When anxiety and insomnia co-occur, they can create a feedback loop where one condition perpetuates the other. If you’re stuck in the cycle of anxiety from insomnia, or vice versa, a good night’s sleep might feel out of reach. But you can set yourself up to sleep better tonight with 5 simple lifestyle suggestions.
Insomnia and anxiety
Sleep is critical to mental health, but as much as 10% – 30% of the adult population, that’s 70 million Americans, experiences chronic sleep issues. And of the 40 million American adults who have anxiety disorders, 50% also experience insomnia.
But can lack of sleep cause anxiety? The short answer is yes.
If you have anxiety from insomnia, you probably know from experience how insomnia can worsen anxiety and how anxiety contributes to insomnia. The less sleep you get, the higher your risk of anxiety disorders. Plus, the more sleep-deprived you are, the worse your anxiety symptoms get.
If you’ve lived with a sleep disorder like insomnia long-term, you know the sleeplessness and anxiety cycle we’re describing. Over time, both your physical and mental health may be negatively affected. Chronic sleep issues may worsen existing anxiety and can even trigger anxiety disorders.
Plus, if you have a pre-existing anxiety disorder, you’re likely more susceptible to the effects of poor and insufficient sleep. Studies show that anxiety amplifies the impact of sleep loss.
The good news is that lifestyle and behavioral changes can positively impact both your insomnia and anxiety—starting tonight.
Wondering how to sleep well tonight? Try the following 5 tips to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. For better sleep over the long haul, check out the long-term sleep hygiene recommendations.
1. Give your mind a break.
Mentally envision setting your worries aside in a parking lot for tomorrow, or try jotting down thoughts and then putting them away. Mildly mentally engaging but low-stress thought scripts can be helpful.
Here’s one example: if you tend to find yourself on a thought track worrying about work as you try to fall asleep, you can redirect your thinking to something less stressful.
What should you focus your thoughts on instead? Try imaging an outfit, reciting lyrics to a favorite song, or some other thought track that directs your attention away from worry.
Refocusing the mind in this way is a common technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This strategy, called cognitive refocusing, was initially used as an intervention for panic disorder, but it’s also effective for insomnia.
2. Practice moderation.
Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t overindulge in heavy meals right before bed, either. Avoid or minimize alcohol, caffeine, and other substance use. This is especially important as you near your bedtime since all of these behaviors will disturb your natural, healthy sleep processes.
Some recent studies have suggested that the kinds of foods you’re eating, not just the time of day you eat them, can have an impact on the quality and duration of your sleep.
3. Try an electronic curfew.
Sleep experts consistently recommend that you cease using electronic devices at least 20 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Studies show that electronic screens are overstimulating, and our bodies respond to blue light in ways that disrupt melatonin levels and sleep cycles.
A substantial body of research demonstrates that excessive light at night, especially blue light from the screens of our electronic devices, has a negative impact on sleep.
To reduce the negative sleep impact of electronic devices, try changing your screen lighting manually by adjusting the settings on your devices or by downloading software that does it for you. Many apps now include a “dark mode,” which isn’t necessarily better for your eyes, though it does mitigate the amount of blue light from your electronics.
Beyond changing your brightness settings, the Academy of Ophthalmology recommends reducing screen time overall to minimize eye strain and negative impact on sleep.
The data on eyeglasses designed to block blue lights is currently unclear. Because of this, many professionals don’t recommend them. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from people who find them helpful. They may be worth a try if you’re seeking a reasonably inexpensive aid to reduce blue light exposure.
4. Make the goal rest rather than sleep.
There’s no need to panic if you can’t fall asleep right away. Your body still benefits from resting quietly. There are a number of relaxing exercises you can try before bed to help calm and soothe your body and mind.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), the practice of tensing and relaxing muscle groups in your body, can help relax you physically. Studies have shown that PMR has a positive impact on sleep quality. It’s also a great exercise to try if you have anxiety or physical tension.
5. Get a little exercise.
For best results, try to do this in the first half of the day. Studies show even 30 minutes of moderate exercise can benefit sleep quality that same day. This type of physical activity also protects long-term brain health and helps reduce depression and anxiety.
How to sleep better in the long run
Of course, we want you to get some deep, restful sleep tonight, but practicing the following suggestions can help you sleep well in the long term.
1. Utilize a consistent schedule.
It’s essential to maintain a regular sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Yes, this applies to weekends and vacations, too.
It may sound like a drag, but it’s worth it. Using a consistent sleep schedule can help you fall asleep faster, resulting in more time sleeping each night. This means that rather than taking away from your weekend, restful sleep may provide the energy you need to savor your time off.
2. Follow a sleep routine.
This is one of the most common suggestions when it comes to sleep hygiene, and for a good reason. You can set yourself up for restful sleep by following these suggestions, recommended by both The National Sleep Foundation and The American Sleep Association.
- Follow a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Choose a bedtime that will allow you at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Unless you feel sleepy, don’t get in or go to bed.
- Get out of bed after 30 minutes if you’re not able to fall asleep.
- Try a relaxing routine before bedtime.
- Create a calming and quiet environment in your bedroom, and keep the room cool while you sleep.
3. Exercise regularly.
Getting your body moving can do way more than keep you in shape. Studies show that regular exercise is one of the most important ways to take care of your mental health and protect your sleep cycle.
There’s no need to train for a triathlon to get these benefits. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking or some other moderately strenuous activity you enjoy is enough to get these benefits.
4. Reduce blue light exposure and screen time.
This is easier said than done, but it can have a dramatic impact on your sleep. If you can, try to cut back on smartphone and computer use. If you’re looking for something to do instead, try subbing in one of these healthy suggestions.
5. Build up anxiety reduction skills.
There are so many great behavioral techniques available for anxiety reduction and distress tolerance. Practicing just a few minutes each day can have a dramatic impact on your anxiety levels and also on your sleep. This is especially true if you experience anxiety from insomnia.
Try progressive muscle relaxation, a body scan, mindfulness meditation, or other activities to calm your anxiety. You can practice these throughout the day, as well as right before bed. In particular, CBT has proven especially effective in treating insomnia from anxiety—more effective than sleeping pills.
6. Try a sleep app.
If you need more structure as you integrate new skills, sleep apps can be beneficial. Many of them also include relaxing audio that’s meant to help you rest and sleep well. Check out Sleep Cycle, Pzizz, Relax Melodies, CBT-i Coach, and White Noise Lite. You can also use a meditation app like Insight Timer, Calm, or Headspace to find soothing audio to help you sleep well.
7. Practice these self-care skills often.
Try to find a way to build some of these new skills, techniques, and practices into your daily routine. The more often you practice these suggestions, the more likely they are to have a beneficial impact.
8. Don’t worry if you don’t feel immediate benefits.
Take deep, nourishing breaths and remind yourself that it’s 100% normal for new behavioral routines to take a lot of tiny steps and practice—and that every step in the right direction to care for your mind and body matters. The occasional “off” day or setback is actually part of the process.
Give yourself a chance to discover what feels right for you since what works well for others may not be what you find beneficial. Continue to practice and experiment to see what routines and habits feel most calming for you.
When to see a doctor
These behavioral and lifestyle strategies work well for many people. But if you’ve tried these suggestions and you’re still struggling with anxiety & insomnia, it may be time to talk with a medical professional. Visit Lemonaid to talk with our medical team about insomnia or anxiety.
- Insomnia and anxiety can create a feedback loop that perpetuates both issues.
- There are many effective strategies to help you sleep better in the short and long term.
- To sleep well tonight, refocus your mind, practice moderation, reduce blue light exposure, focus on rest, and get some exercise.
- For longer-term benefits, use a consistent sleep schedule and sleep routine, get regular exercise, reduce blue light, practice anxiety reduction skills, and use a sleep app.