Anxiety about sleep is one of the top issues my patients complain about. As you try to fall asleep and it takes longer than you’d like to, it’s easy to start worrying and feeling anxious. In the same way, waking up at night can eventually lead to feeling anxious because you’re not falling back asleep in a timely manner.
Signs that anxiety about sleep is causing sleep issues
Anxiety symptoms can be totally obvious or they can be subtle and such a big part of your life that you don’t even realize you are having anxiety. True story for me! Just recently, I ran a neurotransmitter test on myself, and one of the calming neurotransmitters, serotonin, was bottom-low. I took a supplement and within half an hour realized how my sense of what being calm was, wasn’t really all that calm. Life-changing experience!
Here are some of the signs and symptoms that you have anxiety, especially as they relate to sleep:
- Feeling worried often, and you can’t really feel calm and at peace
- Just thinking about sleeping makes you feel worried, upset, or agitated
- You avoid preparing for bed in the evening, not wanting to deal with bedtime and not sleeping well
- You have a hard time meditating and sitting still
- You have to be engaged with something at all times; being quiet brings a sense of unease
- You feel a panic sensation or tightness in your chest
- Your throat and jaw constrict easily
- You feel a gradual increase of energy in the evening and notice your worries more than during the day
- You have a sense that something bad is about to happen
- You may notice that you’re breathing more rapidly
- You are aware of your heartbeat or experiencing palpitations
- You feel a buzzing sensation in your body at night
These are some of the signs and symptoms I often hear from my patients. Of course, you don’t have to have all of these (I sure hope you don’t!!) in order to know that you have anxiety.
What happens when you have anxiety?
Simply put, when you have anxiety, you are in fight or flight mode. Your entire being is on edge, as if there is something dangerous about to happen.
You can only imagine how this is not very conducive to peacefully falling asleep and staying asleep.
The stress hormone cortisol may be elevated, along with adrenaline, while your calming neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA may be depleted.
Why does anxiety about sleep show up?
This might seem like a silly question. Of course, if you can’t sleep, you will likely experience feelings of worry and anxiousness. But the answer is a little more complicated. Yes, it can be a simple emotional response to not being able to sleep night after night. But it can also be rooted in trauma, gut issues, adrenal health problems, hormone imbalances, and more.
Let’s explore more about why anxiety shows up around sleep.
1. Anxiety about sleep because of repetitive poor sleep.
If you’ve been having sleep issues for a while, you likely have developed anxiety around it. Oftentimes, even the quiet thoughts such as, “here I am again awake and not sleeping,” can increase a stress response in your body and make the sleep issue worse.
My absolute go-to for this is to allow 12 hours of the day, 7pm to 7am for example, to focus on REST. Yes, sleep is good and needed, but your main focus should be on how to rest more.
It helps to take the pressure off of thinking about sleep and what may happen. The truth is, we can’t really make ourselves sleep, but we do have total control over how we choose to rest.
My article “9 Sleep Hygiene Tips That Actually Work” talks more about this concept, including how to wind down in the evening, how to prepare for bed, and what to do if you wake up at night.
2. Unhealed stored traumas, negative beliefs, and/or anxiety.
There are often underlying imbalances to anxiety. For some people it’s unhealed trauma that keeps resurfacing. This trauma doesn’t have to be something big, or what we call “trauma with capital T,” but it can be smaller ones where your nervous system can’t really fully let go and relax. A nervous system that isn’t able to relax and let go is a major component of not being able to sleep peacefully.
I am a firm believer that every single person can benefit from therapy that includes mindfulness and body-centered and somatic therapy (rather than only talk therapy).
As humans, we often have certain beliefs ingrained in our consciousness, which can negatively affect how you heal. The thoughts we have in our heads every day, by repetition, they build our future experience. And so we tend to perpetuate the same health issues or unhealthy relationships.
What I have seen in myself and in my patients is that, as we sense our bodies, we uncover what lives in there. Every event, accident, stressful time, trauma, etc., lives in the tissues and they can be released, layer by layer. When you work with a skilled practitioner, these patterns can be released so you can feel at peace again.
Here is a therapist I recommend who specializes in anxiety and other issues that can cause us to not be able to fully relax and sleep deeply. Go to ImagineHealing.com (in Boulder, Colorado, or by ZOOM all over the world).
3. Gut health and anxiety.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I talk about the gut-brain connection all the time.
If you can’t fall asleep and you ruminate quite a bit (on important or totally random things) there’s a big possibility that your sleep and anxiety issues are related to your gut health. Or if you wake up after a couple of hours and are wide awake for a while, that also points to gut issues.
Some other common gut symptoms include constipation, loose stools or diarrhea, acid reflux, bloating, gas, and nausea. You certainly don’t need to have all of these to have proof of a gut issue.
The gut communicates with the brain through the vagus nerve, so inflammation in the gut can easily affect your mood and sleep.
Serotonin, which is one of the calming neurotransmitters, is produced mostly in the gut. It actually feeds on the beneficial bacteria, so if the bacteria in your intestines is unbalanced, your sleep and mood will suffer and you will feel more anxious.
Food sensitivities are another major factor causing anxiety. Years ago when I moved from Tennessee to super health-conscious Boulder, Colorado, I decided to go gluten-free. I did that more so I could prove there is nothing wrong with having it… 🙂 After one month of being off of gluten, I reintroduced it one morning. Two main symptoms suddenly came up: anxiety and a frontal headache.
Previously I told myself that I had reasons to be anxious… then I realized that my anxiety was significantly increased by eating gluten.
The best way to start healing your gut is to design a diet that works well for you. Most people benefit from eliminating gluten, dairy, corn, soy, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol for 30 days and then reintroducing these foods gradually every 3 days to notice if there are any issues coming up. I am happy to help you with this process and take you through the next step, which is doing a comprehensive stool test to look at your beneficial and harmful bacteria, how well you digest your foods, and lots more.
4. Nutrient deficiencies and anxiety.
This step is crucial to healing both your anxiety and sleep issues. Even if you are eating the healthiest diet, you may still have vitamins or minerals that are at less than ideal levels.
Genetic variants play a role in this, too. To give you an easy example, I spend a lot of time out in the sun, yet I have some genetic variants that show I only have 20% of the vitamin D receptors. So no matter how much I go out in the sun, I can’t make enough vitamin D. This is reflected when I test my blood. I need to take vitamin D year round at pretty high levels.
Zinc and Vitamin B6 can be depleted and cause lots of anxiety. Some people have a disorder called pyroluria, which constantly depletes this mineral and this vitamin.
Vitamins B9 and B12 can also be depleted along with B6 and can affect your ability to relax and sleep well. These vitamins are major players as the building blocks for detox, reducing inflammation and making calming neurotransmitters.
Women on birth control can easily be depleted in the B vitamins and zinc.
Magnesium is a mineral that is super helpful for both anxiety and sleep. I like either Magnesium Glycinate or Threonate.
5. Hormonal health and anxiety.
If you are a menstruating woman, using birth control, in the perimenopausal years, or postmenopause, there are almost always things we can do to tweak the hormones so you can feel better.
You’ve been told that it is normal to have painful periods, or to have PMS before your period, or to have hot flashes or night sweats in the perimenopausal or postmenopausal years. But these symptoms are screaming to be heard, showing us that something is imbalanced in our bodies. Your body isn’t saying “this is normal, let’s try to drown the voices with a pill” or something of that nature.
Depending on which stage of life you’re in, supporting healthy estrogen levels will support your serotonin, which is a calming neurotransmitter. Making sure you’re making a healthy amount of progesterone supports your GABA, another calming neurotransmitter. This is true even in the postmenopausal years, when the adrenal glands make a small amount of sex hormones.
6. Adrenal health cortisol and anxiety.
The adrenal glands make a number of hormones including the stress hormone cortisol, though cortisol is so much more than a stress hormone. In healthy amounts, at the right time of the day, it helps us be alert, regulates our blood pressure, keeps the inflammation down, and balances our blood sugar levels.
Many of my patients have spikes of cortisol at the incorrect times of the day, which then causes sleep issues and exacerbates the anxiety. Explore this article to see what to do if you have higher than normal cortisol at night: High Cortisol Symptoms and How To Regulate Your Cortisol Levels.
7. Neurotransmitter support and anxiety.
Healthy amounts of neurotransmitters such as GABA, serotonin, dopamine, and histamine often play a role in how anxious or peaceful you feel and how you sleep.
I often test the neurotransmitter levels in urine. Even though the urine levels don’t exactly tell us the exact levels in the brain, they give us a general idea of where the major issues may be and what steps to take next so you can sleep better and feel happier.
Read here more about the validity of neurotrasmitter testing, in my article “Is Neurotransmitter Testing Reliable?”
Where to start to heal my anxiety about sleep?
As you can see, anxiety about sleep and anxiety experienced in general can be rooted in various areas. The good news is that working on one area can shift the others. For example, working on your gut will positively affect your hormones as well. Or doing therapy can flood your body with calming hormones and promote incredible healing.
If you’d like support through this healing process, I am happy to help; simply reach out through this link I am available in Boulder, Colorado, or via telemedicine all over the world.