The Link Between Anxiety and Sleep Disorders

Patient Expert

A good night's sleep is important to good health. Many of us toss and turn or watch the clock when we can't sleep for a night or two. But for some, a restless night is routine. More than 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, and an additional 20 million report sleeping problems occasionally, according to the National Institutes of Health. Stress and anxiety may cause sleeping problems or make existing problems worse. And having an anxiety disorder can only exacerbate the problem.

Sleep disorders are conditions characterized by abnormal sleep patterns that interfere with physical, mental, and emotional functioning. Stress or anxiety can cause a serious night without sleep, as do a variety of other problems. Insomnia is the clinical term for people who have trouble falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking too early in the morning, or waking up feeling unrefreshed. Other common sleep disorders include sleep apnea (loud snoring caused by an obstructed airway), sleepwalking, and narcolepsy (falling asleep spontaneously). Restless leg syndrome and bruxism (grinding of the teeth while sleeping) are conditions that also may contribute to sleep disorders.

A Vicious Cycle

Anxiety can cause sleeping problems, and the results of a recent study suggest that people with chronic insomnia are at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder. That's because a lack of sleep stimulates the part of the brain most closely associated with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders. Research also shows that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders.

For those living with an anxiety disorder, insomnia may be part of a vicious cycle. Many symptoms of anxiety disorders, including excessive stress, persistent worry, obsessive thoughts, gastrointestinal problems, and nightmares are likely to rob precious sleep. And some antidepressants commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders may cause sleep difficulties.

Health Risks

The risks of inadequate sleep extend beyond tiredness. Sleeplessness can lead to poor performance at work or school, increased risk of injury, and health problems.

Most people who have insomnia also have another health condition, most frequently an anxiety or mood disorder. Thus, treatment for one condition often affects another. Those who have sleep disorders may also be at risk for heart disease (heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack), high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. And some researchers say that adults who sleep less than six hours a night are 50 percent more likely to become obese than those who sleep seven to eight hours a night.

Anxiety and sleep disorders are serious, yet treatable. Watch for my next posting, which will provide information about treatment options, tips, and resources.

PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.