Anxiety & Sleep: Can Lack of Sleep Cause Anxiety?

Katelyn Hagerty

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Nicholas Gibson

Published 10/31/2022

Updated 10/02/2021

It’s normal to experience anxiety sometimes — such as sweating it before a public performance, an important job interview or a major event. 

However, if you have anxiety that’s severe or long-lasting, it may be a signal that you suffer from an anxiety disorder. 

A variety of factors can contribute to anxiety, including your sleep pattern. In fact, research has shown a clear association between anxiety and sleep, with anxiety contributing to sleep issues and sleep issues contributing to anxiety.

Below, we’ve explained how a lack of sleep could contribute to anxiety, as well as the symptoms you may experience if you have a clinical anxiety disorder.

We’ve also explained how anxiety can prevent you from falling asleep, staying asleep at night or simply maintaining normal sleep patterns.

Finally, we’ve shared actionable tips and techniques you can use to improve your sleep and prevent anxiety from interfering with your health. 

Just about everyone has felt a little high-strung after a bad night’s sleep, and more and more, researchers are finding that a lack of sleep can contribute both to short-term irritability and to a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders over the long term. 

In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that poor quality sleep amplifies reactions in parts of the brain associated with anxiety, such as the amygdala and anterior insula.

Interestingly, these reactions were strongest in people who displayed high levels of trait anxiety, suggesting that those who are already prone to anxiety may experience the largest increase in anxiety if their sleep is affected.

Other research has found that people who are affected by sleep issues such as insomnia may have an elevated risk of developing anxiety.

Put simply, sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect your mood; it appears to cause physical brain reactions that can trigger anxiety or can also trigger signs of a nervous breakdown.

Anxiety disorders can cause a range of symptoms, from excessive worrying to changes in your ability to concentrate on specific tasks. 

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), one of the most common anxiety disorders, include:

  • Feeling like you’re on-edge, agitated and restless

  • Difficulty focusing and a feeling that your mind is going blank

  • Excessive, difficult-to-control feelings of worry

  • Feeling fatigued and tired easily and often

  • Muscle tension and stiffness

  • Irritability

Other anxiety disorders can cause different symptoms. For example, people with panic disorder may experience extreme, abrupt moments of fear that occur unexpectedly, which are referred to as panic attacks

Others may experience anxiety only while socializing, spending time close to certain objects or in certain situations. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you may find that your symptoms are worse when you’re unable to maintain good sleep habits. 

As mentioned above, the relationship between sleep and anxiety isn’t a one-way street. Not only does research show a clear link between not getting enough sleep and increased anxiety — it also shows that anxiety itself can keep you awake and prevent you from maintaining healthy sleep habits. 

Insomnia is a well-known symptom of numerous anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Chronic insomnia can vary in severity from mild and temporary to chronic and severe. Common symptoms of insomnia include

  • Lying awake for a long period of time after you get into bed

  • Spending a large percentage of the night awake, unable to sleep

  • Only being able to sleep for short periods of time before waking

  • Waking up early in the morning, before your alarm goes off

  • Feeling tired during the daytime, as if you haven’t slept

In addition to its link with insomnia, anxiety is also associated with sleep reactivity, which is the degree to which people develop sleep disturbances in response to stress.

This two-way relationship means that anxiety can worsen your sleep, which in turn may worsen your anxiety symptoms

In addition to causing or worsening anxiety, sleep deprivation can have other negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Other effects of lack of sleep include:

  • Impaired memory and mental function. When you don’t get sufficient sleep, you may find it more difficult to think clearly, process complex information and remember specific details.

  • Lack of alertness and energy. You may start to feel tired and less energetic during the daytime. Even a mild amount of sleep deprivation can affect your reaction time and level of alertness.

  • Increased blood pressure. Research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to increases in blood pressure and heart rate. And high blood pressure is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and/or stroke.

  • An increased risk of chronic health problems. Over the long term, lack of sleep may increase your risk of dealing with chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

  • A higher risk of injuries and accidents. Because sleep deprivation affects your level of alertness and ability to concentrate, you may be more likely to suffer an injury when you’re sleep deprived. 

Beyond its effects on your health, lack of sleep can have a negative effect on your relationships and general quality of life.

You may feel less inclined to spend time with your friends and family, exercise or do other things that normally bring you pleasure and satisfaction.

The good news: Both anxiety and insomnia are treatable. Try the techniques and treatment options listed below to improve your sleep habits, control your anxiety and improve your physical and mental health and wellbeing. 

Seek Treatment for Anxiety

If you often feel anxious before bed or during the daytime, it’s important to seek treatment from a qualified mental health provider.

Almost all anxiety disorders can be treated successfully with the following either alone or in combination: medication, psychotherapy, addressing habits and making lifestyle changes. 

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, you can receive help by talking to your primary care provider about your symptoms. They may refer you to a specialized mental health provider (such as a psychiatrist) for further treatment.

As part of treatment for anxiety, you may need to use anti-anxiety medications or meet with your provider on a regular basis for therapy. 

Alternatively, you can consult a licensed psychiatry provider from home using an online psychiatry service. With online treatment, you’ll receive a personalized plan, ongoing follow-up care and, if necessary, medication to help control your anxiety symptoms. 

With treatment, it’s possible to gain control over your anxiety and your sleep habits to improve your wellbeing and quality of life. 

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Use an Over-the-Counter Sleep Aid

While falling asleep might seem like a simple process, the reality is that numerous hormones are all involved behind the scenes in making you feel sleepy. 

One of these hormones is melatonin, which is secreted by your pineal gland — a tiny, pea-shaped gland inside your brain — in response to darkness.

Melatonin helps keep your mind and body in sync by controlling your circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour internal clock that controls feelings such as alertness and tiredness. 

In simple terms, your circadian rhythm is responsible for making you feel sleepy around your bedtime.

Melatonin is available over the counter as a natural sleep supplement.

When you experience the occasional restless night, taking a melatonin supplement is an easy, effective way to help your mind and body drift off into restful slumber. 

Use Medication to Fall Asleep Easier

If you have severe insomnia, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep throughout the night.

Several prescription sleeping pills are used to treat insomnia, including Lunesta® (eszopiclone), Ambien® (zolpidem), Silenor® (doxepin) and others.

Although these medications are effective at promoting sleep, they can cause side effects. Findings are also mixed on their potential effects on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep.

Make sure to closely follow your healthcare provider’s instructions if you’re prescribed any type of sleep medication. 

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is a term that’s used to describe good sleep habits. Much like being organized and consistent can help with your grades, work performance and physical health, maintaining good habits can help you nab a better night’s sleep.

The CDC recommends the following techniques to maintain good sleep hygiene:

  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. This helps your body maintain a circadian rhythm and reduces your risk of lying awake in bed at night.

  • Stay physically active. Regular exercise can make it easier to relax and fall asleep at night. Research also shows that working out is a great way to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

  • Limit your caffeine intake. Caffeine has a long half-life, meaning it can stick around in your body for hours after you finish a cup of coffee. Aim to limit your caffeine intake near your bedtime, or even try avoiding caffeine entirely after midday.

  • Remove TVs, computers and smartphones from your bedroom. These devices not only keep your brain stimulated by bombarding you with content — they also emit a form of artificial blue light that can affect your natural sleep cycle.

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature. A dark, quiet and comfortable environment makes falling and staying asleep easier. Aim for a temperature of 60 to 67 degrees for optimal sleep.

  • Avoid large meals or alcohol before bed. Although alcohol can make falling asleep an easier process, behavioral studies suggest that alcohol can contribute to sleep problems over the long term.

Aim for Seven Hours of Sleep per Night

The amount of sleep you need varies depending on your age and other factors. 

When you’re a child or teenager, you generally need more sleep time to feel rested, healthy and mentally alert than when you’re an adult. 

According to the CDC, adults between 18 and 60 years of age should get at least seven hours of sleep per night.

If you normally sleep for less than seven hours per night, try going to bed at an earlier bedtime or moving your wake-up time slightly further into the morning. 

Even an extra five to 10 minutes of sleep can have a noticeable impact on your health, wellbeing and mood. 

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Research shows a relationship between lack of sleep and anxiety, with poor sleep contributing to higher anxiety levels, and higher anxiety levels contributing to poor sleep.

If you often get inadequate sleep, you may find that you feel more anxious, tired and irritable during the day. 

And at night, these feelings of anxiety may compromise your ability to relax and sleep, creating a vicious cycle in which your sleep habits, moods and general health all suffer. 

If you’re worried about the effects of your sleep habits on anxiety or vice-versa, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider. 

They may refer you to a psychiatrist or sleep medicine specialist for further care.

If you’re concerned that you may have an anxiety disorder, you can also connect with a licensed psychiatry provider online this online psychiatric evaluation service.

15 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.

She received her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Delaware and her master's degree from Thomas Jefferson University. You can find Katelyn on Doximity for more information.

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