Anxiety and sleep disorders, what’s the connection?

Difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, tiredness in the morning… it is estimated that one person in three has trouble sleeping, and that one in four is affected by its most severe form, insomnia. Not to be taken lightly, since lack of sleep seriously harms health when it disrupts the body’s physical, psychological and cognitive balance. One of the major factors? Anxiety, which disrupts the otherwise natural regulation of sleep and wakefulness mechanisms, is the cause of the disorder at nightfall.

Sleep, how does it work?
Sleep is a physiological activity vital to the proper functioning of the body. It alternates waking and sleeping phases, synchronized over 24 hours according to a rhythm that is called “circadian” by a sort of “internal clock”. At nightfall, our eyes perceive the drop in brightness and send a message to the brain, which then releases the sleep hormone melatonin: breathing and heart rate slow down, body temperature drops. It’s a signal that it’s time to go to bed!

When insomnia takes over sleep…

Unfortunately, sleep cycles are far from being a long, quiet river for everyone and everything. One in three people experience chronic sleep disorders, commonly called insomnia, which are distinct from temporary disturbances that temporarily disrupt our ability to sleep. When they are transient, these disorders then last a few days or weeks and then disappear. Chronic insomnia occurs when falling asleep, or the ability to stay asleep, becomes difficult more than 3 times a week for a period of at least one month. Sleep disorders include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, or feeling asleep without being repaired. The consequences are disturbing drowsiness, increased fatigue and strong irritability.

Anxious people are 7 to 10 times more likely to suffer from insomnia.
Insomnia is multifactorial, and anxiety is one of the major factors, since it acts on sleep by stimulating wakefulness. What’s anxiety? It is the feeling of fear or danger that is constantly present in anticipation of specific events or situations. Thoughts that go round and round, does that remind you of anything? Not very restful indeed! Anxiety activates the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn activates the nervous system. And here you are, going over your thoughts in the middle of the night…

Good sleep hygiene, the key to a restful night’s sleep
In order to enjoy a good night’s sleep, it is important to develop supportive behaviours. The first is, of course, to listen to the sleep signals that the body naturally sends out at nightfall, in order to avoid stimulating the waking systems unnecessarily. It is important to encourage the gradual lowering of wakefulness systems and the activation of sleep systems by favouring calm and relaxing activities. Forget about screen-based, physical, urgent and stressful activities! Go to bed when fatigue arrives by following a soothing routine: Relaxation, meditation, or sophrology are very useful relaxing techniques that allow you to take a quiet moment for yourself, and to clear your head before going to bed. Another effective technique for relaxation is neurofeedback: by training its neuronal connections to relax and unwind by monitoring its brain activity via EEG (electroencephalography), neurofeedback learns to gradually induce waves that are favourable to falling asleep, while at the same time putting the body at rest (see article “Neurofeedback, what is it for?” for more information on neurofeedback).

Anxiety is a major factor in insomnia, as it activates the body when it should rest. Adapted sleep hygiene can help to tame certain anxiety disorders and promote a soothing and restorative night’s sleep!



Sleep Foundation