According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects over 31 percent of American adults1 at some point in their lives. Anxiety is a disorder in which an individual experiences intense feelings of worry or fear. This disorder can cause sleeplessness because these emotions can make it hard for a person to fall asleep, resulting in worse sleep quality and ultimately, worse overall health.
In this article, we will further detail the relationship between anxiety and sleep along with steps you can take to improve your sleep while navigating anxiety.
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Sleep
Anxiety and sleep have a cyclical type of relationship. Anxious thoughts can keep you up at night, but the lack of rest can wind up worsening anxiety symptoms.
People with anxiety can experience feelings of nervousness, tension, panic, and restlessness that result from traumatic life events, stress, or even a family history of anxiety. Anxiousness can also cause physical symptoms2 such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, weakness, and gastrointestinal problems.
Experts say anxiety disorders3 are commonly associated with insomnia and other sleep disturbances. As a result, those with anxiety can end up sleeping less and experiencing more fragmented rest, worsening their quality of sleep.
Sleep quality is a measure referring to how well-rested you feel in the morning, and poor sleep quality can have detrimental ramifications on your physical and mental well-being. Symptoms of poor sleep quality include negative emotions like irritability, difficulty concentrating and remembering things, less physical energy, and an increased likelihood of illness. Also, as mentioned, anxiety is also a potential side effect of inadequate rest.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
While there are formal anxiety disorders, it’s also important to differentiate these from more general experiences with anxiety. Dr. Swathi Varanasi, an integrative pharmacist and natural medicine specialist, explains more on this. “Oftentimes the anxiety that people feel is mild to moderate and is, therefore, not diagnosed but rather elevated anxiousness from the person’s baseline. Even though patients may not be diagnosed with anxiety-related disorders, they may still feel anxious about certain situations in their life.”
In the case of formal anxiety disorders, some common types include2:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – Generalized anxiety disorder4 refers to a persistent worry about multiple everyday things, and these emotions can keep the person up at night. People with GAD may find themselves struggling with uncertainty, overthinking situations, or perceiving situations as worse than they are.
- Panic disorder – When someone has a panic disorder, they’ll experience frequent, intense anxiety that quickly escalates into physical symptoms like shortness of breath, palpitations, and chest pain. These are known as panic attacks.2
- Phobias – A phobia is an extreme fear of a particular person, object, activity, situation, or animal. In certain cases, the person could develop panic attacks from their phobia1. Although uncommon, some people have a phobia of sleep, specifically, which is known as somniphobia.
- Separation anxiety – Separation anxiety is often associated with children and is when the child has a fear of being separated from their parent or guardian.2 This type of anxiety is also seen in dogs5 and can develop if the dog was previously abandoned, has a change in schedule or where they live, or there’s a new family member living with them.
Other mental health conditions can cause anxiety that impairs sleep, such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD can be triggered by a traumatic event such as an accident, physical abuse, military combat, or sexual violence. Those at a higher risk for PTSD6 include military members, first responders, those who’ve had childhood trauma, people with other mental health conditions or a family history of them, and people who drink or do drugs in excess.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – OCD7 is a condition in which someone experiences certain obsessions or compulsions. According to experts, this condition can be caused by biological changes, genetics, or learned behaviors.7
Stress vs. Anxiety
Anxiety and stress are similar, but it is important to not confuse stress with general anxiety disorder. While stress may lead to the development of this condition and anxiety can cause stress, they are not the same (even though they may appear so from the outside).
Dr. Luc Staner, a Belgian Psychiatrist, may describe the difference best when he writes, “Anxiety is an experience of everyday life. It typically functions as an internal alarm bell that warns of potential danger and, in mild degrees, anxiety is serviceable to the individual. In anxiety disorders, however, the individual is submitted to false alarms that may be intense, frequent, or even continuous”.3
Stress is related to real events, like an exam or job interview. This is a feeling that often goes away. Anxiety can be based on both the tangible as well as the unknown, like living with a constant worry of death or financial ruin, without any palpable rationale behind these fears. “The difference is that when someone is diagnosed with anxiety, it gets in the way of functioning in daily life and, therefore must be treated. But stress or anxious feelings that occur during the day can be scenario-specific,” notes Dr. Varanasi.
Sleep Disorders That Can Trigger Anxiety
We mentioned earlier that sleep problems can exacerbate anxiety. Many people have sleep disorders, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, that can affect the quality and amount of sleep they get, resulting in anxiety. The following are common sleep disorders that can trigger anxiety.
- Restless Legs Syndrome
- Sleep Apnea
Sleep disorders can be harmful to your physical and mental well-being. Short-term effects of inadequate rest include poor cognitive abilities, exhibiting more negative emotions, and less physical energy. Long-term effects of bad sleep include hypertension, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and memory problems.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep, and it is both a symptom and a cause of anxiety. Insomnia affects sleep quality by causing delayed sleep onset or disturbed rest. The dangers of insomnia8 include medical complications like high blood pressure and heart disease. Insomnia also increases your risk of accidents.
Learn more: Is insomnia genetic?
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder in which a person has extreme daytime drowsiness and sudden urges to fall asleep. Narcolepsy can affect sleep quality by making it difficult to stay asleep at night, which can trigger anxiety symptoms. This condition can be dangerous because someone could experience a sudden sleep attack while on the road or operating machinery.
3. Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder characterized by a persistent need to move your legs, especially at night. Experts say that restless legs syndrome9 may result from a dopamine imbalance in the brain, which could be hereditary or develop during pregnancy.
Restless legs syndrome affects sleep quality by making it harder to doze off, resulting in shorter sleep durations. The dangers of restless legs syndrome are the same as insomnia because it’s a byproduct of RLS. These dangers include cardiovascular problems, along with worse cognitive, emotional, and physical capabilities.
Find out more about restless legs syndrome.
4. Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing periodically starts and stops while asleep. There are two types of sleep apnea10, obstructive and central. Obstructive results from a blockage in the upper airway, whereas central sleep apnea is caused by the brain not sending the right signals to the breathing muscles.10
Sleep apnea can bring about or worsen anxiety, and it affects sleep quality by causing more disturbed rest because the individual often will wake up gasping for air. The dangers of sleep apnea can include sleep deprivation, diabetes, medication and surgery complications, and liver problems.10
Want to learn more? Read our in-depth guide on sleep apnea.
Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder that causes a person to get up and walk while asleep. The formal name for sleepwalking is somnambulism. Cleveland Clinic11 reports that anxiety and stress may lead to nighttime disturbances like sleepwalking.
A study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine12 found that sleepwalking led to complications associated with poor sleep quality, such as daytime drowsiness, fatigue, and insomnia. They added that sleepwalking also caused depression and anxiety symptoms.12
Additionally, people who sleepwalk run the risk of hurting themselves.
Does Anxiety Cause Sleep Disorders?
Yes, anxiety can cause sleep disorders. The most common sleep disorder triggered by anxiety is insomnia. As mentioned above, the physiological symptoms of anxiety (worrisome thoughts, heart racing, rapid breathing) can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.3
Experiencing anxiety also increases a person’s chance of having nightmares13, which is a form of parasomnia. Parasomnias are unpleasant experiences that happen when you sleep. Some other examples of parasomnias are sleepwalking and talking in your sleep.
Tips for Sleeping With Anxiety
There are ways to help yourself sleep with anxiety. Tips to increase sleep quality if you’re experiencing anxiety include relaxation exercises and improving your sleep hygiene.
Relaxation exercises can help your mind calm down and focus your attention away from what’s troubling you. Try some of these examples before bed to induce relaxation:
- Light yoga exercises
- Warm bath
- Reading (avoid stressful reading)
- Deep breathing
Sleep hygiene is a term for daytime and nighttime habits that can influence your sleep. Good sleep hygiene is often recommended to improve sleep quality, which should help alleviate anxiety in the process. Examples of good sleep hygiene include:
- Keeping a consistent sleep and waking schedule
- Comfortable bedroom
- Avoiding blue light (e.g., phone, electronics, TV) 2-3 hours before bedtime
- Cutting back on caffeine and alcohol
- Regular exercise
- Not eating large meals late at night
Treatments for Anxiety
Seeking professional help for anxiety through therapy or medication is also an option. Healthcare professionals will usually try therapy before resorting to medical intervention to improve anxiety and sleep.
Some therapies used to treat anxiety disorders include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT14 is a form of psychotherapy that helps an individual learn how to change their behavior. CBT can teach someone how to avoid behaviors and environments that trigger anxiety or insomnia. They may also learn how to change any negative thoughts or emotions associated with rest. Sleep therapies like CBT may incorporate specific techniques like relaxation training and sleep hygiene.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT15 is a type of therapy that concentrates on current problems or relationships in the patient’s life rather than on childhood issues. The goal of IPT is to help the patient manage their interpersonal functioning and relationships.
- Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy16 centers on the patient’s “psychological roots of emotional suffering,” according to the American Psychological Association. This therapy aims to reduce symptoms and prompt a more healthy lifestyle. According to experts, this form of therapy has proven highly effective as well.16
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy17 is a treatment that has the patient confront their fears. This therapy is often useful for those with phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety, OCD, PSTD, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Medications often used to treat anxiety disorders include:
- Benzodiazepines – Benzodiazepines are a type of medication that’s often prescribed to treat anxiety. They are sedatives that help relax the muscles and mind. Xanax and Valium are examples of better-known Benzodiazepines. According to the Mayo Clinic, this type of medication is solely for short-term use to help relieve symptoms.2 When taking any medication, you want to exercise caution and follow your healthcare provider’s prescription exactly, but because these are also sedatives, you want to be sure you’re not taking them when driving, operating machinery, or during any other task that requires full alertness.
- Antidepressants – Antidepressants are sometimes used for anxiety, more specifically, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors18 (SSRIs). Well-known examples of SSRIs are Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, and Lexapro. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, these medications help quiet anxious thoughts and can also help with sleep, muscle tension, and headaches.18 They add that healthcare providers typically prescribe a gradual dosage increase of antidepressants over 4-8 weeks, and though you may experience initial unpleasant side effects, these typically go away or lessen over time.18
- Sleep medications – Sleep medications can alleviate anxiety by improving your rest. A physician may prescribe sleeping pills to treat insomnia, but these are supposed to provide a temporary solution. Some people may opt to use natural sleep aids like melatonin or chamomile tea instead of prescribed or over-the-counter medications.
Supplements that may help manage anxiety include:
- L-theanine – A 2019 study19 found that after taking L-theanine for four weeks, participants saw improvements in stress-related symptoms, including anxiety.
- GABA – Gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA, is a neurotransmitter20 that you can also access as a supplement. GABA is known for its benefits regarding anxiety, as well as stress and sleep.20
- Reishi – In a 2020 study21, researchers looked at how the reishi mushroom helped with mental distress in patients with fibromyalgia, which can include secondary symptoms like anxiety and depression. Their research showed some promising results, though they do acknowledge that additional studies are needed.
- Kava – Kava is a root that originates from the western Pacific Ocean22. Numerous studies have linked Kava23 as a possible means to help manage anxiety symptoms.
- Lavender – Research shows lavender is an effective solution for managing anxiety symptoms24, which can include restlessness and disrupted sleep.
- Rhodiola – A study25 on rhodiola’s effectiveness for anxiety management showed significant improvements in GAD symptoms. While the study only had 10 participants, the results were promising.
- CBD – Researchers have found cannabidiol (CBD) to be helpful26 when it comes to managing anxiety and relieving daily life stressors.
- Magnesium – Magnesium is considered helpful for anxiety by easing muscle tension and calming brain activity27.
Final Word of Advice
Anxiety and sleep have a cyclical relationship, with one often worsening the other. While understandably frustrating for those experiencing this issue, there are multiple treatment options.
At-home practices could help alleviate anxiety and foster better sleep, including meditation, good sleep hygiene, yoga, and deep breathing. However, people can also seek out professional treatments as well, such as therapy and prescribed medications.
While Sleep Advisor sources our details from trusted health and science sources, we are not medical professionals ourselves and encourage our readers to talk with a healthcare professional for more details on anxiety and improving their symptoms.
- “Any Anxiety Disorder”. National Institute of Mental Health. Webpage accessed September 19, 2024.
- “Anxiety disorders”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified May 4, 2018.
- Staner, Luc. “Sleep and anxiety disorders”. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2003.
- “Generalized anxiety disorder”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified October 13, 2017.
- “Separation Anxiety”. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Webpage accessed January 13, 2024.
- “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified December 13, 2022.
- “Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified March 11, 2020.
- “Insomnia”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified October 15, 2016.
- “Restless legs syndrome”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified March 1, 2022.
- “Sleep apnea”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified December 23, 2022.
- “Sleepwalking”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified January 22, 2020.
- “Adult sleepwalking is serious condition that impacts health-related quality of life”. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2013.
- “Nightmare disorder”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified June 5, 2021.
- “What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?”. American Psychological Association. 2017.
- “What is Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)?”. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Webpage accessed January 13, 2024.
- “Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Brings Lasting Benefits through Self-Knowledge”. American Psychological Association. 2010.
- “What Is Exposure Therapy?”. American Psychological Association. 2017.
- Gomez, Angela F., Hofmann PhD, Stefan G. “SSRIs and Benzodiazepines for General Anxiety Disorders (GAD)”. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. 2020.
- Hidese, Shinsuke., et al. “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial”. Nutrients. 2019.
- “Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified April 25, 2022.
- Pazzi, Francesco., et al. “Ganoderma lucidum Effects on Mood and Health-Related Quality of Life in Women with Fibromyalgia.” Healthcare. 2020.
- “Kava”. University of Michigan Health. Webpage accessed December 4, 2024.
- “Kava kava”. Mount Sinai. Webpage accessed December 4, 2024.
- Hossein Koulivand, Pier., Khaleghi Ghadiri, Maryam., Gorji, Ali. “Lavender and the Nervous System”. National Library of Medicine. 2013.
- Bystritsky, Alexander., Kerwin, Lauren., Feusner, Jamie D. “A pilot study of Rhodiola rosea (Rhodax) for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)”. National Library of Medicine. 2008.
- Shannon MD, Scott., et al. “Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series”. The Permanente Journal. 2019.
- “What an Expert Says About Taking Magnesium for Sleep”. UC San Diego Health. 2024.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Education & Credentials
- Certified Sleep Science Coach