we stay up too late bingeing Netflix: feeling tired during the day, irritable, moody, and unable to focus on everyday tasks.

But when you spend most of your nights thinking about sleeping or trying to fall asleep rather than actually sleeping, you may be at risk for more serious problems. The long-term side effects of insomnia include coronary heart disease, hypertension, decreased productivity at work or school, and a host of mental illnesses, including alcohol dependence and depression. So given this buffet of issues, maybe we should be taking our sleep a bit more seriously.

In fact, research suggests that sleep is especially crucial for memory and learning. As your body shuts down for the night, your brain takes this time to stock up on all the information you have learned throughout the day. It combines this knowledge and transfers it into your memory, so you can use it when you need it at a later time. So if you still believed that sleep is for the weak, maybe you should start believing that it’s also for the smart.

Can Anxiety Affect My Sleep?

We know that lack of sleep can cause mental health problems. Interestingly, when it comes to anxiety, the relationship can also exist the other way around. Maybe one of the worst parts about not getting a good night’s sleep is worrying about not getting a good night’s sleep. It doesn’t help that most of the overthinking we do, tends to happen at night. And once we realize we’ve wasted all that time overthinking, we begin to feel anxious about not sleeping enough. Our anxiety keeps us awake, and altogether, it’s the perfect recipe for sleepless nights.

To really understand how anxiety can affect sleep, let’s first take a look at the process of falling asleep.

The Sleep Cycle

Sleep can be divided into two main types:

1. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep
2. Non- REM sleep.

Throughout the night, our brains go through stages of non-REM sleep and REM sleep many times.

An average person typically goes through 5 sleep cycles/stages in order to wake up feeling rested in the morning. Each sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes.

The 5 stages of sleep cycles consist of the following:

Stage 1 & 2: light sleep stages

Stage 3 and 4: deep sleep stages

And finally REM sleep.

Stage 1

Occurs within minutes (even seconds) during the transition from being awake to falling asleep. This is a short and light period of sleep, where your body begins to relax, as your heartbeat, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves slow down.

Fun fact: “catnaps” primarily consist of this stage of sleep.

Stage 2

Another period of light sleep that occurs before you transition into deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing continue to slow down, your muscles relax and your body temperature drops.

Stage 3 & Stage 4

This is the crucial part of the sleep cycle that you need in order to feel well rested and refreshed when you wake up in the morning. This is a deep stage of sleep where your heartbeat and breathing are at their lowest and your muscles are fully relaxed. Your brain waves are even slower at this stage.

REM Sleep

This occurs around 90 minutes when you first fall asleep. This is the most active stage of sleep, where your eyes move rapidly (hence the name REM), your breathing becomes faster and your heart rate and blood pressure increase, close to what they would be if you were awake. In fact, your brain activity is also similar to what it is when you’re awake. Pretty cool, right? One major difference from being awake though is that dreaming occurs during REM sleep. Deeper and longer REM sleep occurs toward the morning.

Here is an easy to use bedtime calculator that shows what time you need to get to bed, based on when you need to take up. Give it a try!

p.s: 450 minutes is 7.5 hours

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Anxiety, Stress And Sleep

So what does anxiety have anything to do with our sleep? Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses experienced by the general population. To varying degrees, we all naturally experience some level of anxiety – from feeling slightly nauseous before an exam to even having a full-blown panic attack out of nowhere.

To gain a better understanding of your anxiety, read our ultimate guide to understanding your anxiety.

The 411: feeling anxious is our body’s way of responding to some kind of stress. In cases of anxiety disorders, our anxious response is often over-exaggerated for the situation at hand. Sleep problems are actually a part of the diagnostic criteria for many anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Research has shown that both short and long-term stress responses have an effect on sleep. Short-term stress can impact the quality of your REM sleep. Long-term stress causes an extended anxious response and has been correlated with increased rates of insomnia. This relationship exists in children, adolescents as well as the elderly.

It makes sense – if you’re prone to being more anxious, your body will have a harder time winding down at night as you prepare to rest. This can manifest in psychological overactivity, as you overthink and overanalyze while trying to sleep. It can also manifest in physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, tension and headaches, and body pains.

So we understand that anxiety and insomnia are involved in this endless loop, with one causing the other and vice versa. But are there other factors that are making both these issues worse?

6 Things That Are Disturbing Your Sleep

It turns out there might be a few things that we all do that are preventing us from getting a good night’s rest:

1. Stress

This one is obvious and goes without saying – if you’re stressed or nervous before bed or throughout the day, chances are you won’t be able to rest when it’s time to sleep.

2. Travelling Or Work Schedule

Our body’s internal clock, or our circadian rhythms, are what keeps us in sync with the 24-hour day. It depends on sunlight and darkness to maintain our sleep-wake cycle. If you work the night shift or travel to different times zones frequently, you’re at risk of messing up your internal clock and having your sleep suffer.

I learned this the hard way in June 2019, when I was in Norway and Iceland. Because of the midnight sun (ridiculously beautiful – see below), it never got dark outside which totally messed up my sleep for the entire trip.

Lesson learned – NEVER travel without a sleep mask.

12:00am Midnight Sun on June 30, 2019

3. Poor Sleep Habits

Taking too many naps and long naps can interfere with your internal clock, disrupting your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you must, stick to one, short nap, 20-30 minutes in length and not after 3pm.

4. Eating Too Much Before Bed

Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed, as a heavy meal can cause you to stay awake longer due to indigestion and heartburn.

I’m totally guilty of this, especially after a long 13-hour workday!

Tip: One of our lovely clinicians introduced me to this healthy snack, which I am currently obsessed with! It helps manage my hunger pangs throughout the day which helps avoid a heavy meal on the days I get home late.

What are some snacks you like to munch on throughout the day? Leave a comment below!

5. Caffeinated Drinks, Alcohol

Stay away from these beverages in the evenings, as their stimulating effects will make you stay up longer and will cause issues with your sleep later on in the night.

6. Screen Time, Especially In Bed

We have all heard this one way too many times. No phones before bed. The reason being is that the light from screens causes our brain to be alert and aroused, disrupting its ability to shut down when it’s time to sleep.

7 Ways To Help Your Sleep

If you don’t know by now, I am a huge fan of deep dives on Google. We scoured the internet to find you the most commonly recommended and easy-to-implement solutions to get a good night’s sleep.

Another thing about me – I am always hunting for a bargain. So before I purchase anything I always look for a free or DIY option. With that in mind, I have put together 7 simple and effective things you can do right at home, without having to purchase any high-tech gadgets or spend hundreds of dollars on fancy blankets.

1. Maintain A Consistent Sleep Time And Wake Time

Try to sleep and wakeup at the same time throughout the week. You may really want to sleep in on the weekends, but to maintain your internal clock, try to be as consistent as possible with your schedule.

2. Light Exercise Throughout The Day, But Not 2-3 Hours Before Bedtime

Keeping an active lifestyle will help you sleep easier and better. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise, at least 3 times a week.

3. Adequate Exposure To Sunlight

To sync up your internal clock (and your circadian rhythms) it’s a good idea to spend some time outdoors during day to set your natural sleep-wake cycle. Even if its a quick walk at lunch time or sitting by the window during these short winter days, it will help.

4. Make A To-Do List Of Tasks To Accomplish The Next Day

This will help you from thinking about all the stuff you need to do while you try to sleep. Avoid the worry and overthinking by making a list of tasks you can tackle when you’re awake.

5. Wind-Down Before Bed With A Bedtime Ritual

Whether it’s meditation, a prayer, turning on the diffuser and reading a book or taking a hot bath before bed, build a simple bedtime ritual 1 hour before bedtime. This will allow your body to naturally start preparing for sleep.

6. Have A Pleasant Sleep Environment

Make sure your bedroom is a place you actually want to sleep. Ensure your bed, sheets, pillows are comfy and your room temperature is slightly cool, to promote easy and restful sleep.

Tip: Diffuse some essential oils to create a warm and relaxing environment in your bedroom before bedtime. My personal favorite: Refresh from Saje. It’s also what we use at the clinic!

7. If You Can’t Sleep Right Away, Get Out Of Bed

Sounds counterintuitive, but if you can’t sleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity. Read, drink a warm non-caffeinated beverage or listen to some relaxing music, instead of forcing yourself to fall asleep.

Putting This Topic To Bed

Like we talked about before, troubles with sleep can often be symptoms of more serious problems with your mental health. It’s always a good idea to check in with a mental health professional to help you tackle both problems with sleep and your mental health.

Implementing a few or all of these tips will take time and patience. Using a sleep app on your phone or sleep diary to keep track of your sleeping and waking up times. This will keep you motivated to maintain your healthy sleeping habits. It’s also a good idea to set reasonable goals – you’re not suddenly going to get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep the first time. Be patient as you find out what works best for you and your body.

Hopefully, by the end of this post you’ve understood the importance of a good night’s sleep. And hey, worst case scenario it bored you enough to fall asleep, still a win-win situation right?

If you have a question or would like to hear more about a topic, leave a comment below or flip me an email.

Until next time,

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services

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