Sleep anxiety and how to beat it

  • 04 May - 10 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly

Ever been plagued by an inability to drift off, leaving you spending days in an under-slept haze? If so, know that you are far from alone. A one third of people will have episodes of insomnia at some point in their lives. One inevitable byproduct of this is a glut of sleep anxiety in the population.

Lack of sleep is obviously a source of frustration and stress, which affects our work, relationships, health and mental wellbeing. Not only that, but there is growing evidence it causes serious chronic diseases, too.

What is sleep anxiety?

But what is sleep anxiety? Most of us are all too familiar with the anxious feelings, but in relation to our night's rest it's less well-known. Also known as somniphobia, sleep anxiety is a combination of insomnia and anxiety – specifically when the two conditions exacerbate each other, which is known as bidirectional comorbidity.

It is characterised by a sense of panic caused by the prospect of going to sleep, whatever the worries around it may be.

This sort of stress around sleep is actually a form of performance anxiety. We worry that if we get less than our eight hours, we’re not going to be able to cope with the day ahead.

The knowledge that substandard rest will mean we're less able to function in our lives, whether for family or work, creates a stress that can lead to a fear of going to sleep. It can even be the idea that one’s not sleeping enough that triggers the angst, which becomes a cruel cycle.

Tips on coping with sleep anxiety

So, how can you stop sleep anxiety? It’s a case of trying to keep overall stress levels down, so looking at your routine and making sure you have no unnecessary stresses before bed.

1. Get into the habit of a relaxing practice before bed

Try an evening breathing session, meditation, gentle yoga class or series of stretches to help relax your body and clear your mind. Though late night runs can feel useful as you’re expending energy, they raise your heart rate which in turn will affect your sleeping. Instead, exercise in the morning or afternoon, which has been proven to reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

2. Be strict about sleep hygiene

It’s important for everyone, but particularly if you’re prone to insomnia. That means leaving phones outside of the bedroom and no screen time two hours before trying to sleep. Not only does the blue light mess with our Circadian rhythm, but checking emails or social media can up anxiety levels. If you know you run through a mental to-do list the second you're distraction-free, then write out everything you need to remember for tomorrow, on paper, before you begin to wind-down.

3. Check your sleep environment

Keep your room dark, quiet and cool to up the chances of staying calm and falling asleep pronto. Between 16-18 degrees is the ideal temperature as any more will make you restful and less will make it even harder to drop off.

4. Make sure you’re getting enough exercise

Ultimately we’re still quite simple beings and need to expend sufficient energy, whether that’s a 30-minute HIIT class or a slow lunchtime stroll, to be tired. Bonus: If you’re feeling sleepy after a poor night’s rest, it will perk you up more effectively than a nap.

5. Be conscious of your coffee intake

Stick to no caffeine after 2pm as it stays in your system for six hours after consum-ption. You may find you notice the effects for longer, in which case keep it in the AM and swap over to herbal in the afternoon.

6. Get some sun

Try and get some daylight to help your Circadian rhythm. Our internal clocks are aided by sunlight, which creates serotonin in the body and makes us feel calm. Then at night, darkness triggers melatonin production which helps us sleep.

7. Don’t stress

Easier said than done, no doubt, but a 2018 study found we only need between seven and eight hours of sleep to function and it's totally normal to wake up a few times during that period. Many of us think if we have anything short of an eight-hour block of blissful, uninterrupted sleep, we’ve slept badly. In fact, we all naturally surface several times a night in between sleep stages. If you’re struggling during the day, have a 10 – 30-minute nap. Though it doesn’t make up for poor quality nighttime rest, it can help improve mood and performance. In contrast to the usual hype around 20-minute naps, a sleep study found 10 minutes proved most effective at reducing tiredness and improving cognitive performance.