Lack of Sleep and Anxiety: A Bad Combination

February 23, 2019
Lack of sleep and anxiety are related. Not sleeping enough every night will result in chronic exhaustion that can lead to the manifestation of several psychological disorders, including depression.

Lack of sleep and anxiety share a significant link, according to recent studies. We’re not just referring to insomnia per se, but also to not sleeping well. If you’re experiencing this every day, your health is probably declining.

Neuroscience advances every day and provides us with new information that is as interesting as it is valuable. For example, it was recently discovered that less than a half hour naps help improve short and long term memory. And we also know that sleeping is key in the elimination of toxins.

Human beings, like most animals, need to sleep. Failure to get adequate rest jeopardizes our health and well-being. Various sleep deprivation studies have shown the risks of this. It’s even been observed that sleeping less than six hours per night increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Sophocles said that sleeping is the only effective medicine for almost anything, and he was certainly not mistaken. Sometimes, we completely neglect the importance of our living habits. Sleeping for at least 7 or 8 hours a night is positive for both our physical and psychological health.

“No small art is it to sleep: it is necessary for that purpose to keep awake all day.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche-

Enlightened brain.

Lack of sleep and anxiety

The relationship between lack of sleep and anxiety has been a source of numerous studies in recent years. The topic was presented to a group of experts at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience held in San Diego, California. Dr. Clifford Saper, a member of the Sleep Research Society and one of the best specialists in the field, explained that:

  • Lack of sleep isn’t insomnia. It doesn’t mean going a month without sleeping.
  • In fact, it’s something so subtle and common that we often don’t give it the importance it requires.
  • Lack of sleep is sleeping for fewer hours. It’s going to bed at midnight and waking up at 2 am, to then fall asleep again around 3 am and wake up at 5 am.
  • On that note, what puts our health at real risk is not getting to the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stage where the body rests deeply while the brain is more active than ever, fulfilling essential tasks.
Woman awake at 3 am.

Lack of sleep and the amygdala

Imagine that we’ve been sleeping an average of five hours for a period of two to three months. We usually wake up tired, and yet we can carry out our tasks and duties as normal. And we even tell ourselves that our body changes so we need less sleep as we get older.

Yes, we can convince ourselves of this, but our brain doesn’t agree with such reasoning. The truth is that we’re not reaching the deep sleep stage.

  • Lack of sleep and anxiety are related because there is a structure that begins to work excessively: the amygdala.
  • The amygdala is the brain region that activates when the brain perceives risk. It releases a series of hormones that alert and wake us up in order to escape from a threat, either real or imaginary.
  • For the amygdala, lack of sleep is a threat. It’s a danger that threatens cerebral homeostasis against the organic balance that’s so necessary for our well-being.
  • The activation of the amygdala hopelessly leads us into a state of anxiety.

Sleep disorders affect our health

As we can see, the relationship between the lack of sleep and anxiety can be a truly vicious cycle. We sleep less and feel more anxious. Then, the anxiety itself intensifies the manifestation of sleep disorders.

As if this weren’t enough, studies like the one conducted at the University of Adelaide in Australia tell us that sleep problems not only increase the risk of suffering anxiety. They’re also a risk factor for depression.

Furthermore, Dr. Eti Ben-Simon, Ph.D., of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that there are very effective sleep therapies. In fact, a patient’s psychological well-being can improve in just a few weeks after starting to get a good night’s sleep.

Strategies to treat lack of sleep and anxiety

Sleep hygiene specialists recommend putting two strategies into practice. On one hand, we have to improve our sleep habits. On the other, it’s imperative that we learn adequate skills to better manage stress and anxiety.

  • We should start with a medical consultation. It’s advisable to rule out other medical conditions which may influence our sleep problems.
  • Secondly, we should visit a sleep therapy specialist. There are very effective programs that prescribe drugs and where patients are offered personalized programs to improve their rest.
  • Also, we should stick to our sleeping schedule. We should go to bed at the same time and follow the same rituals every night.
  • We should take care of our sleep hygiene (eating, exercise, sleeping environment…)
  • Other suitable strategies are, for example, learning about and practicing paradoxical intention and biofeedback.

To conclude, given that there’s a clear relationship between lack of sleep and anxiety, it’s important to pay more attention to our sleep hygiene. At the end of the day, even if nobody dies of lack of sleep overnight, it reduces our quality of life.

  1. Alvaro, PK, Roberts, RM, y Harris, JK (2013). Una revisión sistemática que evalúa la bidireccionalidad entre las alteraciones del sueño, la ansiedad y la depresión. Dormir , 36 (7), 1059-1068. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.2810
  2. Mellman, TA (2008, junio). Trastornos del sueño y la ansiedad. Clínicas de medicina del sueño . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2008.01.010