Why exactly are we “catching Zs” and not some other letter? You might’ve said this phrase before, or at least heard or read it somewhere. It’s a pretty universal description and one reason why is that it’s related to something literally everyone has to do.
We need sleep. It’s not just important—it’s vital. That might be why “catching Zs” is so catchy. It makes sense to all of us because really, it’s about all of us.
In the 1903 newspaper comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, an old man is sleeping in a hammock and snoring, a small “z-z-z” floating out of his mouth. After that, within America, “catching Zs” became a common way to reference sleep.
Let’s look at why sleep matters and how to deal with anxiety disorders that may affect your sleep.
It might feel good and be a way to recharge, or even just relax (naps, oh how fantastic naps can be), but there’s more going on when you sleep. How important is sleep? Here’s what Dr. James O’Brien from the Boston SleepCare Center in Waltham, Massachusetts had to say about sleep:
“Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for optimal functioning.”
A hot tub is a luxury, a king-size bed is too. Humans don’t need those things. And when Dr. O’Brien says “optimal functioning” he’s really talking about a lot of things we might not think are affected by sleep. Things like decision making, or our conversations, or even something like listening; these are ways humans interact with the world and other people.
If we don’t get enough sleep we can start making poor decisions, we can miss important pieces of information, and we can endanger ourselves and others. That’s because sleep helps our minds and our bodies.
How exactly does sleep work, though? Let’s try to understand that and then talk about ways anxiety can disrupt the ways sleep helps us.
This won’t be too technical, so don’t worry. Remember, because the brain is so complex, the systems that make sleep happen are a little more complex than it seems. After all, when you’re sleeping you’re just lying there doing nothing, right?
Kind of, but also, most definitely not. That’s because your brain is still functioning and so is your body, obviously. They’re working in conjunction to make sure all of the systems that make up “you” do what they’re supposed to do, and that includes a kind of “reset”, which is almost the word “rest.”
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke specifies that there are two types of sleep, even though one of the types has three separate parts to it. Confused? This’ll help.
The two types of sleep are Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM. Your body goes through three stages of non-REM sleep before you arrive at the REM stage.
In the first part of non-REM sleep you’re only barely asleep, but this is when your body starts to slow down. Heart rate, breathing, and eye movements decrease and muscles start relaxing.
Stage two of non-REM sleep doesn’t seem too different from the first. Your heartbeat and breathing get even slower and your muscles get even more relaxed. This is where it gets different though. Your body temperature lowers and your eyes stop moving.
Our bodies spend the most amount of time in stage two of non-REM.
Stage three of non-REM sleep is actually the stage your body needs the most. It’s the one that will contribute to you waking up and feeling like you slept well, like you are refreshed and ready for the day. It’s when your heart rate and breathing are at their lowest levels.
Finally, the REM stage happens, usually around 90 minutes after you fall asleep. The reason it’s called REM is because your eyes begin moving rapidly from side to side behind your closed eyelids. Mixed frequency brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness.
You’ll also start breathing quicker and your heart rate picks up to almost the same rate as when you’re awake. This is also the stage where most of the dreams you experience take place, but it’s not exclusive to REM.
That’s a basic breakdown of what sleep is and how it works. What happens if you don’t sleep well, though?
One night of bad sleep won’t wreck your week, but three nights might. You may feel tired after a single night of restless sleep, and you definitely will if you don’t sleep at all. The real problems start with consistently sleeping poorly, losing sleep night after night, and not getting the benefits of deep sleep.
Specifically, deep sleep helps to rejuvenate muscles and your mind, but it also regulates hormones and body growth. Studies have even shown that sleeping less than six hours a night on workdays leads to a statistically higher chance of being obese.
Along with that, consistently sleeping poorly can lead to higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services specifies that sleeping well can improve your mood, sharpen your decision making skills, and help reduce stress and anxiety.
But what if you are already dealing with anxiety?
As you’ve read, sleep is incredibly important. So important that scientists and doctors aren’t sure which comes first: anxiety or sleep disorders. In fact, they’ve found information showing that anxiety can cause sleep disorders, and sleep disorders can cause anxiety. Let’s break that down.
Persistent insomnia carries a higher statistical risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Likewise, untreated anxiety disorders can disrupt sleep patterns and then lead to more mental and physical problems, including getting less sleep.
Doctors recommend a lot of ways to fall asleep and we’re definitely going to list some of those. One key thing almost every study of anxiety and sleep mentions, however, is getting professional treatment of anxiety.
Sometimes this includes medications and sometimes it is a combination of medication and therapy. One thing professional treatment will do for sure is find the reason for your anxiety, whatever it may be.
One key therapeutic treatment for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It includes individual and group therapy sessions that focus on identifying thought and behavior patterns, responding to them positively, and changing how anxiety affects you.
You can do quite a few things to help yourself fall asleep when struggling with anxiety. These are not necessarily ways to deal with your anxiety or sleep struggles long term, however, so keep that in mind.
First, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every night and day. It might seem impossible considering the speed at which we all live now and how much of the world is always pulling us in different directions. It’s very important though, because it helps establish the routine of sleep for your body and mind.
Get outside regularly while the sun is up, at least for a half-hour or so. Your body will be taking notes as to when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep, because of something called circadian rhythm. That’s your internal clock, the thing that says “Be awake now!” and then “Hey, sleep now!”
Another good idea is to meditate for 30 minutes before bed. It can be sitting in total silence and darkness with your eyes closed, or it can be sitting in silence and watching the sky. The important thing is to relax, to stay focused on yourself, on the present, and let your mind and body settle.
A completely dark space is one of the most important things for sleeping. Your body can react to light by thinking it should be awake, which may translate into struggling to fall or stay asleep. There are a lot of gadgets that emit light around us all the time now, so keep those things away from where you’re sleeping.
All of these can help calm your mind and body and get you ready for a night of good sleep. It’s also important to avoid worrying about being unable to fall asleep, as that’s a key part of the anxiety that can develop. If you are wide awake, don’t keep lying there. Get up and do something relaxing, something to help you calm down and stop thinking about how you are not sleeping.
SUN Behavioral specializes in CBT and knows how anxiety can affect different parts of your life. It’s our goal to meet all the needs you have, help you navigate anxiety, and get that restful sleep you need. Don’t hesitate to call us at 859-429-5188.
How Do You Fall Asleep With Anxiety?
There are a lot of recommended ways to get sleep while dealing with anxiety, but here are a few. Make sure to go to sleep and wake up at the same time. Go outdoors regularly while the sun is up so your body is accustomed to the day/night cycle and will know when it’s time to sleep. Make sure you are sleeping in a completely dark space and one that is not too hot or too cold. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, rather than lying in bed awake, get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired. Doctors recommend watching no TV in bed and not having your bright phone screen on before sleep. You should also exercise at least 30 minutes a day, although not within two hours of going to sleep. Meditation is a great way to calm your mind and body and prepare for sleep.
How Can I Stop Sleep Anxiety?
Sleep anxiety, rather than an anxiety disorder, maybe due to an underlying issue. It may in fact be an anxiety disorder, so generally, the first piece of advice is to visit your doctor. They may tell you that you are experiencing more than sleep anxiety and prescribe medication or recommend therapy. Neither of these things indicate a failure on your part. Sometimes sleep anxiety can be present when someone is worried they won’t be able to fall asleep, starting a vicious cycle. Our bodies need sleep, though, and if you are not sleeping then there is a problem somewhere that needs addressed.
Is It Hard to Sleep With Anxiety?
It can be. There are studies that show anxiety can lead to less restful sleep, but also that having a sleep disorder can lead to anxiety. Anxiety affects the mind and body which are both rejuvenated and regulated through sleep. If someone’s anxiety keeps them awake longer than their body needs it can lead to decreased energy and higher risk of certain diseases, like diabetes. Not everyone with anxiety experiences sleep problems, however.