Why does it seem that one’s darkest thoughts emerge in the middle of the night? Perhaps in the light of day it’s easier to ignore feelings of anxiousness or despair?
Anxiety is a normal human emotion characterized by feelings of worry and nervousness. You may feel anxiety during stressful episodes in your life, such as concern for a loved one’s health, financial troubles or the coronavirus pandemic that’s sweeping the world.
For some people, anxiety sticks around all the time. When this happens, anxiety wreaks havoc on sleep we can’t afford to miss, which in turn sends your emotions spiraling out of control, affecting health and well-being. So, what can you do when anxiety seems to be getting the best of you?
Chances are at some point in your life you’ve experienced a few of the most common anxiety symptoms, including nervousness, worry, trouble concentrating, and trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
Anxiety is now the leading mental health disorder in the United States, overtaking depression.1 In fact, one writer described the nation as The United States of Anxiety – and this was well before the coronavirus!
If this sounds familiar, please know you are not alone.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), over half of adults say their anxiety levels affect their ability to get to sleep at night.2
But why does anxiety get worse at night? Unfortunately, there isn’t much scientific research that can answer that question. However, experts say at night your mind may be racing, trying to process the concerns of the day. Or, you could be anticipating all the important items on tomorrow’s to-do list.
In a nutshell, this perceived stress causes the body to experience an adrenaline rush, which is the opposite of what you want when you’re trying to get to sleep.
Chronic Nighttime Anxiety Triggers a Vicious Health-Destroying Cycle
A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found anxiety disorders are closely linked to poor sleep quality.3 Researchers cite a number of studies indicating that sleep deprivation can actually trigger anxiety, and vice versa.4
Perhaps most concerning is that this vicious cycle can really damage your quality of life. Researchers at the University of California found “significantly worse mental health-related quality of life and increased disability” in individuals who reported both anxiety and poor sleep than in those who reported anxiety alone.5
Thanks to my group’s extensive research on cancer and dementia, I can also tell you that poor sleep increases your risk of both.
So addressing your anxiety and sleep issues are essential steps in improving not only your mental health, but also your physical well-being. If you suffer poor quality sleep for months or years on end, it’s not a minor problem. It’s a four-alarm fire.
Dangers of Anti-Anxiety Drugs
While it’s tempting to reach for an anti-anxiety drug, be aware that while the most commonly prescribed drugs – called benzodiazepines – do make you sleep, they can be highly addictive because they share the same brain “reward” pathway as opioids.
As a result, if you take them over the long term they can do more harm than good. And besides, there are some nasty side effects including memory loss, fuzzy thinking, dizziness, and hip fractures that occur when you get up at night in a drug-addled daze and take a fall.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are also commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, but I would avoid them because they too have a long list of side effects. These drugs can cause nausea, diarrhea, headache, sexual dysfunction, blurred vision, dizziness and even insomnia. Surely there’s a better way to get quality sleep!
That’s why I recommend seeking out natural remedies to bring your anxiety under control over the long term.
How to Stop Nighttime Anxiety in its Tracks
If nighttime anxiety is a chronic problem, it’s wise to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider who may recommend, among other things, cognitive behavioral therapy.6
In the meantime, here are some proven lifestyle steps that may help you calm down and sleep.
- Ditch the electronics: I’ve mentioned this before in other articles on sleep, but it bears repeating. In a 2017 study, researchers found that in almost 350 adult participants, the use of electronics after bedtime was linked to the amount of time it took to fall asleep.7 Scientists believe the devices’ blue light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, making it tough to get and stay asleep. Additionally, the screens’ constant news cycle won’t help you get to sleep, either.
- Deepen your breathing: Try 4-7-8 breathing. Here’s how to start: in a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed, inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, exhale slowly for eight seconds. Then repeat as necessary.8There are several free podcasts that can help with other relaxation techniques.
- Consider meditation or progressive relaxation. In a review of 163 different studies on meditation, researchers concluded that the practice produced a substantial improvement in anxiety.9If you’re new to meditation there are many free podcasts. Visit the online UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center for examples.
- Exercise your anxieties away: From physical well-being to mental health, it seems there’s not much that exercise can’t help, and sleep is no exception. According to Sleep.org, as little as ten minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis.10
- Brew a cup of chamomile tea or take a supplement: The anxiety relieving benefits of chamomile are well documented in clinical study. Researchers found chamomile users experienced “a significant reduction in anxiety and improvements in overall feelings of wellbeing.”11 Furthermore, additional research reveals that chamomile acts like common anti-anxiety drugs, but without the side effects.12 I’ve had success with a sleep supplement called Napz. It contains gentle chamomile, hibiscus, lemon balm and passion flower. Some people also find CBD oil helpful.
- Investigate Silexan lavender capsules: While you’ve probably heard about using lavender essential oil on your wrists to alleviate stress, researchers have developed a special lavender to take internally.
Please note: You can not safely consume lavender essential oil, it’s very dangerous. However, there is a lavender supplement called Silexan that is made for oral use. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry published a review of seven clinical trials and found that 80mg doses of Silexan reduced anxiety disorders and improved sleep. Aside from mild gastrointestinal symptoms, there were no adverse effects.13
- Try ashwagandha: This is one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s said to reduce anxiety and stabilize the body’s response to stress, and can be taken safely over the long term.
I also want to mention kava root and valerian root. While these herbs have been shown to reduce anxiety in clinical study, they can interact with certain medications as well as cause side effects so it’s best not to use these over the long-term unless you’re taking them under the guidance of a knowledgeable natural or integrative doctor. Personally I don’t like either.
- Increase your magnesium intake: Magnesium is a common deficiency in adults and plays a critical role in calming the nervous system. Seek out supplemental magnesium chelate, citrate or chloride for best absorption. Start with a low dose and work your way up, as taking too much can cause diarrhea. I always prefer the chelated form of minerals for better bioavailability.
- Take vitamin B-complex: B vitamins help reduce stress and stabilize moods, especially vitamin B6. In fact, anxiety is one of the symptoms of B6 deficiency. I’ve heard from a number of people who take vitamin B complex that it’s best to take it in the morning and not close to bed because in some cases, vitamin B can energize the body.
Basically, it’s a good idea to establish good sleep habits, including maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding stimulants of all kinds in the afternoon and early evening.
If nighttime anxiety is affecting your life, it’s also wise to take advantage of mental health resources that can help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website – www.adaa.org – is a good first step.
- Sedlmeier P, Eberth J, Schwarz M, et al. The psychological effects of meditation: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2012;138(6):1139-71. doi: 10.1037/a0028168.
- Amsterdam JD, Li Y, Soeller I, Rockwell K, Mao JJ, Shults J.A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricariarecutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder.J ClinPsychopharmacol. 2009 Aug;29(4):378-82.
- Avallone R, Zanoli P, Corsi L, Cannazza G, Baraldi M. 1996. Benzodiazepine-like compounds and GABA in flower heads of Matricariachamomilla.Phytother Res 10: S177–S179.