Sleep Anxiety

Worry about the consequences of not getting adequate sleep.


Have you ever heard of sleep anxiety?  Excessive worry about the consequences of not getting enough sleep?  I hadn’t until a few years ago, I now know that I used to suffer terribly from it. 

For some people, getting into bed might be the first time that they have had a moment to reflect on their day.  This may trigger anxiety, stress and worry, making it difficult to switch off, relax and fall asleep.  There are 2 types of worries that may affect your sleep:

  1. General worries – such as worrying about things that are causing you stress – life, work, relationships.
  2. Sleep worries – this is worrying about the effects of not sleeping.  Thoughts like ‘I wonder how much sleep I’ll have tonight?’ ‘I’m going to be so tired tomorrow if I don’t get enough sleep’ or ‘I’ll never get back to sleep’

For some people, it is a combination of both.

I was definitely category 2.  I’d start fretting when it was time to go to bed.  I’d stress that I’d not get enough sleep and would be so tired that I’d make a mistake at work or in the student naturopathy clinic.  It would be even worse when I had a late shift in the pathology lab and had to be up early the next day for either more work or uni.  

I’d end up tossing and turning and having a totally shit night sleep.  I’d be so exhausted the next day that I’d dose myself up on caffeine and sugar further reducing the quality of my sleep and amping up my stress response.  This vicious cycle was my life for many years.  However, I was totally oblivious to it.  I had no idea that my sleep anxiety and behaviours, were a large part of why I struggled so badly with shift work.

Why does anxiety affect sleep?

Feeling anxious and worried increases our alertness and stress levels.  We feel more awake and less sleepy, making it even harder to fall asleep.  In response to this, we often increase our effort to fall asleep.  We actively try to force ourselves to fall asleep.  Instead, we activate our stress response even more and toss and turn all night.  If you don’t do something to fix this, you may end up in a Sleep-Anxiety cycle, where your anxiety affects your sleep which leaves you feeling exhausted, you struggle to cope and your mood is affected, which leads to more negative thoughts about sleep and more anxiety.  The focus of this blog will be on sleep anxiety and will cover strategies to help your correct your thought patterns to break your Sleep-Worry cycle.  Helping you learn how to stop worrying about not sleeping.



Bedtime Stress and Anxiety

It’s common for people who have trouble sleeping to start feeling anxious when getting ready for bed and to end up dreading bedtime.  Many people with insomnia form an association between bedtime and not sleeping, bedtime becomes a trigger for their sleep anxiety.  This is when the negative thoughts and patterns about sleep arise.

For me, I’d calculated the number of hours until my alarm went off, and if it was 8hrs or less I’d start stressing.  I’d lie in bed willing my body to sleep.  If that didn’t work I’d get frustrated and more and more stressed.  I’d also be thinking about how tired I was going to be the next day and how I was going to make a mistake at work that would cause someone to die, or I’d give a patient in the student clinic the wrong herb.  Basically, I was over catastrophising about events that were unlikely to ever happen.

What can you do about sleep anxiety?

If you do experience sleep anxiety there are some strategies that you can use to break this cycle and form a healthy relationship with sleep, including:

  • Change your thought patterns and actions around sleep.
  • Come up with strategies to quiet your mind.
  • Stop consciously ‘trying’ to fall asleep.
  • Reduce physical tension.

female sitting on bed unable to sleep, worrying about sleep

Changing your thought patterns and actions around sleep anxiety.

Try changing your thoughts and actions about sleep from being negative to being positive. 

During the Day/Right Before bed:

  • When you wake up after a poor night’s sleep don’t dwell on how badly you slept, this only increases worry and stress and may affect your sleep the next night.  Instead, focus on all the good things your day ahead will bring.  To combat any fatigue, keep moving, chat to someone and drink plenty of water.  Also, limit caffeine and sugar as they interfere with sleep and increase stress and anxiety. 
  • Accepting that it’s normal to sometimes have a bad night’s sleep and letting go of any sleep anxiety may help settle an anxious mind.  Writing down your thoughts around sleep helps to let them go.
  • Instead of worrying about sleep in the hours leading up to bed, plan to do something fun or relaxing. e.g. listen to a meditation, progressive relaxation/breathing track, or a bedtime story podcast/App, such as Get Sleepy or Calm Sleep Stories, to help reduce your anxiety and stress levels.  Check out my blog on How To Manage Stress for more relaxation tips.
  • As your bedtime approaches prepare your body for sleep.  Make a pot of nice relaxing tea, read a book, do some meditation, have a hot bath/shower.  Now you can accept you are well prepared for sleep and that the rest is up to your body.
  • Another technique is to change your thoughts away from sleeping better being the answer to your problem to making your goal about something else.  E.g. instead of ‘Tonight, I want to sleep for 7hrs and not wake up so I’ll have more energy.’  Try ‘I want to have more energy and ways I can do this is to exercise more, eat better, start doing mindfulness/meditation’.

When You Can’t Sleep:

  • Remind yourself that it’s normal once in a while to have a bad night’s sleep.
  • Acknowledge that you know you will be ok even if you don’t get a good night’s sleep as you know what to do if this happens.  Keep moving, chat to someone, drink plenty of water, eat healthy, including healthy snacks, stay away from sugar and caffeine.
  • Don’t focus on ‘trying’ to fall asleep as this may affect your ability to fall asleep.   Instead, accept that you may not sleep well tonight and that’s ok.
  • Remind yourself not to worry about not sleeping as this only increases the risk of not sleeping.  Again you can write down your worries.  Writing down your worries can help you to figure out which ones are what-if/hypothetical worries versus worries that require attention.  You can then choose to let go of the what-if worries and to action the others at a more appropriate time.

  • Don’t focus on how many hours of sleep you might get.
  • You’ve slept badly before and coped.
  • Instead of worrying do something relaxing, this is still restorative to the mind and body.  Meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, bedtime story podcasts.  When doing any relaxation techniques remember that it is normal for the mind to wander and to always be kind to yourself if you find these techniques hard when first learning them. 
  • Instead of thinking negative thoughts, reflect on the things in your life that are good and what you are grateful for.

In summary

In summary, your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours all work together to maintain insomnia.  Breaking these patterns can be used to break your Sleep-Anxiety cycle.  Changing your thought patterns allows you to control the situation and stops your thoughts from going into overdrive.  If you are reluctant to give this a go, challenge yourself to try it out for one week and see how you go, what can you lose?  It’s only one week and you might find you benefit from making a few changes to your thoughts.

Sick of worry affecting your sleep?

If you’d like more help and guidance in breaking your Sleep-Worry cycle, I offer naturopathic consultations, including nutritional and herbal supplements, diet, and lifestyle advice.  

It is common for people with insomnia to experience low moods and anxiety.  If you feel that you may be experiencing clinical depression or anxiety, then it is important to seek medical help.

Keep an eye out for future blogs where I’ll talk more about strategies to quiet your mind, how to stop consciously ‘trying’ to fall asleep, and ways to reduce physical tension.

For some helpful shift worker advice download The Shift Workers Guide: Eating For Increased Energy & Happier Digestion

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