Understanding How Stress and Anxiety Can Disrupt Your Sleep
A poor night’s sleep can leave you feeling groggy, irritable, and fatigued the next day and, if this is a frequent occurrence, your daily life can be quickly affected.
Inadequate rest can compromise your emotional and physical health, and impact your personal, work, and social life.
Dealing with anxiety and poor sleep can be frustrating, particularly due to the interdependency of sleep and stress. Not only does anxiety trigger sleeping problems, but a lack of sleep can also cause or intensify anxiety. In other words, the less sleep you have, the more anxious you become, and the vicious cycle continues.
However, understanding how stress and anxiety affect the body can help you be better equipped to take the next steps to reduce your stress levels and improve your sleep hygiene.
Here, we outline how stress and anxiety disrupt your sleep on a physiological level. We also explore how hormonal changes can exacerbate sleep problems resulting from mood disturbances.
What causes anxiety?
The aetiology of anxiety is complicated. Typically, a combination of environmental factors and genetics gives rise to the condition; but emotions, events, and experiences can also lead to anxiety. These are called triggers.
Anxiety triggers vary from person to person. Some people find they have many triggers, while others may have no triggers at all. Identifying your triggers is a necessary and important step in managing them. A few of the most common ones include:
Parties or social events
Daily stressors – traffic jams or missing your train
Medication (contraceptive pills, weight loss medication, cough mixture)
Public events or performances
Though anxiety can impact you at any point of the day, it’s especially common to experience it at night. For many people, bedtime is when they find their mind racing the most, contemplating tomorrow’s to-do list or the worries of the past day. This perceived stress causes an adrenaline rush, which can make it difficult to sleep.
How does anxiety affect the body?
Anxiety has many different physiological effects. When your body enters a state of high stress or elevated anxiety, the brain sends signals to other areas of the body, communicating that you need to get ready to fight or flight.
The body responds to this by secreting stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline. The ‘fight or flight’ response is helpful when running away from danger, but these (hormones are much less helpful when trying to fall asleep.
When these hormones are secreted at the wrong time (i.e when there is no imminent danger), or over prolonged periods (if you’ve had a stressful week or two at work, for example), it can cause adverse effects on the body. These may manifest themselves in breathing or respiratory changes, feelings of faintness, dizziness or nausea, an increased heart rate, impaired immune function or digestive issues.i
Can stress and anxiety cause sleep problems?
The problem with experiencing nocturnal anxiety is that it can disrupt your hormonal balance and internal 24-hour clock, otherwise known as your circadian cycle.
In the simplest of terms, your body uses hormones to regulate your body clock. In the morning, cortisol (your stress hormone) wakes you up, and at night, melatonin (your sleep hormone) prepares you for sleep.
Feelings of stress and anxiety at night increase the production of cortisol when it should naturally be reducing, keeping your body alert and stimulated.
The stress sleep cycle
At times, worrying about sleep can also cause poor sleep hygiene. Anxiety triggers sleep loss, which can, in turn, lead to more anxiety. Often, people prone to sleep deprivation fear they won’t be able to sleep and experience anticipatory anxiety.
Worry and stress stimulate the brain’s insular cortex and amygdala, imitating the neural activity illustrated in anxiety disorders; resulting in poor or fragmented sleeping patterns.
Evidence suggests that sleep deprivation causes the brain to revert to more primitive ways of thinking.ii Without the positive emotional and physiological regenerating effects that sleep provide, you’re much more likely to react to emotional stimuli. This perpetuates both sleep problems and anxiety.
How can hormonal changes affect mood and sleep?
Fluctuations in your hormones — caused by menstruation, the menopause, ageing and puberty, for example — can lead to mood changes which affect sleep.
Increased feelings of sadness or anxiety are common during these physiological changes. As outlined above, an elevated state of restlessness and low mood tend to work against the relaxation needed for rest. Such mood disturbances can affect your ability to initiate sleep, as well as the quality and quantity of your rest.iii
Nocturnal anxiety and stress can feel challenging to manage, especially when you can’t seem to break the vicious cycle. But quality sleep is a tried-and-tested solution to support the reduction of anxiety. Once you get a handle on it, you’ll soon find excessive worry and debilitating fearful expectations dissipate.
The best way to break this negative cycle is by prioritising mindfulness and relaxation before bed. Improving your overall sleep hygiene will support your sleep quality, too.
To find out more about how ways to improve your sleep hygiene, as well as common conditions which can affect your sleep, explore the rest of our sleep health hub.
NHS UK. (2019). Generalised anxiety disorder in adults - Symptoms. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/symptoms
Yoo. S., Gujar. N., Hu. P., Jolesz. F.A., Jolesz. F.A. (2007). The human emotional brain without sleep: A prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology. 17: 877-878.
Khazaie. H., Ghadami. M.R., Khaledi-Paveh. B., Chehri. A. & Nasouri. M. (2016). Sleep Quality in University Students with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. Shanghai archives of psychiatry. 28(3), 131–138.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.