This is why you can’t sleep when you’re feeling anxious

With a global pandemic unfolding around us, this is a frightening and uncertain time. It’s completely understandable to feel anxious – many people are on edge, finding it difficult to concentrate, losing sleep, or waking in the early hours of the morning.

These are normal, human reactions to an unprecedented situation. Worrying about your family, your health, and your financial situation is to be expected. Normal fear responses are part of a healthy process that allow us to escape from something we identify as dangerous.

But sometimes, this fear can become overwhelming. It can start to impact on your ability to function in your daily life. When anxiety is regularly disturbing your sleep, you need to take steps to deal with it – especially when sleep is one of the best things you can do to boost your immunity.

So why can’t I sleep when I’m feeling anxious?

Anxiety is often thought of as a dramatic escalation of a response called arousal. Arousal in humans evolved to keep us alert to threats so we could protect ourselves. This was useful when sabre-toothed tigers lurked in the shadows – but now, not so much.

For people feeling anxious in the current climate, sleep disturbance is one of the key problems that may develop. Picture arousal as someone sounding a car horn. Throughout the day, you might notice it, and become vaguely irritated by the noise. But when it carries on into the night, it becomes impossible to sleep. This results in trouble falling and staying asleep, as well as causing you to experience sleep that isn’t refreshing. These are symptoms of insomnia.

When you climb into bed at night, this is when worries about your family, finances or your health may come to the surface. Difficulty falling asleep can then, in turn, generate more anxiety about how you’ll function the following day. This sleep deprivation may lead to more problems, such as low mood and poor concentration.

How do I tackle it?

  1. Stay connected. Social distancing doesn’t equate to social isolation. Call your friends, or start a group video chat with your family. Having a sense of belonging is key to your mental wellbeing – it’s linked with lower levels of depression and anxiety.
  2. Re-frame your accomplishments. It’s important to feel like you’re achieving something every day, no matter how small. You might have the dog barking in the background, the kids running wild around your makeshift desk – but if you’ve managed to reply to a handful of emails, that’s a success.
  3. Keep to a schedule. When you’re working from home, it’s easy to throw your usual routine out the window. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time every morning. Develop a sleep ritual – try reading a book for half an hour before you go to bed each night.
  4. Turn off your screens. Blue light from electronic devices can trick your mind into thinking it’s still daytime. Try to turn off your devices at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.
  5. …And turn off the news. If you’ve found yourself checking the news more and more frequently, it might be a good idea to switch off your TV (or any COVID-19 updates sent to your phone) after 6pm. Call or text a friend, and find something else to talk about before you go to sleep.
  6. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine. When you’re at home all the time, it’s tempting to treat every night like a Saturday night. But while having a drink may help you initially fall asleep, it will affect your sleep quality and you may find yourself awake in an hour or two. Caffeine can also stop you sleeping well – the National Sleep Foundation identifies caffeine as a source of insomnia, as well as anxiety and irritability.
  7. Try breathing exercises. Performing a breathing exercise can help you feel calmer. The NHS website provides details on how to do this. Certain breathing techniques can also help if you’re feeling unwell, and experiencing respiratory symptoms; a doctor at Queen’s hospital recommends this technique for COVID-19 patients.
  8. Keep your bedroom cool and quiet. Most people sleep best in a cooler room, so you might want to try opening a window. A white noise machine will help block out sounds keeping you awake. If it’s snoring that’s stopping you from going back to sleep, you can deal with the problem directly by investing in a snoring relief product.

When to get help

Sometimes your anxiety symptoms will indicate a more serious problem. It’s time to get some help when:

  • Your anxiety is stopping you from functioning in your day-to-day life
  • Your anxiety feels overwhelming
  • Your symptoms are getting worse over time

Your GP can assess your symptoms, and help you find a treatment plan to get the sleep you need.

For more in-depth information, click here to read Sleep Advisor’s Anxiety and Sleep Guide.