We’ve all gone to bed at a reasonable time with the best of intentions to get an incredible night’s sleep. We need it! We’ve been so stressed and we deserve to feel better tomorrow, so we lie down only to be met with tossing and turning, accelerated heartbeat, a nervous feeling in the chest, and shallow breathing. Anxiety has ruined many potential nights for great sleep. But is anxiety the problem, or is it a symptom? Sleep and anxiety are more interconnected than we think.
Amanda Huggins, Anxiety and Empowerment Coach, is the ultimate expert on this concept. She understands the spectrum of anxiety, from typical and normal to chronic and debilitating, and everything in between. Huggins tells us that stress and anxiety are more closely related than we ever imagined, and the repercussions of a poor night’s rest or anxiety can then affect one another … it can be a real mess.
Huggins first shared that a recent study found that after a sleepless night, “the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex (which is associated with emotional regulation and our ability to de-escalate anxiety) can completely shut down. The next day, your mind and body have to do overtime to regulate stress. If you’re already anxious to begin with, your existing stressors may seem intensified.”
If you’ve ever looked at the clock repeatedly during a stressful night to see the hours whizzing by, only to be met with more anxiety about the lost sleep, then you might understand this intensity. Studies have also found that deep sleep (non-REM) is a natural anxiety inhibitor. After a restful night (think: less tossing and turning, fewer dreams), anxiety levels have been found to plummet.
“While that’s great information to have on hand, for those who struggle with chronic anxiety, getting good sleep isn’t all that easy,” Huggins admits. “Many people fall into the classic cycle of: ‘I’m anxious, so I can’t sleep … now, I’m anxious the next day … now I’m anxious about how much sleep I’ll get tonight … and then I will stay up all night again because I’m thinking about it!’” Lather, rinse, repeat.
Huggins’ data begs the question: If deep sleep is critical for anxiety reduction, how does an anxious person get good sleep? The age-old paradox. Chicken before the egg. Stress before rest. Or is it…?
Don’t worry, there are solutions, and Huggins has got the process. The key is building better, realistic sleep habits.
“I suggest approaching sleep habits in the same way you’d approach nutrition: We all know crash diets don’t work, but long-term lifestyle changes do. As you explore creating better sleep habits, it’s important to create a long-term strategy—this isn’t just about getting one or two good nights of sleep a week; it’s about regulating your relationship with rest altogether! Here are my tips:
Routine and structure
• I hate to say it, but you’ve got to set better boundaries with yourself. If you find yourself scrolling mindlessly on TikTok until 12 a.m., it might be time to commit to making small adjustments until you’ve changed your habits. I recommend against extreme rules like ‘no social media at night!’—it’s likely not sustainable, and you’ll fall back into old habits. But can you close your apps 10 minutes earlier each night? Start with smaller increments, and build from there.
• Watch your screen time in general: phones, TV, laptops, etc. Screen time within a two-hour window of bed can begin to seriously disrupt our body’s ability to produce melatonin naturally. Again, small adjustments here are better—if you have to be on your computer late at night, try blue light-filtering glasses—there are so many cute styles on the market now!
• Commit to a better sleep schedule. Have a plan, set alarms, write it down! It becomes much harder to ignore a commitment we’ve made to ourselves when we’re getting constant reminders about it.
Use tools to support
• I’m a big fan of CBD. The cannabinoids work with the brain’s neuroreceptors to regulate anxiety and relax your body. On days where I’m feeling a little extra stressy, I’ll take a few drops in the afternoon and evening to assure I can rest easy at night.
• Essential oils/diffusers are great. Scents like chamomile and lavender offer great relaxation benefits, plus your home will smell amazing! I just purchased a diffuser that I can set to turn on at certain times during the day. I set mine to turn on at around 8:30 p.m. The scent is a nice reminder that it’s time to start winding down.
Address what’s keeping you up at night
• Here’s the big one: if you’re super anxious about something and it’s keeping you up at night, you’ve got to address it. Anxious thoughts and feelings will always find a way to catch up with us in the evening and hinder our sleep.
• The ‘big stuff’ that keeps you up at night (relationships, work, confidence) should be addressed through therapy or coaching, but one simple next step now is to incorporate affirmations into your daily inner dialogue.
• A regular affirmation practice provides an opportunity to take ownership of your thoughts, change negatively patterned thinking, and creates space in your mind so that you can drift off to sleep with ease.
• As you’re preparing for bed (phone is down, lights are off, and you’re starting to cozy up), begin taking a few deep breaths. Focus on the depth and expression of your exhales, allowing each breath out to release any stress or tension you’ve accumulated from the day. As your body begins to relax, gently repeat your affirmation in your mind on loop. Don’t worry too much about pacing or frequency; simply allow the affirmations to flow in tandem with the breath. Gentle is the name of the game here: imagine these words are melting off of you, relaxing you, and encouraging you to drop into deep rest.”
Because sleep and anxiety are so interconnected, Huggins reminds us that we need to prioritize our mental health and acts of self-love. We can’t achieve relaxation without good rest, and vice versa. Time to shift our habits in a major way.