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What Comes First, Anxiety or Insomnia?

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Common sense tells us that an anxious mind can keep you up at night. As your head hits the pillow, anxious thoughts race through your mind about the stressful day you just had and the mountain of problems that await you in the morning. You glance at the clock and calculate how many hours you have left until you have to wake up. You know that tackling them without a good night's sleep will only make it worse, but the longer you lie in bed, the more you worry that you won't get the quality sleep you so desperately need. Any sleep that eventually comes is shallow, restless, and intermittent until suddenly -- BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Your alarm rings, and it is time to wake up.

Anxiety can negatively impact the quality of your sleep, but new research has suggested that the opposite may also be true: poor sleep patterns may be the root of your anxiety issues.

In a recent study, scientists monitored the brain activity of people who had been deprived of sleep for over 35 hours. Once each individual was shown photographs classified as sad, MRI scans revealed significant activity in the subject's amygdala, the region of the brain that regulates emotions. At the same time, the links from the amygdala to other regions of the brain had become weaker, allowing the subject's emotions to spin out of control. In this way, the researchers concluded that sleep deprivation can create an environment that causes your mind to race and become overwhelmed by anxious thoughts.

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Doctors recommend that you sleep at least 8 hours each night, but according to recent studies, the average adult only sleeps approximately 6.6 hours per night. And yet, not all sleep is created equal. A healthy sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and spans four critical stages. The deep sleep and REM sleep stages at the tail end of the cycle are essential for helping you to wake up feeling refreshed the next day. But even if you sleep a total of 8 hours each night, you may not be reaching these stages of sleep that are crucial for mental rejuvenation.

Consider engaging in strenuous physical activity late in the evening or close to bed time. The sensation of physical fatigue can help to quiet your anxious mind and help lull you into a deep, peaceful sleep. This simple routine change can help you wake up feeling refreshed and maintain control over your emotions even in stressful situations.

Jennifer

Jennifer recently retired from her career as a Certified Manual Physical Therapist to spend more time with her family. When she isn't writing about natural medicine, she enjoys practicing yoga, rock climbing, and running marathons.

References

  1. Dimitrov A, Nowak J, Ligdorf A, Oei NYL, Adli M, Walter H, Veer IM. Natural sleep loss is associated with lower mPFC activity during negative distracter processing. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2021 Feb;21(1):242-253. doi: 10.3758/s13415-020-00862-w. Epub 2021 Jan 20. PMID: 33469886; PMCID: PMC7994230.
  2. Kalmbach DA, Abelson JL, Arnedt JT, Zhao Z, Schubert JR, Sen S. Insomnia symptoms and short sleep predict anxiety and worry in response to stress exposure: a prospective cohort study of medical interns. Sleep Med. 2019 Mar;55:40-47. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2018.12.001. Epub 2018 Dec 14. PMID: 30763868; PMCID: PMC7045299.
  3. Choueiry N, Salamoun T, Jabbour H, El Osta N, Hajj A, Rabbaa Khabbaz L. Insomnia and Relationship with Anxiety in University Students: A Cross-Sectional Designed Study. PLoS One. 2016 Feb 22;11(2):e0149643. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149643. PMID: 26900686; PMCID: PMC4762701.